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What I Learned By ‘Going Against My Professor’ Who Had Made A Sexist Remark

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By Abhishek Jha:

Some time ago – a month really – a professor in my department made a sexist remark in the class. He did it in a class where 75% attendance is mandatory, as opposed to doing that in a place or forum from which the audience could walk out. When I learnt of this, I drafted a letter asking for an apology from the professor. I had my first few setbacks when I started collecting signatures for the same. Some people thought that I was deliberately making an “issue” out of the matter, that the professor was a gullible one and had no intention of hurting anybody, and such similar things. After the letter had been signed, we were pressed to delay the delivery of the letter until we discussed the repercussions of “going against the professor”. During this time, a bunch of students went to discuss the matter with the professor and he apologised to them verbally, (although he did make a homophobic comment during this meeting). Some students were satisfied with this and did not wish to pursue the matter further. A few others withdrew their signatures.

Picture Credit: Jonathan McIntosh
Picture Credit: Jonathan McIntosh

Can a “good person” be an oppressor?

During the emotional verbal apology of the professor, I battled a question. The professor had hardly understood why the comment was wrong. So, I wondered whether I should just try to make him understand and not let justice take its due course, which would both inform him of his failings as a professor (thus doing justice to him) and do justice to the students of the institute. In some time, I was able to answer this question to myself. In this the following from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was of great help to me:

“Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.”

In our case, a lot of students (we have more than 200 signatories by now) felt that they needed a written public apology so that they did not feel that the matter had been taken lightly, so that they felt that they had some agency in deciding what was acceptable in the classroom. In that case, the argument of some students that the professor is not arrogant, that he offered platitudinous generosities does not discount that he is sexist and probably a closeted homophobic person. However, it does make me feel defeated after having to let go of my chance at freeing myself of one oppressor. For Paul Freire says later in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that “As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.” I was, essentially, being asked to let the matter remain settled after that discussion in the office of the professor. The matter was to remain suppressed – by a notice not being issued – because it would “dishonour” a respectable professor, who had “several other good qualities in him”. I am being asked to let the oppressor oppress me once again. If we were to let this sexist comment pass, we must let every other comment pass too, for the people making those comments no doubt must have exercised their will and understanding in doing generous, industrious, and sincere work at some point in their life.

Can ignorance be an excuse for sexism?

Some other people, who have tried to dissuade me from taking the matter with the professor any further, have also pointed out at his ignorance of feminism as an excuse. I understand how that ignorance may prevent a person from coming out with a paper in feminism. But for a professor to feign ignorance of women as fellow human beings is to allow us to understand that you are not to help your students in even affirming their own humanity, forget about fostering any spirit of innovation. The position of being a teacher, a male teacher at that, is one of privilege and power. Are we to give a person, ignorant of what exercising or not exercising that power can do, a free reign?

Does your university agitate?

I understand why a lot of people get satisfied with muffled half-apologies touted to them as sincere remorse. This is because that’s comfortable. It keeps their university free of dissenting, protesting people. It keeps their grades safe. If they think that they will participate in a protest or lodge a complain the day that they themselves get hurt, they are either ill-prepared for it or they are to return to tweeting on that day too. Prasanta Chakravarty’s article in response to the criticism against Jadavpur protests is of much help here:

“To invoke goodness and humane qualities in any institute is risible, an unfortunate form of pathos by which the academe is often bound to justify its existence, a delusional and infantile mode of denial of the rough and tumble of our daily existence. Goodness and greatness foment a vision of normalcy that is simply non-existent. It divests us of the same greyness that I referred to — of the university space — that in actuality universities are places of educational exchange and occasional camaraderie as well as spaces of intense manoeuvre, gaming and subtle hierarchies.”

