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Is Wearing a Bikini a Civil Wrong? An Indian University Thinks So

St. Xavier's University, Kolkata thinks that a professor wearing bikini in her private life is a bigger problem than voyeurism or violation of privacy by lecherous men. Here's our take on how this stems of entrenched institutional misogyny. 

Policing women for what they wear is rape culture, but authorities at St Xavier's University, Kolkata seem to consider it their duty. The university has slammed an assistant professor with a defamation case of Rs. 99 Crores (over 12 Million USD) for private photos of her in a bikini posted in a locked account before she started her job. This comes after she was forced last October to appear before a disciplinary committee and resign, citing personal reasons.

The pictures were posted on an Instagram story from the assistant professor's locked account. Somehow the photos were leaked. An 18 year-old man, also a student of the university, was "caught" looking at them by his father, who was incensed to see his son exposed to images of the professor dressed in scanty clothes. He found this obscene and reported it to the University.

Institutional misogyny is still rampant in educational spaces. It's important to remember that "misogyny" is not just "the hatred of all women" but serves as the "law enforcement" branch of patriarchy, as Kate Manne (writer and academic at Cornell University) says—"a system that functions to police and enforce gendered norms and expectations, and involves girls and women facing disproportionately or distinctively hostile treatment."¹

The ousted professor of St. Xavier's University was punished for daring to have ever expressed her agency and sexuality—even in private. Her privacy was breached in the name of disciplinary action; her private photos were circulated and examined without her consent by college authorities. Men in academia who engage in sexual harassment don't find themselves ousted as quickly as the professor in this context was. Nor is swift action taken against young men accused of sexually assaulting other students.

In this particular case, it seems the student who was found to possess private photos was not held accountable. Were questions asked about how and why he had access to the assistant professor's private photos? Also, it's not clear why his father is surveilling his adult son. Why is the university enabling this father-son duo and going the extra mile to persecute the assistant professor?

The message is clear: Women aspiring to be educators are not free to wear whatever they want. To be seen as worthy of respect, they must respect regressive rules of "modesty" and never come across as asserting their bodily autonomy. If they wear a bikini, they will be sexualised. And teachers are supposed to be virtuous women who cannot be seen as sexual beings. This is the very stuff that promotes toxic locker-room culture. Young men learn to socialise by sexually objectifying women.

Sexually active adult men joining universities are illiterate regarding sex education. Their imaginations are shaped by the porn industry and sexist cultural norms. Archaic patriarchal notions of 'reputation' and 'dignity of office' must be questioned. The assumption is that the institutional reputation was damaged because the woman wanted to report the traumatising incident. Her reputation, dignity, and personhood are not even being considered. What should damage the university's reputation is the way it is persecuting the assistant professor on the basis of a sexist complaint that should just have been dismissed. Action, if any, should have been taken against the people who leaked and circulated the private photos. Defamation laws are routinely used to harass and silence women, especially those reporting sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.

Last but not least, a word about the much-maligned bikini. The "smallest swimsuit" was considered scandalous when it was first introduced in France in the forties. By the sixties and seventies, the bikini became a symbol of liberation for white women and a must-have item in the wardrobe. Then women had to have flat stomachs and "bikini bodies" to wear bikinis without shame. Recently, France banned burkinis worn by Muslim women because they fully covered their bodies.

Sources:

¹Manne, Kate. 2019. Down Girl.

This article was first published as a social media post here.

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