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An Indian Student Was Denied an Internship Because of His Nation's 'Rape Problem'

According to leaked emails, a professor told the student "I don't accept any Indian male students for internships" because "we hear a lot about the rape problem in India, which I cannot support."

Leipzig University. Photo by Flickr user Stephen Oung

Monday morning, Indian outlets published screenshots of e-mails between an unnamed Indian student and Professor Annette Beck-Sickinger at the Institute of Biochemistry at Germany's Leipzig University, in which the latter explicitly refused to give the former an internship because of his nation's rape culture. Over the course of the exchange, posted to Quora by an anonymous friend of the student, the professor (who has since backtracked on her statements but not denied the e-mails' veracity) claims that many other academics throughout Europe are enacting the same policy of discrimination, based on the idea that Indian men are inherently a rape threat. At least one other Indian student has since come forward claiming he was similarly denied a PhD spot because of academics' explicit issues with his Indian ethnicity and assumed misogyny.

"Unfortunately I don't accept any Indian male students for internships," reads the first message from Beck-Sickinger. "We hear a lot about the rape problem in India which I cannot support. I have many female students in my group, so I think this attitude is something I cannot support."

After the student protested that decision, she replied: "I fully agree that this is a generalization and may not apply to individuals. However, it is also unbelievable that the Indian society is not able to solve this problem for many years now. Reports reach Germany on a weekly base, and especially these 'multi-rape crimes' are threatening, but for me also demonstrate the attitude of a society towards women. Also female tourists are kidnapped by groups of males and then abused. Many female professors in Germany decided to no longer accept male Indian students for these reasons, and currently other European female association are joining."

A blatant instance of stereotyping, the e-mails have met with strong pushback in Germany. But they also show the risk India and its citizens run of being punished for publicly addressing their national rape crisis—a problem they are not alone in facing, but which most other nations keep much more mum about.

The e-mail exchange comes just as global attention has snapped back toward Indian rape issues, with India's decision to ban the airing of a documentary on the issue entitled India's Daughter. An in-depth exploration of the infamous December 2012 gang rape and brutalization of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a private bus, the now widely disseminated documentary explores the blatant sexism that pervades much of Indian society, exemplified by the unrepentant statements of Mukesh Singh, one of the assailants in the Singh case interviewed by the filmmakers from jail.

"When being raped, she shouldn't fight back," says Singh in the documentary, a line widely quoted as the most extreme representation of an otherwise more subdued Indian chauvinism. "She should just be silent and allow the rape."

Such media focus on India fosters the sense that there is something uniquely and pervasively insidious about the nation's culture, allowing the development of biases like those displayed in Leipzig. It also obscures the fact that, despite being crowned the rape capital of the world, India's not even the per capita leader in reported rapes. That honor goes to America, which, like India, has its fair share of victim blaming, entrenched misogyny, and endemic gendered violence. And the UK, Germany, France, and Canada's statistics are not that far below India's either.

Granted, India's rape reports appear to be climbing while America's are decreasing. But this may be a reflection of the growing level of reporting of formerly unnoticed crimes in India as the country starts to confront its national rape issues. The uncertainty as to whether rapes are increasing in India, or just awareness and activism around them, points toward the difficulty of naming any country the rape capital of the world, given incongruities in what gets defined as rape across borders and reliance on reports rather than real and absolute numbers. Yet despite all these statistical ambiguities, it's shockingly easy for a caricature of a nation to stick in the media.

None of this is to say that there is not a serious problem with rape in India. There certainly is. But each controversy, including the recent hubbub around India's Daughter, has inspired deep and meaningful national dialogue on the issue. And for all their bumbling collectively, some politicians have taken substantive steps to improve the legal framework and policing system in the nation for victims. In fact, as of late, both reporting and the rate of successful prosecutions against rapists in India have been climbing steadily—not signs of an overnight cultural shift, but clear indications that the nation is making a transparent, public, and widely discussed effort to change deeply entrenched social mores, which is more than you can say about many societies.

German Ambassador to India Michael Steiner made sure to note this national trajectory in his rebuke to Beck-Sickinger, sent out and leaked to the press on German State letterhead yesterday.

"Rape is indeed a serious issue in India as in most countries, including Germany," Steiner wrote. "In India, the Nirbhaya [Singh's nickname] case has triggered a lively honest, sustained and very healthy pubic debate—a public debate of a quality that wouldn't be possible in many other countries. The Indian government and Indian civil society organizations are very committed to tackling the issue.

"Your oversimplifying and discriminating generalization is an offense to [male and female anti-rape campaigners in the country] ardently committed to furthering women empowerment in India; and it is an offense to millions of law-abiding, tolerant, open-minded and hard-working Indians. Let's be clear: India is not a country of rapists."

Confronted with this letter—just part of a deluge of criticism—Beck-Sickinger has gradually backed away from her initial statements. At first she told HuffPost India that the whole matter was a misunderstanding, claiming that what she said shouldn't be construed as anti-Indian bias:

"Of course I have nothing against male Indians," wrote Beck-Sickinger in an e-mail, "and I have accepted several Indian students in the past. However my lab is full and I currently cannot take any student. This led to an unpleasant discussion with one of the Indian student."

Later, as quoted by The News Minute, she added, "I currently accepted five students from Japan, Canada, and the US, so my lab is simply full. Maybe to clarify my issue, I currently have two Indian master students in my lab and five out of 30 students in my course in winter are male Indian students so I think I can clearly say that I do not have any problems with India."

Then, in another e-mail posted to Reddit, Beck-Sickinger writes that she will no longer respond to e-mails like that one and claims that she'll learn form this experience.

Even if Beck-Sickinger did eventually learn something from her ordeal (and it's just as likely she finally figured out the magic words to stymie the flow of righteous vitriol coming into her inbox), this debacle is just another example of humanity's amazingly poor innate understanding of the individual-versus-group dichotomy. It fits into the same vein of broad-brush Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, both on the rise in Europe as well.

Given the commonality of such conflating trends, it's probably likely that many across the globe share this discrimination against Indian men. That sucks. Because while it's helpful for India to acknowledge and address its problems, setting a positive precedent for the global rape crisis, painting the country's culture as inherently and completely misogynistic to the point of presumptively labeling Indian men is just like punishing the nation for its national dialogue. Holding folks accountable is good, but making a pariah out of India full stop serves no purpose.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.