Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Counter-Narrative

This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

An image of a news broadcast with Bayan Alzahran, the first female lawyer to have her own law firm in Saudi Arabia
Bayan Alzahran, who is the first female lawyer to open her own law firm in Saudi Arabia. Source: Al Arabiya, Creative Commons.

Women’s Rights Narrative

After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Employment Rights

While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.

Education Rights

Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.

An image showing a Saudi Arabian woman holding up her driving license.
A Saudi Arabian woman holds up her driver’s license. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Recent Progress

Recently, steps have been taken to reverse restrictive practices, such as lifting the ban on women driving and reducing male guardianship. The former, implemented in 2018, saw the legalization of women driving. Thus far, tens of thousands of women have received their driver’s licenses, highlighting the success of this change. The latter, implemented a few months ago, saw changes made to restrictive guardianship laws. Historically, these laws heavily restricted women’s rights, specifically the right to freedom of movement; women were not allowed to obtain a passport or travel abroad without a male family member’s consent. While I could explain how changes to these guardianship laws will have a positive impact on women’s lives, I think it is best to share the perspectives of a Saudi Arabian woman on this issue. In an article for BBC News, Lulwa Shalhoob, a Saudi journalist, wrote that “the new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor.” She also notes that an increasing number of Saudi women “no longer want to be framed as women of special circumstances who lack rights that women around the world take for granted.” For Saudi Arabian women, then, this move not only grants certain rights they were long deprived of, but it also fosters an unprecedented sense of agency and personhood.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.

Honor Killings: The Case of Israa Ghrayeb

Image showing Israa Ghrayeb, a Palestinian woman who was the victim of an honor killing.
Israa Ghrayeb. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.

What are Honor Killings?

Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.

What’s to Blame?

It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.

Holding Perpetrators Accountable

After Israa’s murder, both men and women in the West Bank held protests, calling on the Palestinian Authority to take action against the relatives responsible, and through the use of social media, large segments of the Arab population joined in protesting her murder as well. Due to these national and international pressures, the Palestinian Authority pursued the matter closely, and three of Israa’s relatives were detained and will be charged for her murder. However, it is unclear whether or not these men will truly suffer the consequences of their actions; often times, perpetrators are not held accountable for this crime at all. Furthermore, even when they are sentenced for committing honor crimes, they are often released after serving only a few months. Experts argue that this is why honor killings remain prevalent; when the justice system does not adequately address this issue, future perpetrators are not deterred. This is abundantly clear considering that although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made changes to legislation to protect women from honor killings, the number of women who are victims of this crime has continuously risen; in 2012 there were 13 murders, but the number of murders increased to 28 in 2014 and 27 in 2018. Thus, it is evident that legislation passed without proper enforcement is wholly ineffective.

Image showing men and women protesting honor killings.
A protest against honor killings. Nora B., Creative Commons.

Moving Forward

“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.

Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”

 

Examining Period Poverty

A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads before they are lined and sewn at the Afripads factory.
A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads, Source: Yahoo Images.

Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and or waste management. The term also refers to the increased economic vulnerability that women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies. In least-developed and low-income countries, access to hygienic products such as pads, tampons, or cups is limited. This means that girls will often resort to using proxy materials such as mud, leaves, or animal skins to try to absorb the menstrual flow. As a result, such women are at a higher risk of developing certain urogenital infections, like yeast infections, vaginosis, or urinary tract infections. This becomes an issue because while the majority of women are of reproductive age, the majority of these women and girls are unable to practice proper hygiene practices. Consequently, women and girls around the world, especially in developing countries, face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. Furthermore, some/many women are forced to approach this normal bodily function with silence due to stigma, as some communities consider menstruation to be taboo.

What causes period poverty?

One cause is that pads and other supplies may be unavailable or unaffordable. This means that women are often forced to choose between purchasing sanitary pads and different basic needs, or they may live in areas where there is no access to hygiene products at all. More importantly, young girls may lack access to toilet facilities with clean water to clean themselves while on their periods. In addition, discriminatory cultural norms make it challenging to maintain good menstrual hygiene as women often have to hide, or the community may not put enough effort into establishing hygiene facilities or practices around them. Also, some women and girls lack the necessary education and information about menstruation and good hygiene practices because topics around menstruation and proper hygiene practices are rarely discussed in families or schools.

