Couldn't smile and receive award: Why university topper Mileena Saju rejected honour to protest sexism

The 22-year-old recently made news when she openly rejected the award that was to be conferred upon her by MGU, calling out the patriarchal practices that are allegedly being followed in UC College
Pic: EdexLive
Pic: EdexLive

She's not the kind who would sit down for hours in a chair with her eyes set on her books, to score good grades. Despite being the university topper, Mileena Saju says that to her, marks do not matter. Instead, she stands by her fight and for the causes that she believes in.

The 22-year-old recently made news when she openly rejected the award that was to be conferred upon her by Kerala's Mahatma Gandhi University, calling out the patriarchal practices that are allegedly being followed in Union Christian College, Ernakulam, her alma mater, which is affiliated to the university. "I would not have been able to smile in front of an entire management and a group of people that did not respect women," she says.

Mileena joined the college to study BA History in 2018. "I belong to Ottappalam in Palakkad, which is quite far away from the college. However, I never stayed in the college hostel," says Mileena, recalling the first incident of gender inequality that she had faced in college. "The college, even now, doesn't permit the residents of its women's hostel to stay out beyond 6 pm. They aren't allowed to go out during weekends and if they wish to do so, they have to get done with a plethora of paperwork," she says. In 2019, a Kerala Government notification had asked colleges to extend their hostel curfew hours to 9.30 pm.

However, multiple students have confirmed to EdexLive that the UC College hostel still does not follow this order. Mileena also points out that the residents of the men's hostel do not have to follow these rules. We have also accessed a letter that the residents of the hostel have written to the college management, asking them to extend the curfew hours to 9.30 pm. "We never got a positive response," says Mileena. The hostel's rule book also says that the students have to submit a parental consent letter to go out and should be accompanied by a guardian or teacher to go out for academic activities late in the evening.

A saga of harassment

This was just the tip of the iceberg. "We do remember how a sexual predator who traumatised a number of women students is still occupying a respectable teaching position in the college. We also remember how the ICC has utterly disregarded our concerns and has been always taking the side of the oppressor. The mental trauma that we women go through has its roots in the centuries-old oppression and sexual exploitation on which even the institutions that we belong to and believe in always turn a blind eye," she wrote in an open letter to the college's principal. The incident, she says, occurred in 2019, where a senior of hers was allegedly sexually harassed by a faculty member. "The survivor had spoken up about the incident in August 2020 and had filed a complaint. Following this, the faculty was removed from the post of the Head of the Department. But he still continues to teach," she says.

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Mileena also says that the report by the college's Internal Complaints Committee was out only in April 2021. "The report was quite shocking. It not only normalised the professor's behaviour, but also had portions where they blamed the victim. In fact, they even asked the survivor why she did not speak up earlier," she says, adding that the ICC does not follow the UGC regulations.

According to the University Grants Commission, the ICC of an education institution must comprise of two teaching and non-teaching members each, a social worker and should have three student representatives, if the matter involves a student. It also says that no HODs can be part of the ICC. However, according to UC College's website, its ICC comprises five people, of which four of them are teaching faculty. One of them, Smitha Roy, is the HoD of Chemistry. Also, it does not have any student representatives. EdexLive had reached out to two ICC members and both denied comments on the issues that Mileena raised.

She says that the former student who had allegedly suffered harassment from the professor had recently got to know about Mileena rejecting the award. "She was happy that I stood by her cause. At the same time, she was worried that she may have to answer the same set of questions again. She doesn't come from a privileged background and is not in a position to tackle the issue legally," she says.

Another issue that Mileena points out in her letter is the harassment that a 13-year-old girl had faced on campus. "The 13-year-old daughter of a professor had come to college and she was ragged by a few third-year students. They later said that they thought that she was a freshman. And when they realised that she wasn't, they went on to make comments about her body," she says. Mileena claims that the professor had filed a complaint against this and that the ICC, in its report, blamed the child for being present at the campus on that particular day. "No one blamed the student who ragged and humiliated her," she says.

What happened next?

Mileena did receive a response from the college principal after she had sent her email. It was one line long and said that it has been forwarded to the manager. "But I had written to him several times in the past," she says. The issue has created conversations on gender equality on various platforms. While Mileena has now joined Jadavpur University to do her master's degree, she constantly shares photographs from UC College online. The photographs show protesting students sticking posters on the college's walls, seeking an end to misogynistic rules in the college.

However, talking to The New Indian Express earlier, the college's Manager Rev Thomas John said that the ICC had investigated the professor's case. "However, they couldn’t find any evidence against him. So he was provided with counselling and was then reinstated. The college had sent notices to all the complainants asking them to come before the ICC for the case."

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