Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

“I heard Heaven”

On Tuesday, October 9th, “Me Too” movement founder and civil rights activist, Tarana Burke, offered a lecture at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, covering her activist roots, time as an organizer in Alabama and tomorrow’s aspirations for combating sexual violence.

Tarana Addresses the Crowd. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Born in the Bronx, at a young age, Tarana’s grandfather introduced her to black scholars, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, which complimented her mother’s collection of black feminist literature. This, she believes, gave her a cultural and historical grounding but didn’t know what to do with it. As a result, at the age of 14, Tarana became an organizer for the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, focusing on notorious issues such as the Central Park jogger case and the death of Yusef Hawkins.

Following her efforts as an organizer at Alabama State University and Auburn University, Tarana worked as a summer camp director, where she noticed, every year, a young woman shared her sexual violence story. Specifically, a 13-year-old survivor, who she calls Heaven, shared her story with Tarana in private but claims she rejected this disclosure because she wasn’t ready to combat sexual violence. Following, Tarana met a 7th grade girl who shared her survivor story which revolved around her 21-year old boyfriend. However, this time, she mustered the courage to confront the issue — the abuser happening to be a man she knew from the community. These experiences influenced Tarana and colleagues to create workshops that address sexual violence, giving young women the language to combat sexual violence because, in her words, “How can we heal something we cannot name?”. From this, “Me Too” came to fruition.

After creating a MySpace page for “Me Too” in 2006 and introducing healing circles for sexual violence survivors, people across the country reached out to Tarana and colleagues, thanking them for their efforts. Responding to this support, they began making informational folders on how to create your own healing circles, distributing them near and far with the little funding and resources they had available. Shortly after, she moved from Selma to Philadelphia, taking this message to local public schools which led to the local district sanctioning re-education on consent.

Fast forward to October 2017, Tarana exclaimed “Me Too” went viral, “…like a lightning bolt.” In the first 24 hours of the initial “Me Too” social media post, there were 12 million Facebook posts proclaiming this message. However, after a year of mainstream attention and support, many who conveyed those two words are still in need of resources and support. As a result, this movement is not about taking down powerful men — no one is going to build a movement by targeting people. It is not a women’s movement but a survivor’s movement. A movement committed to healing and action.

“Me Too” movement is a global community of survivors committed to amplifying the voices of those most vulnerable, such as Native Americans and the transgender community, who experience sexual violence at disproportionate rates. “Me Too” is about representation, meaning people need to see themselves in the movement. The most concrete ways to change these conditions are through laws, policies and culture, namely here at UAB where we celebrate a list of shared values, such as integrity, respect and diversity. Tarana asked if these sentiments truly challenge sexual violence at UAB, or do they just pay lip service to issues in our periphery?

Everyone deserves to feel safe, and we must work together to change our society’s outlook on consent. It is not enough to celebrate Tarana’s story and fame. We must try to end sexual violence by concluding that we are enough and act on this conviction.

Me, too.

Resources for addressing sexual violence at UAB:

UAB Title IX Office – Report An Incident

UAB Student Counseling

UAB Student Outreach and Support

UAB Police and Public Safety

#WhyIDidntReport: Reflections & Moving Forward from a Survivor of Sexual Violence

My Story

Two of my cousins sexually abused me while I was between the ages of seven and nine.  Once during an assault, their father (my uncle) walked in, watched what was happening, quietly closed the door, and walked away.  I have forgiven them all.

I believe recounting details of my abuse (whether to myself or to you, the reader) only serves two productive purposes.  First, it demonstrates my personal connection to trauma, resilience, and survivorship.  Survivors have a unique vision into the cultural narrative surrounding sexual violence, and any narrative without our explicit input is incomplete at best and patronizing at worst.  Second, recounting these details provides comradery and empowerment to other survivors.  The second point is important for several reasons.

Survivors often feel alone.  Survivors often feel disempowered.  Survivors often feel unheard and unbelieved.

