NEW DELHI — Last summer, an Indian woman posted a photo of herself wearing a bikini on her private Instagram account. The photo was taken in her bedroom as one of a number of self-portraits in clothes she felt she would be harassed and shamed for wearing in public. She was right.
The images were found by a student at St. Xavier’s University in Kolkata, where she had recently taken a job as a professor of English. She doesn’t know how he gained access to the photos, and they were no longer on her account, but the student’s father complained to the school, calling them “sexually explicit.”
In October, administrators at St. Xavier’s summoned the professor for a meeting that she described as a “kangaroo court” — the photos were passed around and she said she was “slut-shamed.” Eventually, she felt compelled to resign, according to a legal notice she later sent to the university.
The professor spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, fearing further backlash and harassment.
Her story has risen to national attention, seen by many as an example of how women in India, even those who are well-educated and independent, continue to be held back by conservative social attitudes, including on academic campuses that are perceived to be liberal spaces.
The professor, 31, had felt that her teaching career was just getting off the ground, and she had rented her own apartment for the first time. After leaving her job, she had to move back into her parents’ cramped home and borrow money from relatives to pay for her father’s medical treatment.
“The months following [the incident] were the darkest days of my life,” she said. “The society is telling us that women’s bodies matter more than any qualifications they can accrue.”
St. Xavier’s University did not respond to requests for comment, instead pointing to an earlier statement that said it “has not forced any teacher to resign.”
The professor sent a legal notice to the university in March — alleging violations of employment and workplace sexual harassment laws, and demanding an apology and back wages.
The response left her shaken. The university disputed her account and threatened her with a $12.5 million defamation suit. The professor’s legal notice and the university’s reply were reviewed by The Washington Post.
India’s economic strides and political reforms have transformed the lives of its women. Female literacy rates have soared in recent decades, and girls now consistently outperform boys in annual board examinations. Once largely confined to domestic labor, women have increasingly left their homes to join the workforce, including driving buses and leading global companies.
But the pace of social change has been far slower. Women’s lives remain circumscribed by moral codes that hinder their ability to live, dress and behave freely. Discrimination and the threat of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace are key factors behind India’s low female labor force participation.
The extent of the problem is evident in multiple global surveys on gender inequality. India was ranked 135th out of 146 countries in this year’s Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum.
“We thought that when women became educated, they would be valued, free and unafraid. They are not,” wrote author Deepa Narayan in her book “Chup,” or Quiet, which explored the lives of modern Indian women.
Narayan, a social science researcher, said women’s problems are seen as their own, rather than as a cultural or collective issue.
“An impossible price is paid by women who stand up to society, or who may unknowingly break old rules,” she said. “This, in effect, silences other women, while many more men may think they now have permission to punish women who seem ‘to think too much of themselves.’ ”
This dynamic can be especially pronounced at academic institutions in India, where female students are subjected to strict curfews and rigid dress codes.
In her first teaching job at a prominent college in Mumbai, Shilpa Phadke, now a cultural studies professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, recalled that the principal once walked in mid-class to berate a student about her clothes. Later, when the teachers protested, he was unwilling to listen, she said.
“As faculty, in some way, all of us have failed because we didn’t defend our students enough,” she said. “Universities had come for students’ clothing before they came for faculty.”
In the complaint against the Kolkata professor, the parent wrote, “To look at a teacher dressed in her undergarments uploading pictures on social media is utterly shameful for me as a parent, since I have tried to shield my son from this kind of gross indecency and objectification of the female body.”
The university committee, the professor said, indulged in similar “victim blaming,” dismissing concerns about her right to privacy.
In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, Felix Raj, the university vice chancellor, said: “A teacher is a teacher and is supposed to be a mentor. We know that teachers should behave as role models.”
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But the professor argues that the real issue is about the policing of women’s lives and bodies by a society still dominated by men.
“I will be a role model [for students] in the classroom and encourage them to think critically with my scholarship and erudition,” she said. “I don’t want to be a role model by wearing a sari. That’s ridiculous.”
Her story has inspired other Indian women to speak out. Some have posted swimsuit photos in solidarity, thousands more have signed petitions against the university.
The outpouring of support had been a source of strength for the professor in what has often been a lonely battle. She recently moved near Delhi for a new teaching position and a fresh start.
“If anything, this has taught me that it is important to stand up for your rights,” she said. While she hasn’t posted another photo in a bikini, she hopes one day she will find the courage to do so. “The day I am able to do that will be a victory.”
Anant Gupta in Delhi contributed to this report.