What is more, other girls may experience menstruation with little or no knowledge of what is happening. This makes it harder for women to adopt sanitary practices because most remain unaware of recommended hygiene practices. In many communities, menstruating girls and women are still banned from kitchens, crop fields, or places of worship. There is also the issue of forced secrecy in communities where girls are exposed to ‘menstrual etiquette.’ This etiquette encourages the careful management of blood flow and discomfort and the importance of keeping menstruation hidden from boys and men.

A Human Rights Issue.

It is important to consider gender inequality, extreme poverty, and harmful traditions as the source of menstrual hygiene deprivation and stigma. This often leads to exclusion from public life, heightened vulnerability, and creates barriers to opportunities such as employment, sanitation, and health.

Some of the human rights that are undermined by period poverty include,

  • The right to human dignity– When women and girls cannot access safe bathing facilities and safe and effective means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they are not able to manage their menstruation with dignity. Menstruation-related teasing, exclusion, and shame also undermine the right to human dignity.
  • The right to an adequate standard of health and well-being Women and girls may experience negative health consequences when they lack the supplies and facilities to manage their menstrual health. Menstruation stigma can also prevent women and girls from seeking treatment for menstruation-related disorders or pain, adversely affecting their health and well-being.
  • The right to education  Lack of a safe place or ability to manage menstrual hygiene as well as lack of medication to treat menstruation-related pain can all contribute to higher rates of school absenteeism and poor educational outcomes. Some studies have confirmed that when girls are unable to manage menstruation in school properly, their academics and performance suffer.
  • The right to work  Poor access to safe means of managing menstrual hygiene and lack of medication to treat menstruation-related disorders or pain also limit job opportunities for women and girls. They may refrain from taking specific jobs, or they may be forced to forgo working hours and wages. Menstruation-related needs, such as bathroom breaks, may be penalized, leading to unequal working conditions. And women and girls may face workplace discrimination related to menstruation taboos.
  • The right to non-discrimination and gender equality Stigmas and norms related to menstruation can reinforce discriminatory practices. Menstruation-related barriers to school, work, health services, and public activities also perpetuate gender inequalities.

What is being done?

In spite of the issues presented, it is essential to acknowledge that a lot is being done around the world to help eradicate period poverty.

For example, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), has various approaches to promoting and improving menstrual health around the world. Some of them include,

  • UNFPA reaches women and girls directly with menstrual supplies and safe sanitation facilities. In humanitarian emergencies, UNFPA distributes dignity kits, which contain disposable and reusable menstrual pads, underwear, soap, and related items. (In 2017, 484,000 dignity kits were distributed in 18 countries.)
  • The UN organization also promotes menstrual health information and skills building. For example, some UNFPA programs teach girls to make reusable sanitary napkins. Others raise awareness about menstrual cups.
  • Furthermore, the organization aims to improve education and information about menstruation as human rights concerns. This is done through its youth programs and comprehensive sexuality education efforts, such as the Y-Peer program.
  • UNFPA also procures reproductive health commodities that can be useful for treating menstruation-related disorders. For instance, hormonal contraceptive methods can be used to treat symptoms of endometriosis and reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.
  • Similarly, UNFPA is helping to gather data and evidence about menstrual health and its connection to global development. For instance, UNFPA supported surveys provide critical insight into girls’ and women’s knowledge about their menstrual cycles, health, and access to sanitation facilities. A recent UNFPA publication offers a critical overview of the menstrual health needs of women and girls in the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

 Further Recommendations

While there exists a lot of support to help end period poverty, there is still a lot that can be done to improve access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and, or waste management. Human Rights Watch and WASH United recommend that groups which provide services to women, evaluate their programs to determine whether a woman or girl has,

  • Adequate, acceptable, and affordable menstrual management materials;
  • Access to appropriate facilities, sanitation, infrastructure, and supplies to enable women and girls to change and dispose of menstrual materials; and
  • Knowledge of the process of menstruation and options available for menstrual hygiene management.

Practitioners engaged in programming or advocacy related to menstrual management should also,

  • Have an awareness of stigma and harmful practices related to menstruation in the specific cultural context where they are working.
  • Support efforts to change harmful cultural norms and practices that stigmatize menstruation and menstruating women and girls;
  • Address discrimination that affects the ability to deal with menstruation, including for women and girls with disabilities
  • Be aware of and incorporate human rights principles in their programming and advocacy, including the right to participate in decision-making and to get information.