For these reasons and more, many survivors, and I would argue most survivors, do not report their experience of violence.  I am using this blog post to explain #WhyIDidntReport, and why others feel unable to as well.

The author and his sister in childhood climbing a tree.
Two Sherwoods in a tree. Author’s collection.

You Never Go Back to Who You Were

I use the analogy of a watercolor painting to explain the sensation of a life disassembled, disjointed, and displaced from trauma.  Imagine that you try to recall a particular scene from your life.  The general forms are there, colored with vaguely familiar hues and shades, and you sense what the scene depicts as a whole.  But you never get the sharp edges and the clearly demarcated lines.  This is what it is like for me when I attempt to paint my childhood.

My watercolor painting has always been a glorious meeting of sun, sky, and sea – dark, deep, and turbulent waters underneath.  My watercolor painting is the ocean under the setting sun.

In my experience, “a life disassembled, disjointed, and displaced” means losing time in two major ways: Losing memory and losing relationships.  The question of memory, in particular, is an issue that plays out in courtrooms over and over again when allegations of sexual assault are leveled by a survivor.  In my experience, it is entirely possible (and probable, given the trauma and humiliation inherent to any form of sexual violence) to recall with crystal clarity some details of your attack while at the time having no recollection of other details.  Certain details will raise to the surface, such as the music that was playing in the earphones pressed against my ears, the glint of my cousin’s braces, the brown eyes of my uncle, the smell of biscuits in the oven, the taste of adrenaline.  Others remain buried on the ocean floor.

The memory of the abuse came flooding back into my consciousness during my first year of college, and at that moment, I realized just how much of my life I had lost.  I was walking home from a party with a close friend at the time, and I kept sensing an Old Enemy.  I couldn’t quite tell what this Enemy was – as I kept walking, chatting with my friend, I felt tears in my eyes.  I stopped walking and tears poured.  I remember sitting down on the sidewalk with my friend, and very suddenly, with no prompting, admitting to my friend “I was sexually abused by my cousins”.  This was the first time I ever shared my experience with another.  To this day, I have no indication why the floodgates opened at that moment in particular.

Over the course of four and a half years, I worked painstakingly to make sense of my childhood, to reinsert control over my life and my choices, and to sublimate my experience to better empathize with and transform others with similar experience.  I went to my alma mater’s counseling center, committed to integrating my trauma into my present self.  I joined a student coalition advocating for sexual assault survivors, banding with other student survivors like myself.  I interned at a nonprofit aiding survivors, finding my life’s calling in post-traumatic transformation.

Every Fall semester at my alma mater, both advocacy organizations I was involved with co-host a Shadow Event, where student survivors of sexual assault share publicly their stories to classmates, faculty, staff, and the local Newport News community.  The survivors are blocked from public view by a veil; all the audience can perceive is the survivor’s silhouette on stage and her or his voice over the speakers.  Survivors become storytellers, and in 2014, I became a storyteller.  Each of us had the opportunity to air grievance, to speak truth to power, and (most importantly) to heal in our shared spirit of survivorship and transformation.  I keep my testimony that I read the Shadow Event close.  Sometimes I’ll read back through it, reliving the power of what it means to stand in front of an audience of my closest friends, coworkers, mentors, professors, and fellow survivors.

This power resides in our very core: It is the power from speaking our Truth to both an audience and, most importantly, to ourselves.

And even now, there is much work to be done, many relationships to repair.  For several years after surviving the abuse, I obsessively held my Secret as close as possible, diving as deep inside myself as I could to avoid close personal connections.  Many times, I seethed at the abject injustice of it all.  I displaced my hurt on people I love, and there are indeed amends to be made for those dark moments.  All the while, I could only remember flashes of childhood experiences: The t-ball team, playing with my sister in our neighborhood, voraciously reading Harry Potter, learning about oceanography in 4thgrade and knowing what it was like to have an ocean inside your mind.  To this day, even after all the soul- and mind-work, the unifying thread of my childhood narrative is lost to me.  I am fine with that.  If I am certain of one thing, it is this:

When it comes to surviving trauma, you never go back to who you were.

