Two former students of St. Joseph's University, Bengaluru, from the LGBTQIA community, have alleged that they faced blatant prejudice and harassment while studying there. One of them filed an official complaint to which the university responded after over ten months, saying it had set up an inquiry panel.
Speaking to TNIE, Abigail Irfan, a trans woman and alumna of the institution, said she was a rape survivor during her time as a student at SJU. In the hope of gaining support, she approached her lecturers but was faced with an inappropriate response from the Head of the Mathematics Department back then who allegedly told her, “You got raped because you look like a woman.”
"I was raped in an alleyway next to college at knifepoint while returning home one night after dinner. So I approached a few faculty members on campus to address my concern about the safety issues of women and myself who live near the college. I also requested if I could spend some time off campus because of what I went through, and that was when the HoD made that comment," said Abigail.
In addition to making transphobic comments, the professor allegedly continued to misgender Abigail in front of her peers, ultimately forcing her to drop out of St. Joseph’s University.
Abigail did not make an official complaint, saying, "I didn't feel safe enough to do so since I didn't receive any institutional backing."
However, another SJU student Arsha told TNIE that she filed an official complaint to the university administration regarding the queerphobia on campus that she had experienced, but received a response only after 309 days, i.e. over 10 months.
In her complaint, Arsha referred to two experiences that she had faced. First was her experience of homophobia/queerphobia from a professor in the Department of Social Work during the first semester of her master’s program. Later, she referred to her experience of ‘severe misogyny’ from another professor throughout the two-year course at SJU.
Explaining why she was raising the issue after leaving the university, Arsha wrote in her complaint that “considering the power dynamics between students and professors existing in Indian educational institutions, I did not feel safe to raise these issues while I was studying at the university under the above-mentioned professors.”
In its response on January 17, the university said it had constituted an inquiry committee including three women faculty and an external member from a civil society organisation to investigate her concerns. "After deliberations, the teachers named were strictly advised to take cognizance of, and be more sensitive to diversity among the student body. They were also strongly discouraged from bringing personal beliefs into the classroom," it said.
Meanwhile, a professor from the institution said, “Legally any such harassment is to be reported to the gender cell within two weeks after which it can be taken to a court of law. In both cases, the students have reported it beyond the time and my university is trying to figure out how to address the issue.”
A non-profit digital campaigning organization Jhatkaa.org took up the matter, creating a petition in solidarity last Friday (26th January), which currently has around 1090 signatures. The organization is known to campaign for issues related to equality, environmental protection, gender and sexuality as well as social and economic justice.
Jhatkaa took to Instagram over the matter and wrote, "The behaviour of the HoD constitutes a clear violation of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 18(d)."
Section 18 D says anything that “harms or injures or endangers the life, safety, health or well-being, whether mental or physical, of a transgender person or tends to do acts including causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine.”
Other students also came out in support and signed the petition. They alleged that they have heard professors making prejudicial comments against the LGBTQIA+ community during classroom lectures.
In the petition, Jhatkaa said the perpetuation of such harmful beliefs is a clear indication that faculty at the university have not been gender sensitised -- a University Grants Commission requirement as per its guidelines.
Jhatkaa has demanded the reinstatement of Abigail who was forced to drop out and the reframing of the university's code of conduct handbook to address gender discrimination.