Moreover, women and girls must have access to water and sanitation. This will allow the establishment of private areas to change sanitary cloths or pads, clean water for washing their hands and used fabrics, and facilities for safely disposing of used materials or drying them if reusable.  It is also imperative that both men and women have a greater awareness of menstrual hygiene. This means that training and learning courses should be made available for women and young to teach them the importance of menstrual hygiene and the proper practices. Likewise, educating boys on the challenges and struggles girls face could help reduce stigma and help them become more understanding and supportive husbands and fathers. Less work has been done in this area, but the benefits of educating boys about adolescence for both themselves and female students are increasingly being recognized.

It is essential to acknowledge that there is still limited evidence to understand women’s use of sanitation and menstrual management facilities. Therefore, there is a need for individuals to pay special attention to the needs of women and girls all over the world.

Gender Studies – Not a “Girl Thing”

by Grace Ndanu

A girl in front of a laptop in a college classroom
“Student in class” by UGA CAES/Extension, Source: Creative Commons

I was admitted in the university to specialise in Gender Studies, others call it social studies. The propaganda now comes in when other people call it women studies. I knew it was a good course, but I never knew what it entailed. The first week on campus I went through orientation where I came to meet people from different courses and most of them didn’t know what inspired them to take the courses they were taking, and it was there that I remembered one of my high school teachers once saying that some people don’t end up becoming what they dreamed of becoming when they were small. An example being me, I wanted to be a doctor and now I am aspiring to be a Gender CEO.

I find it unique, all the programmes that are running inside the university have departments and faculties except the gender programme where the department and the faculty are all in one package that is the Institute. We call it The Institute of Gender And Development Studies. In the programme we have the units that help us be better persons where by it molds us to be of good character and to be of service to the people. Talking of functions that the institute holds, I can say it suits all individuals in the campus where by you will find majority if not all students attending the Gender awareness day, cultural week and relationship forums. This now brings to the question, “Why women’s studies if all are the beneficiaries?”

It turns out that the Institute is weakly or never represented. In terms of staff board meetings, the staff from the institute are the last ones to receive the memo and sometimes never receive it at all. In the graduation booklet other programs come first; for example, engineering, agriculture and education…then lastly Gender studies. When classes began we were 49 in total and all of a sudden we are now 44. Thirty four girls and ten boys. And a lecturer came in and said that five boys have done interfaculty; that is, they changed their course from Gender to where they thought was best for them. But why?

In the middle of the semester I came to meet with one of the boys who left the programme, we had a chat. He said that Gender studies is a girl thing. In his words, “Don’t expect me to study what my wife is supposed to be studying right now. I know you people are taught how to take care of the husband at home, I am the husband here, so which husband am I supposed to take care off?” He also assumed that the programme trains the students how to beat men. He asked me a question which left me in a deep thought and a desire to ask him for more of his time so that we can discuss this issue of beating up men. I wanted to make him understand that we women are not into a fight, we are trying to negotiate so that we can have equal opportunities to resources and benefits. I insisted that we need to have our own money and freedom that we have been denied for so long.

The males being few in my course, I decided to talk to one of them, so that I can know what inspired him to do the course and what is still inspiring him to stay grounded to the course. He continued and started by saying that he was sponsored by the government to do the course, which he knew nothing about. His parents were not comfortable with him taking the course, and so they agreed with the parents that he will do an interfaculty, which he didn’t. “When I attended the first gender class I felt I was supposed to be there because I realised what we are being taught is all about all of us, starting with who we are as individuals and how to interact with each other”. He continued and said that the course has moulded him to be a better person and he is not regretting his decision to stay in the course.

Speaking to a girl who does gender is another good thing that I think I did. We as girls we always talk of our rights, and that’s exactly what she started with. She continued and said how she feels that her being taking gender has made her know that no one can live like an Island and that we need each other for survival that is men and women, boys and girls. And she added a quote from the Bible, “All people are equal in the eyes of God.” This brought a little argument between us because its true that we are equal before his eyes but still we need equity to reach equality. A girl needs sanitary towel for her to have equal time with a boy in class, which I now call equality. And finally we came to an agreement.

I insist that gender or social studies should be recognised in all the learning institutions. Starting with my school with the help of Dean of students and the institute should increase the counselling posts around the school. Increasing of these posts will help students visit there any time without being wait for long so that they can be attended to. Apart from Gender Awareness Day the university should hold functions that will communicate to students that gender studies is not a girl thing at all.