The author with Fear 2 Freedom founder, Rosemary Trible at the author's graduation ceremony.
The author with Fear 2 Freedom founder, Rosemary Trible at the author’s graduation ceremony. Author’s collection.

#BelieveSurvivors

When an individual is traumatized at the hand of another, all meaning in the survivor’s world is shattered.  You stop believing in many things – most notably, you stop believing in yourself, often repeating unholy mantras:

‘I asked for it.’

‘I could have stopped it, but I didn’t.’

And the worst, ‘I deserved it.’

Ideas of self-concept are twisted and reformed by dark imaginings, by fixations on memories of the traumatic event, and by questions such as ‘how could anyone do this to me?’  Many of us stop believing we are worth the discomfort felt by another when we tell them our story – we clutch our stories tight because we will, inevitably, end up on the receiving end of pitying looks and on the receiving end of heavy (and also very awkward) silences.  The final tragic reality is that many survivors, especially women survivors, are simply not believed when they recount their abuse.  When they share their testimony, they are met with suspicion and outright hostility.

Take, for example, the situation playing out between Ford and Kavanaugh.  Last week, Dr. Christine B. Ford recounted her story of sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.  Dr. Ford’s testimony and the tenacity of other survivors of sexual assault convinced enough members of the Judiciary Committee to commit to an FBI investigation regarding any potential incidents of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh.

As both a survivor of sexual assault and as a human rights researcher committed to national and international standards related to due process, the Ford-Kavanaugh situation has been a nightmare.  Many on the right believe Dr. Ford & her story serve solely as political pawns, used and abused by the Democratic Party.  Many on the left believe Kavanaugh is a de facto rapist, aided and abetted by a Republican Party fully cognizant of Kavanaugh’s crimes.  I cannot speak to what happened between Ford and Kavanaugh, so I will not indulge in speculation.  Here’s what I can speak to:

99.4% rapists will never see a jail cell, 94.3% will never be arrested, and 69% will never have their violence reported to police.

Arguments have also been made that the men should fear being falsely accused of sexual violence (this says nothing of female perpetrators, such as one of my abusers).  Intentional false allegations do indeed comprise 2 – 7% of cases brought to law enforcement.  Compare that statistic with the others I listed prior.

It is very apparent to me, and to many other survivors as well, both the American judiciary and culture-at-large have failed their collective tasks of acknowledging, prosecuting, and preventing this form of violence.  I also look to the vitriol Dr. Ford and her family are experiencing as evidence of these failures – failures completely visibly across the entire American political drama, irrespective of Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence.  I have wondered (for many years now, not just within the present circumstance) what structural barriers maintain this status quo, discouraging survivors from speaking out, inspiring savagery against survivors.  Here are some of my theories:

And from my joint perspective as a survivor and social scientist, here are the opportunities we all share in order to move forward the national conversation about sexual violence:

  • Normalize conversations about sexual behavior, starting within the family.
  • If you find yourself questioning the credibility of any survivor, ask yourself why.
  • Empower survivors to speak for themselves, not for others to speak on their behalf.
  • Mandate consent laws and sex education are taught in public schools nationwide.
  • Publicize who are mandatory reporters and local / state / national / international mental health services (now that I am teaching, I put this information front and center in my syllabus).
  • Familiarize yourself with verifiable statistics of sexual violence – it is much more common than any of us would like to believe.