It is then necessary for us to reflect for a moment on what bubble we are allowing to build around us by giving struggles a pass, movements a miss. When you celebrate International Women’s Day this Sunday, do it with much pomp and gaiety. But don’t stop there, for your university, your workspace, your mohalla, or your home cannot go on celebrating forever. There will be struggle soon at your doorstep (just as I, with a few others in campus, am trying to get a public apology while our signatories dwindle and opposition to us gets louder), and then you will have to make a decision. And when you eat that hard bread of reality, it is then that you will do justice to yourself and your oppressor. I asked Meena Kandasamy a question about fighting oppression some time ago – a month to be precise. And after she had answered my question, she inscribed her book for me with three words, which I offer to you here:


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  1. Ducard

    Most primary school teachers are either housewives or young girls desperate to fill a gap of one year between their bachelors and masters, those who can’t find a well-paying job or one of their choice, who apply for the crucial post of a teacher, but bring disrepute to the esteemed profession by spending their time gossiping in staffrooms, reach their classes late, don’t take any initiative, who are there to pass their time, and then people wonder why primary school teachers earn meagre salaries.

    What is most surprising is the lack of lessons that teachers are given in primary schools. They spend half their day with ‘free’ lessons, where they can make sure that parents are encouraged to send their children to school in a professional manner. But that would mean having to sacrifice their precious ‘socializing’ time.

    Even with an incredible amount of free time, just the way notebooks are corrected, with more than half the errors absolutely disregarded, shows just why education takes a back seat in Pakistan. It is a shame and an absolute disregard for a profession that was supposed to be the backbone of society, and the ‘mother of all professions’.

    Many children are sent to school in untidy uniforms, without water bottles, missing tiffins, incomplete homework, etc, courtesy of irresponsible parents, but instead of writing notes in students’ diaries or calling parents up, most teachers are either indifferent or punish students over the fault of their parents.

    It is common sense that a little boy or girl does not choose to come to school unprepared for classroom lessons, in an unclean uniform without a tie/belt, or without nutritious food or a water bottle. Instead of children receiving love in school, they become a target of frustration that many teachers bring from home to schools. Children, mostly boys, are at the receiving end as they are yelled at, slapped, beaten, caned, made to stand outside classrooms, humiliated, and a variety of punishments abuses. Girls usually get away with a warning in our fair world of equality.

    1. TheSeeker

      If you ever come across a boy who has been beaten in school tell him he must complain to some authority or you do it yourself. It is punishable by law and mustn’t be tolerated. Little boys and adolescent boys are naturally impulsive and active but teachers fail to realize this. And yes, they take out their frustration on those poor boys.

    2. TempleTwins

      My nephew was slapped by his teacher last week, his fault was that he shook his pen(as it was dry apparently) and the ink was splattered on the wall and on the shirt of some little girl. He was scared to go to school the next day, so his father accompanied him and the teacher told what his fault was and she complained that he was mischievous(like most young boys). I told my brother why he didn’t ask about the slap as it was illegal, to which he says, he is a naughty one, what can the poor teacher do, what if other guys see this and repeat the same, blah blah.

      I told him, those teachers will look for any chance to lay their hands on them kids, how do I know? I studied in that same damn school and in his previous school no teacher was allowed to hit the kids, I asked my brother how they were able to handle it? I told my nephew that I would pay a visit next time if any teacher hits him, but he didn’t want me to, as those teachers would make his life a living hell, if it was me who handled the situation, as I would rip her a new one. Apparently the parents had to be apologetic in their approach, as they fear for the their children’s future.

    3. TheSeeker

      When I was in the fifth grade, during dance class my lady teacher slapped me because I was turning the wrong way. But I was lucky. A boy was simply talking a bit loud in one class and the teacher tied him to his chair with her dupatta and covered his mouth with his own handkerchief, for the remaining of the class. Getting hit meant you were the laughing stock of the class. The whole school was filled with ruthless teachers like this, but they will only show this nature in front of children. During parent teacher meetings they are sweet and charming.
      I have observed that most of these teachers are women. I think male teachers are afraid to raise their hand on girls for obvious reasons but the females can freely hit both genders without fear, boys being the main victims. Also it is easier to complain on him than her.
      Parents also, as you said, take these incidents casually. They must take action and get the teacher suspended or expelled.

