A protest against sexual violence in New Delhi on Feb. 9. (Tsering Topgyal/AP)

A German biochemistry professor has ignited an international controversy after she sent an e-mail to an Indian student saying that she could not “accept Indian male students for internships” because of the country’s “rape problem.”

The e-mail exchange was posted on the Web site Quora by a self-described “colleague” of the rejected applicant. Its contents were so blunt and troubling that some were convinced that it was a hoax.

In the e-mails to the student, whose name was redacted in the messages posted on Quora, Leipzig University biochemistry professor Annette Beck-Sickinger explained:

“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.”


In a subsequent e-mail, Beck-Sickinger elaborated that although she agrees that this “generalization” doesn’t necessarily apply to individual students, other female professors in Germany are taking similar steps.

[In India, CCTV cameras touted as quick fix for women’s safety]

“Many female professors in Germany decided to no longer accept male Indian students for these reasons, and currently other European female association [sic] are joining,” she wrote. “Of course we cannot change or influence the Indian society, but only take our consequence here in Europe.”


It turns out that the e-mails were, in fact, real — although Beck-Sickinger insisted that they were taken out of context.

In a statement posted on the Leipzig University Web site, the school said the student was rejected for the internship because no openings were available. The university added that the e-mail conversation between Beck-Sickinger and the student began when the student did not accept that reasoning and engaged Beck-Sickinger in a conversation about the “social conditions in Germany and India.”

Still, the professor apologized for making “defamatory” comments about Indian society.

“I have made a mistake,” she wrote, according to a translated statement. “It was never my intention to make a defamatory comment about Indian society. I do not have anything against Indian students — on the contrary. I sincerely apologize to anyone whose feelings I may have hurt.”

“I am by no means racist or xenophobic in any way,” she added.

[Two years after infamous Delhi gang rape, India isn’t any safer]

The statement also noted that four of the 30 students in her bio-organic chemistry program are from India and that two Indian students participate in Beck-Sickinger’s internship program. The statement did not specify how many of those Indian students are male.

Beck-Sickinger’s comments drew the attention of the German ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, who responded with a scathing letter.

“Your oversimplifying and discriminating generalization is an offense to these women and men 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,” Steiner wrote to the professor. “Let’s be clear: India is not a country of rapists.

“I would encourage you to learn more about the diverse, dynamic and fascinating country and the many welcoming and open-mined people of India so that you could correct a simplistic image, which — in my opinion — is particularly unsuitable for a professor and teacher.”

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