For fellow survivors reading this post, know that there are many mental health services you can utilize (for other guy survivors like me, visit 1in6 and consider reading my friend’s story about why he didn’t report).  As the Ford-Kavanaugh story gains more traction, many of us will be threatened by feelings of being re-traumatized.  Here’s one website that can help (a special thank you to my colleague in UAB Public Health for her empathy and for this resource!).  Dr. Ford’s testimony is a reminder for us to always show courage, to speak truth to power, and to wear your mantle of survivorship with pride.  Know that you are never alone. And know that I believe you.

I’ll leave you all with the words of Dr. Judith Herman, psychiatrist and author of Trauma and Recovery:

“Those who stand with the victim will inevitably have to face the perpetrator’s unmasked fury.  For many of us, there can be no greater honor.”

A watercolor painting of the ocean at sunset.
Reflections. Pixshark, Creative Commons.

What is Gender-Based Violence?

Growing up, I was resentful of the social freedoms my male friends naturally enjoyed. Unlike the parents of my male friends, my parents were very strict about things like curfews, not being outside at night alone, and avoiding certain neighborhoods. My dad would always say, “We trust you, but we don’t trust the people around you”. Although I was still resentful, I know my father enforced those stringent rules because he was trying his best to protect me from gender based violence (GBV). GBV is defined as violence towards an individual that is motivated based on his or her gender identity, biological gender, “or perceived adherence to socially defined norms of masculinity and femininity”. The term ‘violence’ encompasses physical, sexual, and psychological abuse along with coercion, threats and compromised liberty. Examples of GBV include sexual violence like rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Both men and women are affected by GBV; however it is recognized women and girls are at most risk for exposure due to the imbalanced power relations between men and women “which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men … and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.”

Violence against women and girls is a prevalent human rights violation resulting in disproportionate negative consequences on females’ physical, mental and sexual and reproductive wellbeing including but limited to including, but not limited to: “i) fatal outcomes; ii) acute and chronic physical injuries and disabilities, iii) serious mental health problems and behavioral deviations increasing the risk of subsequent victimization and iv)  gynecological disorders, unwanted pregnancies, obstetric complications and HIV/AIDS .”

International Womens Day Strike. Source: Molly Adams. Creative Commons

Some troubling statistics on GBV:

  • In 2014, a UNICEF study projected that ~120 million girls (almost 1 in 10) under the age of 20 have been forced to perform sexual intercourse or other sexual acts during some point of their lives.
  • Almost half of the women killed in 2012 were murdered by a family member or intimate partner.
  • Globally, the WHO estimates 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner or non-partner violence or sexual violence. Other national studies have estimated up to 70% of women experience GBV.
  • “Women and girls together account for 71 per cent, with girls representing nearly three out of every four child trafficking victims. Nearly three out of every four trafficked women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”

Although a pressing issue, it wasn’t until 1992 when the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) formally adopted General Recommendation No. 19: Violence against Women (GR 19), which legally categorized violence against women a distinct form of discrimination. Likewise, it wasn’t until 1993 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), forming the first ever internationally-recognized definition of GBV. Both documents explicitly outline how GBV violates basic human rights mentioned throughout the UDHR such as the right to life, dignity, and health.

Health Effects of Exposure to GBV

Sexual and Reproductive Health
GBV is a major public health concern contributing to mass amounts of mortality and morbidity. Specifically, the relationship between GBV and HIV and other STIs has been recognized as an important pathway for the contraction and spread of such diseases. WHO states that, in some regions, women facing sexual partner violence are 1.5x more likely to contract HIV, and 1.6x more likely to contract syphilis. Here’s how:

First, increased vulnerability to HIV and STI’s stems from sexual violence such as rape. “Violence reduces victims’ abilities to influence the timing and circumstances of sex, resulting in more unwanted sex and less condom use, including situations where women are coerced or pressured not to use condoms.” For example, of the estimated minimum 250,000 women brutally raped during the Rwanda Genocide, 70% of those survivors tragically acquired HIV.

Second, another important pathway from GBV to HIV is men who are physically violent are also more likely to be HIV positive. Studies find violent men are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior such as having multiple sex partners and utilizing transactional sex, increasing their chances of contracting and spreading HIV and other STIs.

