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.

“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.

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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