Thursday, October 19, 2017

A “#me too” moment


I was in the Master’s program at York University. This was the late 1980s. I was young, new to Canada and very na├»ve. I was finding my own voice. I still remember the remarks that I got on my first paper in which I only managed a B. My professor called me in and said to me “this is a course in women’s studies where the personal is the political, so you should speak in the active voice.” I felt unshackled, liberated and then and there, abandoned writing in the passive voice. When I went to law school I had to unlearn the “personal is the political part” since everything there had to be based on objective facts but that’s a story for another day. After this initial stumble I truly began to enjoy grad school. I found Focault, and the post modernists who talked about relativism and I began to locate the basis of political and economic power in ideology. It was an exciting time of intellectual curiosity, reading and discourse. I hung out for long hours in the graduate student lounge with peers who were bright, bold and articulate. I absorbed all of my experiences like a sponge, occasionally contributing with clever remarks to their pseudo-intellectual banter. I had an eclectic mix of courses and so my classmates from the various courses spanned the spectrum. There were radical feminists, Marxists, philosophers, historians and literature buffs in our mix. I felt honoured to be part of this motley crew and quite invincible, until the incident that followed marred my experience and dis-empowered me somewhat.

Like all graduate students I had been assigned a Faculty Advisor. I was flattered that a professor would actually take the time to help me navigate the program. An avuncular South Asian man, he was a full Professor and the Head of the Sociology Department. I was in a course with him as well. He had studied in Europe and had several academic publications to his name. I went to his office when I had questions about courses to pick and also sought advice on the research I should undertake towards my Masters’ thesis. He was helpful but appeared more interested in my personal life than my academic one. I did not think much of it and sought more counsel from female faculty members who were younger and much more “in with the program”.

Anyway, one evening, well into the semester, he invited me to dinner and I accepted because I was told it was the done thing for Advisors to take their mentees out, once. I dressed professionally in uncomfortable shoes, a skirt suit and a light jacket. All this is relevant for what was to come. He asked me to meet him at a pub on campus. He had a drink and urged me to join him. I did not feel comfortable drinking and so settled for a soft drink. I was hoping we could order food but he had other plans. He downed a couple of beers and then said “let’s go”. He led the way to another pub on campus and then another one. He was getting more drunk by the minute. He kept rambling on about his achievements and his plans for future research projects. I was hungry, scared and uncomfortable. I tried to politely tell him that it was getting late and I had to be home. I could not get through to him since he kept insisting he would drop me at home. Finally it seemed like we were going to eat. We drove to a seedy strip mall close to the University where there was a Chinese restaurant. I was not hungry any more. I asked to be dropped off at the bus stop. But no, he insisted we eat. We ordered and then he began to tell me about his personal life. His Dutch wife and his two kids. He said his wife gave him all the freedom in the world. Then he looked me in the eye, through his drunken haze and said “my life with my wife is private as is yours with your husband. You get my drift? If you enter the PhD program, I can set you up for life. I have this huge grant to work on the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. You can make a name for yourself.” The PhD program had no allure for me and even less after this encounter. I was shaking. I wanted to beat a hasty retreat but my shoes were uncomfortable, my clothes not warm enough and above all he was my professor who could fail me in his course. I stayed calm and nodded my understanding of what he had said but offered no comment. We got back in the car and I was now afraid we would be hailed down by the cops and I would face the humiliation of being in the car with him while his rights were being read to him. I took a deep breath and in a calm, cold voice asked him to stop the car so I could get off when we got to the main road. Something in my voice got through to him and he let me off. I limped to the bus stop and got home scared and confused. I was full of self blame. I had gotten myself into a terrible mess. I would fail my Masters! That would be end of all the sacrifices I had made to get to this point in my education. I told my husband, who was extremely supportive but also quite helpless. After all,we were new to Canada and did not want to burn any bridges. I dreaded going to his class and avoided any one–on-one contact with him. I stayed close to my professors in Women's Studies and made sure he saw me interacting with them.

At the end of the semester after the grades had come in (he gave me a B+, all my other grades were higher), I reported the matter to the head of the Women’s Studies department. A couple of years later I went back to law school at the same University and heard that he was no longer the Head of the Department. I did not bother to find out if I had anything to do with this.