Along with the spread of disease, women and girls experience unwanted pregnancies due to GBV. The WHO states that women with previous exposure to GBV are more likely to account having had a self-induced abortion. Globally, “80 million unintended pregnancies each year, at least half are terminated through induced abortion and nearly half of those take place in unsafe conditions.” A study analyzing the relationship between GBV and sexual and reproductive health among low-income youth in three Brazilian cities, supports WHO’s statement that women in abusive relationships are more likely to experience unwanted pregnancies. The study found adolescent females who became pregnant as teenagers were more likely to have been victims of controlling behavior or physical abuse compared to teenage girls whom have never gotten pregnant. Among the girls who got pregnant as a teenager during the study, “20% reported having suffered physical violence from a partner and 10% reported having been subjected to sexual violence from a partner, compared to 5% and 3% respectively of those who did not get pregnant as teenagers.”

Mental Health:

Along with physical harm, studies highlight women and children face serious mental health problems after enduring traumatic experiences with GBV. “Exposures to traumatic events can lead to stress, fear and isolation, which, in turn, may lead to depression and suicidal behavior.” According to the WHO, women abused by a non-partner are 2.3 times more likely to have alcohol use disorders and 2.6 times more likely to have depression or anxiety. A cross-sectional study based on the Australian National Mental Health and Well-being Survey in 2007 found that of the 4,451 female respondents, 1,218 (27.45%) of the women have experienced one of the four types of GBV analyzed in the study (IPV, stalking, sexual assault, and rape). Of the 139 women who experienced at least three types of GBV, the rates for mental disorders were 77.3% for anxiety disorders, 47.1% for substance abuse disorders, 34.7% for attempted suicide, and 56.2% for PTSD.

Right On. Source: Liz Spikel. Creative Commons

Potential Solutions to Address Gender-Based Violence

In light in of April being sexual assault awareness month, itself a form of GBV, it is essential to break through the culture of silence. Our health care system can be more active is addressing the prevention of GBV, and also the aftermath of GBV. First, providing survivors with mental health services such as counseling is critical for these women and girls to address their psychological trauma and progress with their lives. Mental health services are vital in providing survivors a voice to express themselves. Second, our health care system could potentially be a major stakeholder in identifying and stopping GBV.

“GBV is very common, but most health care providers fail to diagnose and register GBV, not only due to socio-cultural and traditional barriers, lack of time, resources and inadequate physical facilities; but even more so due to lack of awareness, knowledge and poor clinical practices with limited direct communication and failure to do a full physical examination, not to mention register and monitor the effectiveness and quality of care.”

Moving forward, there needs to be a systematic change within in the health sector. The World Bank, amongst other NGO’s, have provided approaches on how to address this issue. Some strategies to consider include, but of course not limited to:

1) Requiring GBV screenings during doctor visits to ensure early intervention
2) Train and educate health care personal about GBV to improve provider’s knowledge, medical services and attitudes towards GBV.
3) Providing survivors access to adequate infrastructure within hospitals which includes private counseling and examination rooms.

Women are approximately 50% of our global population, yet gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent and widespread human rights violations. Gender equity is an inalienable right protected in numerous human rights documents, however change will never be achievable until we break this vicious cycle of violence through education and strict policy changes. Ultimately, women have proven they are just as equally capable as men, and gender-based violence and discrimination over an uncontrollable biological factor is simply unjust.

We, too, are America

a picture of a microscope
microscope. Source: milosz1, Creative Commons.

We see you. More specifically, I see you. I see you and I understand your fear. Your fear, though, is not of our ascent and overthrow of your supremacy. Your fear is that we–those for whom you believe yourself superior in gender, race, ability, intelligence and religion, but equal to under the law—will treat you as you have treated us. This is your actual fear.