On the other side the government should increase the number of university offering the Gender and Development as a programme. Adding on the same, it should increase the number of students during the enrolment in the university to pursue the course. Increasing the number of university offering the programme and also the students will increase the confidence of students and now there will be a fair debate because we will be many against many unlike right now it’s like fighting one against many and definitely the many will win. And I believe that apart from gender based violence reducing, we will come to a conclusion that Gender or social studies is not a girl thing, seconding the motion, ”Gender is not between the legs but between your ears. “

Incarceration and Menstrual Hygiene

Menstrual Hygiene products displayed on a flat surface.
Zubehör für weibliche Hygiene wie Slipenlagen und Tampons auf rosarotem Hintergrund. Source: Marco Verch, Creative Commons

Menstruation is one of many topics that can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about but is absolutely necessary, as many people do not have the resources they need to manage menstruation within reach.  The WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System defines menstrual hygiene management as being when people who experience periods “are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.”  The struggle for accessible menstrual hygiene management can be found in all parts of the world and is even true of some places you would not necessarily expect.  One such place is in prisons, where women often have severely insufficient access to products like sanitary pads and tampons.  This problem needs to be addressed, as menstrual hygiene products are a necessity.  They are not merely items of luxury and should never be treated as a privilege. 

However, things are slowly but surely improving.  The First Step Act that was enacted in December of 2018 requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide pads and tampons at no cost to the prisoners.  While this is a good step forward, it only applies to federal facilities and does not help in state or local ones.  Further change continues to be imperative. 

Examples of the Problem 

Betty Ann Whaley, who was released from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island in June of 2016, told the New York Times that pads were available “seven out of ten times,” and tampons were even less accessible.  It is important to remember that even a nine out of ten times availability would be a serious problem, given the impact it can have on one’s health when menstruating without the means to deal with it.  

Even when pads are available, they are often very thin, requiring them to be changed frequently.  This leads menstruation to still be difficult to manage, as women in prison often only have access to a small number of pads each month.  Chandra Bozelkowho spent some time at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Connecticut, wrote about her experience with menstrual hygiene management for the Guardian in 2015.  Each two-person cell was given five pads each week, giving each woman about ten pads per month.  If a woman’s period lasts for five days, she would only have two pads for each of those days.  This would not be enough, even if the pads were of high quality. 

Topeka K. Sam developed blood clots while she was in prison, meaning she needed sanitary pads that were more absorbent than those available in the commissary.  In order to get the menstrual hygiene materials that she needed, she was forced to prove that they were a necessity. She put one of her used pads into a bag and a male staff member determined that she truly needed different pads.  Five months had passed by the time she had access to resource she needed. 

In some cases, there are even monetary barriers that prevent women from being able to properly manage their menstrual hygiene.  Prior to the establishment of the First Step Act, federal prison commissaries charged $5.55 for two tampons and $1.35 for two panty-liners.  This is a far greater amount of money than either of these products are worth.  For example, you can buy an 18-count box of tampons for $9.19 at Walmart.   

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prisons Is an International Concern 

Menstrual hygiene materials are also often difficult to access outside of the United States.  In the Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife, Brazil, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found a few different factors that make proper menstrual hygiene and healthcare difficult.  As of March of 2017, tampons had not been distributed to the women since 2015.  Water was only available three times each day, which is a barrier to strong menstrual health.  There is a risk of infection if there is a lack in adequate soap and water for keeping clean.  The prison system of Brazil also only employed 37 gynecologists in 2017, which means there is less than one for every 900 women in the system.  HRW also found that 630 women had been placed in a cell that was only built to hold 270.  This absence in any privacy and presence of practically no space makes even the act of replacing sanitary products difficult. 

According to one study, prisons in Zambia leave inmates responsible for many of their basic- necessities such as menstrual hygiene products and soap.  One woman living in a Zambian prison stated, “If others don’t bring them for us, we have nothing.  There are lots of people with no relatives here.  They have nothing.”  The water that is available is often unclean, so they have inadequate ability to keep clean as well.  These prisons also have the same overcrowding problem as the Bom Pastor prison, being more than 300% over capacity. 

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

Impacting Health 

Ignoring menstruation is not an option.  Not only would that be extremely uncomfortable, but it is also a health and safety issue.  Lacking access to necessary menstrual hygiene management materials can have an impact on both the mental and physical health of women living in prisons.  In terms of physical health, women who are trying to deal with menstruation while incarcerated might develop health problems such as bacterial infections from trying to use other materials in place of regular menstrual hygiene products.   

