Last month, a professor of gender studies of the Department of Development Studies, Dr Md Reazul Haque, was suspended following allegations of showing “obscene material” in one of his classes. Surely, a good thing, one would think, of suspending someone for immoral behaviour, that too in a place of learning.
But since then, the slides in question were uploaded on social media, and strangely, their content is not what seems amiss, but the decision taken by the university to suspend a teacher for highlighting some important perspectives about gender and sexual violence. That too in a gender studies class! So much for universities being places to question one’s biases, unlearn assumptions, and engage in critical thinking.
The slides contain news pictures and illustrations which depict the way that public policy and perspectives are not gender sensitive. True, it shows a picture of an activist of a certain political party making a crude gesture towards women lawyers of the opposite party by trying to show his private parts. But according to definition, pornography is the depiction of activity or organ “intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” The picture does not explicitly show any private parts. By definition alone, the claim that the teacher was showing obscene material in class falls flat. Another slide depicts a woman with bruises on her shoulder after she had been domestically abused. Is violence against women a subject not fit to be discussed in a gender studies master’s programme? Or for that matter, is it wrong to discuss LGBT issues in a gender studies class?
At this point, one must ask, what exactly the authorities think as being the role of universities? To create new knowledge and critically analyse ideas, even if they may be uncomfortable? Or is intellectual thought subservient to dominant ideologies or pressure? If questioning and engaging in debate about the politics of sexuality is considered taboo or obscene, then why even keep any of the liberal arts subjects in our universities? Any subject of the humanities, and even the sciences, should foster creative debates and question the norms. If regurgitating known and accepted information is education, why not just teach students enough to make a living, and dispense with these “obscene” subjects altogether?
Sadly, the suppression of everything that is beautiful about education in the name of ideologies is becoming more common. From the encroachment of Hefazat in the public education curriculum, to our history of censoring literature that might “influence” young minds, the examples are countless. We forget that when the text about the love between Kuber and Kopila of Padma Nodir Majhi is completely cut out from the textbook taught to students, they are only more titillated. They find a way to learn about what is not taught, except they learn it distorted; in a way which makes everything profane. At this rate, literature too might come under the radar: no more discussions on Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary? Actually, literature has come under the radar as the recent omissions of essays and stories from the Bengali textbooks of the school level shows.
More than the actual banning of supposedly sensitive topics is the dread of self-censorship that this trend may encourage. Given the response of the university authorities in dealing with the matter, are teachers now to weigh the potential social outrage a topic might cause every time they discuss something in class? Compare the incident at hand with the number of sexual harassment cases against teachers of different departments. Without naming names, a quick search or conversation with students shows that many of the teachers are still working in the university without any repercussion or slight reprimands even after having been accused of harassing students.
Who knows how many incidents go unreported? One would think having a free and open conversation about these issues would be a good thing. Sensitising students as well as having safe spaces where issues of gender and harassment can be discussed should be the norm in ideal universities, not punished.
We aren’t the only ones promoting self-censorship. India has had recent battles with right-wingers in campuses about what constitutes dissent. Writers like Romila Thapar and Arundhati Roy have been harassed and called seditious recently because of their outspoken criticism against encroachment of certain ideologies. Yet there has been a debate. There have been voices speaking out against extremist Hindutva ideology for trying to redefine and rework India’s history to fit their views. On our part, except a few newspapers which blandly iterated that a teacher has been suspended for showing “obscene material” and the few individuals who have spoken out, the incident has passed almost unnoticed.
Of course, Bangladesh has a past which hasn’t been too troubled by censorship and cracking down on intellectual thought. Our writers have mostly been able to articulate and question norms and start debates. Except the recent instances of writers being killed for their writing, the intellectual policing that one reads of in the history of many countries have never been the norm. But that is not enough. It would not be amiss to ask ourselves now, what the role of university education and its teachers should be. It might be relevant to remember the words of Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, in a speech before the Royal Irish Academy at Trinity College: “When we define higher education’s role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless scepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge. Too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning’s special concern.”
Our access to knowledge, books, and ideas today is unprecedented in human history. This should translate into more critical debates, engendering new ideas and appreciation of the impact these may have on making society a better place. We must not let our small instances of self-policing, weighing every thought before it is uttered, or politically expedient sacrifices of what we teach and allow to be taught, escalate into something that makes institutions of fostering critical thinking into places where one merely receives degrees for economic solvency.
The writer is a freelance contributor.