For so long, you have hidden behind your power to give and take at will and random, without accountability. You believed might and standing would continually protect you as you abused, assaulted, and harassed us behind closed doors, in elevators, at parties, or in cars. You assumed your strength would guard against numbers because silence remained your closest companion until it revealed you. Now, silence is your betrayer and light is shining into the darkness. With light comes freedom.

However, not for you.

Finally, thanks to the unfaithfulness of silence, the light that comes with freedom will change you, as the nullifications of uneasy interactions, creepy glances, and videotaped confessions that “boys being boys” and “locker room talk” conclude what we have known all along: you are an insecure predator.

You always have been.

For centuries, you employed power to mask your insecurity while building empires and corporations upon the backs of those “under your feet and purview”. You made rules and assured yourself they did not apply to you. The rules are changing, and you are afraid. You shudder at the possibility of the enforcement of an unjust law you created, applying to you. You are fearful that you will rot in jail for a crime you may or may not have committed, based upon the verdict of 12 who are not truly your peers because they do not look like, live like, or know what it like to be someone like you. You will know what it is like to tell your side of the story and find yourself defending your participation in and motives about the situation that caused you to end up here. Identified as you truly as a perpetuator of trepidation .

You always have been.

Your taxonomy and modus operandi, whether on the forced labor field of terror, in a Las Vegas hotel room or Charleston church, or behind a “news” desk or podium, remains hiding in plain sight because the condition of many is blind submission. The conditioning served us well too, for a while. However, now we are woke. Eyes wide open and aware of the insidiousness of your nature. This scares you, so you label us a threat because we discarded the previously employed labels you doled out. Threat, in your mind, encompasses all manner of challenges you have not experienced during your time in authority. We are a threat to your domination, to your supremacy and privilege. This is what frightens you. The poisonous fruit you provided opened our eyes to the facts about who you are and what we have known all along: you are an idol worshipper.

You have believed the lies told to you and by you for so long, that in many ways, the facts cannot penetrate the walls around your heart and mind. You contrive revisionist history as a method to mask the brutal reality of your ancestors, unwilling to yield to handwritten letters, photographic and videotaped evidence that counter your claims, and absurdly ask us to disbelieve what we see what our eyes, hear with our ears, and experience over time. The words you employ are not for freedom of expression but an expression of your hate, leaving us to wonder if you know how to express yourself in a manner to prove your point without resorting to vileness. You are not out to institute unification, rather everything about you proceeds from an inner core of division. You are in an identity crisis.

You always have been.

Conflicted on one hand about the creation of humanity as made in the image of an unseen God, while on the other, using some as cattle and unpaid laborers, burdened by cherry-picked scriptures applied to build a theology of exclusion. You claim to seek the facts through the reading of words written in years past but systematically avoid anything that may shatter the illusion of grandeur created in the ivory towers which redlining amassed. You proclaim belief in gender equality, except when it comes to leadership, reproduction, sexual experience, and wages. You defend colonization and imperialism due to a misapplied belief that those demonized and dehumanized are ignorant and incapable of civilization; however, pyramids, irrigation systems, and social order existed before the feet of your ancestors stepped on this, and that land. You balk at peaceful solutions and challenges to your authority by responding with insults and name-calling as though life and death are games played in a schoolyard. Even when you are wrong, you are uncompromised in your steadfastness to show your superiority, while marketing yourself as a humble follower of God. You want to be a mirror without looking in one.

I see you.

We see you.

We know the facts.

The fact is, change has arrived. For we, too, are America.

 

Additional readings:

Langston Hughes

The Color of Law

America’s Original Sin

Nations and Nationalism

Jessica Valenti

Crisis in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya

**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma.
Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons.

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar

Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.

Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.

“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)

Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.

“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Global Media Sharing, Creative Commons

Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.

The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.

Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes
Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes. Source: US Department of State, Creative Commons. Source:

These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.

The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.

Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public.