In a country where sex education is still a taboo, a professor from Jadavpur University in Kolkata took the onus on himself to deliver what he refers to as “Value Oriented Social Counseling for Educated Youth.” In the sermonic Facebook post that recently broke the internet, the professor states, “Virgin girl is like sealed bottle or sealed packet. Are you willing to buy broken seal while purchasing a bottle of cold drinks or a packet of biscuits?”
The Facebook post reminded me of a scene in the Bollywood movie Jab We Met where the railway official confers ‘muft ka gyaan’ on the female lead who missed her train saying “Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai” (A girl alone, is like an open locker/treasure chest).
In the movie, the dialogue was not extended to provide an explanation for the statement, leaving the 7-year-old me clueless about the similarities between an open locker and myself.
However, Kanak Sarkar being the ‘academic intellectual’ that he is, substantiates his sermon-cum-counseling further in the post stating, “A girl is biologically sealed from birth until it is opened.” If anything, the journey from ‘khuli tijori’ to ‘cold drinks’ delineates the progress male gaze has made in the last decade.
The post was deleted by Kanak Sarkar later but he hasn’t issued any apologies for the same, as of yet. Afterwards, when the post caused a furore on social media, Sarkar posted newspaper clippings of articles with captions which read that he had written in favour of women as well (his Facebook profile has since vanished). The intent of these posts was to establish that he isn’t a misogynist or shouldn’t be labeled as one just because he thinks women and cold drink bottles are alike.
When called out on social media, he defended his stance claiming the freedom of speech and later when he realized the vanity of his argument, he further added that it was just meant to be a joke for his friend circle and not for the public. The students of JU held a protest against the remarks of the professors demanding his suspension from the university.
Since then, many news reports have claimed that the professor is a repeat offender and had earlier made women students uncomfortable with his comments as well. According to a notice released on January 16 by JU’s Department of International Relations, Prof. Kanak Sarkar has been divested of his duties in view of the recommendation by the Student-Teacher Committee of the respective department.
The Facebook post reads “A virgin wife is like angel.” The aim here is to put the woman on a pedestal, or rather the woman-type-certified-by-patriarchal-standards on a pedestal to strip her of her humanly attributes. The post simultaneously pits one kind of woman against the other by comparing one to an angel and the other to a cold drink bottle with a broken seal. The common thing in both case scenarios is that women remain only passive recipients. The Facebook post, thus, harnesses both the idea of objectification of women and the fear of female sexuality to construct ridiculous rhetoric, however cringe worthy.
The discussions on the objectification of women’s bodies can never turn obsolete, it seems, because such people keep coming up with new analogies to keep the debate running. The man reduces woman to products meant for consumption by alluding to food metaphors like cold drinks and biscuits (with broken seals obviously).
The Facebook post is the perpetuation of an ingrained fear of female sexuality that a patriarchal system has drilled inside the mindset of the male population which has a haunting presence throughout history. In a feudal society, a woman’s body was largely valued for its reproductive purpose which made it important to control female sexuality both for the purpose of labour force as well as to maintain the ‘purity’ of the family line.
There are debates that argue that the control over female sexuality was further intensified in India with the colonization by the English and can be traced back to Victorian Britain. Whether it was Zeus’ reservations towards Aphrodite, the idealisation of Queen Victoria, or the romanticisation of the bhartiya naari, female sexuality had an imperative role to play in determining a woman’s position in the patriarchal society.
It is important to understand that such statements are not only ‘harmless jokes’ in poor taste but are rather an insult to the fight of women and men who’ve struggled against oppressive customs that such regressive outlooks produce.
Virginity in India is seen as an essential quality of a maiden and is put up as a criteria in many matrimonial advertisements. In a village in Pune, the breaking of the hymen on the wedding night is a requisite for every bride and through this process the bride is supposed to prove her ‘purity’ to the caste panchayat. If the bride fails the test, she is beaten up and a monetary fine is levied on her.
According to a report in India Today, three men who tried to oppose the practice were brutally assaulted by a mob. In this context, it becomes important to ask the question whether men who make such statements in the public should be given a free pass under the label of freedom of speech? Should such regressive views be allowed to blossom in university spaces?
What gives us hope is the fact that students through their protest have made sure that such men are held accountable for their ‘Value Oriented Social Counseling for Educated Youth’ or as popular culture calls it ‘muft ka gyaan,’ which definitely cost some women, whether in a remote village or a vibrant city, the denial to a dignified standing in society.