  2. Ducard

    “When you celebrate International Women’s Day early next month, do it with much pomp and gaiety.”

    Where were the bearers of equality on International Men’s Day? No article. No blog post. Nothing.

  3. Dark Knight

    Suresh: What is the quickest way of earning a name for yourself when you happen to be a third-rate blogger?
    Ramesh: Write in favour of women needlessly and endlessly.

    1. Anand Ujjwal

      And It’s even better to take up a female pseudonym

  4. Ducard

    By using big words such as “platitudinous” you only come across as someone who is desperate for recognition.

    1. Anand Ujjwal

      Yup, actually, every yka author does that. Not only that, most don’t kniw that good writing isn’t an embellished one, but a short and comprehensive one. I mean I can obviously write an article with so many words that reader runs to the dictionary every next line, but that’s not the point. I want my readers to read the piece fast and grasp evey line of it, not to test their vocabulary, not to eat their time while they struggle with the dictionary

  5. Ducard

    It is not spelled as woman, since it contains the dirty word “man” in it.

    “Womyn” is one of several alternative spellings of the English word “women” used by some feminists. There are many alternative spellings, including “womban” and “womon” (singular), and “wimmin” (plural).

  6. The Joker

    A woman is like a hazardous chemical more deserving of a warning label than any decent man’s attention.

  7. Ducard

    The fact that over 3 times as many men die due to dowry harassment at the hands of their wives, and yet dowry harassment remains a woman’s issue is SEXISM. The fact that a man is arrested every 3 minutes in a fabricated allegation of dowry, and yet no one talks about it is SEXISM. The fact that douchebags like you sit and whine about some remark while a man in India commits suicide every 6 minutes over a fake case of domestic abuse, dowry, and rape is SEXISM.

    70% domestic violence cases are fake.
    75% rape cases are false.
    98% dowry cases are fabricated

    1. swati srivastava

      a man in India commits suicide every 6 minutes over a fake case of domestic abuse, dowry, and rape
      Why because he is weak, a women after getting raped, burn by acid, and stigmatize by society don’t commit society but fight for her right. And before you say society favor them let me remind you a time when women are not allowed to go outside home even during day time but some women fight. Bear all social stigma, They were beaten and raped in front of all villagers and forced to roam naked in all village but they doesn’t break or commit suicide. So i request all men who think to commit suicide because of dowry harassment or false case, don’t do that. Fight for justice somewhere someone will hear your voice. I have many friends who stand with their male friends in these type of cases. One of my female friend’s male friend was accused of harassment case in office but my friend know that the girl is wrong so stand by him and help him. A police report is also registered against that girl.

    2. Anand Ujjwal

      Hey , ignore the girl.,listen to me. Have u watched the tedx video, the one in which the Bharadwaj lady( i forgot her first name) talkes about men?? If not, search it on youtube,”Men. The forgotten gender”.

  8. Ducard

    According to NCRB Data, there were 2,22,091 arrests related to 498A in 2013 alone, out of which 1,74,620 were men and 47,471 were women – A man is arrested every 3 minutes for dowry. Including both sexes, an arrest is made approximately every 2.3 minutes.

    Movie 498A: The Wedding Gift banned by national commission of women and femininsts – That is SEXISM

  9. Narrav

    Abhishek, I feel that you should use some less difficult vocabulary in your articles and this would drag more people interested in your writeups. The concern pointed out here is there is no effing point is making your good articles boring by making them vulnerable to such small issues. Remeber, your aim is to aim at the ‘aam aadmi’ and it can be achieved by putting your articles as simple as possible. Make the plot clear, Jha.

    Wish you good time.


  10. AnonymousforReasons

    All you had to do was let a female faculty who is higher up in the food chain than this professor know about the incident and
    let her make the prof understand. As far as I have seen in a premier institution in our country ,that most Professors
    do not view students to be worthy to hold a reasonable discussion with them. Dunno why you had to make an article of this news.
    Its so routine.

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