In terms of mental health, being denied the things one needs to deal with menstruation is a dehumanizing experience.  At this point in time, talking about menstrual hygiene feels awkward and uncomfortable for many people.  This fact does not change among incarcerated populations.  When you add experiences like that of Topeka K. Sam, having to prove that she needed the resources she was asking for, the situation becomes even more difficult. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Truly accessible menstrual hygiene management resources are undoubtedly a human rights issue.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), all people have the right to a standard of living that sufficiently supports their well-being and health.  The harm that can be done to one’s physical and mental health when they lack the menstrual hygiene products they need gets in the way of this right. 

Potential Solutions 

How do we improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons?   

The people who are most aware and likely care the most about this issue are people who have been disenfranchised, as only two states allow people convicted of felonies to keep their voting rights, and only 15 states automatically restore their voting rights after they have served their sentence.  Additionally, many people would not have the resources they would need to advocate for change, no matter how strong their drive or greatness of their ideas.  It would be helpful in trying to solve the problem if we could figure out a way to empower people who have direct experiences with it. 

Prisons could potentially switch from providing disposable menstrual hygiene products to reusable ones, like Thinx or Lunapads.  While the initial change would be relatively expensive, it would save them more money in the long run, as they would not have to constantly buy more sanitary pads and tampons.  This option could significantly improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons, and, as bonus, it would also be much better for the environment. 

Improving this issue is an important step in ensuring that people who have been incarcerated are still treated with dignity and respect as human beings.  People are people, no matter what they have done in the past.  There is no reason to treat anyone as less than human or prevent them from having access to their fundamental human rights. 

If you have an interest in learning more about the need for improved access to hygiene management, check out this post on MHM! 

 

 

 

A Value Shift Toward Fashion

a picture of clothing in a closet
Photo by Ajanet Rountree

I have thought a lot about the phrase “speaking truth to power” over the last few days. Perhaps my musings have a lot to do with the free space I have in my mind now that my thesis is complete. Or it could be the anger I feel knowing that children of Hollywood actresses and the like scammed their ways into colleges and universities while I sacrificed, saved, budgeted and continually sought/seek to maintain my integrity on my significantly less flexible income. What did it mean for me to know that some people have no idea or care about the struggle of other people? What did mean to have someone blatantly disrespect the work ethic of millions of people? Nearly one year ago, my colleague Lindsey wrote a blog about The True Cost of fashion as highlighted in a Netflix documentary. For me, it was an eye-opening read as I found myself confronted by my disrespect for the work ethic of millions of people. After reading her blog, I was committed to shopping differently, but I honestly did not know how or where to begin. You see, I like clothes. I use the word like instead of love because love affirms a commitment whereas like can be fleeting and fickle; therefore, I like clothes and love colors, patterns, and fabrics. I agree with Orsola de Castro’s declaration that “clothes are the skin we choose.”

I cannot say that I have gone this year without purchasing new clothing, but I have not bought as much as I have in years past. I have also become mindful of my giving to charity stores because as the film points out, unsold clothing goes to other countries and overwhelms their local industry; thereby limiting the jobs and transferrable skills like sewing and tailoring. Watching the film, I realized that the core of this change was the shift in my paradigm which subsequently caused a shift in my values. De Castro asserts that our choice of clothing is the manifestation of our communication – fundamentally a part of what we seek to communicate about ourselves. So, I began to ask myself, “What did I want to communicate about myself? Did it matter to me that some of my clothes are years old if they still fit and have been well maintained?” No, but the change in my values was not merely about not caring about the durability of my clothing from years ago. It was about the lives of those on the other end of the stitches and sewing machines.

A downside of globalization is the increase of fast-fashion at the expense of the lives of garment factory workers. Globalization has allowed for the outsourcing of fashion to low-cost economies where the wages are low and kept low; therefore, those at the top of the value chain get to choose where the products are made based upon where they can compete and manipulate the cost of manufacturing. The only interest companies have in countries like Bangladesh is for the exploitation of the people, most of whom are women. The result of the Bangladeshi factory worker is that the “budget conscious shopper” can now purchase clothing that is “cheap enough to throw away without thinking about it” as proclaimed by Stephen Colbert. Last year I began questioning how my consumption of fast-fashion had continued to perpetuate the injustices of the gouging of low-wage countries experiencing the exploitation of their citizens while I claim to advocate for liberty and justice for all. Was I true to myself by ignoring the plight of millions of people making the $20 pair of jeans I brought with my e-coupon? I began to think about it.

a photo of clothes hanging in a closet
Photo by Ajanet Rountree

According to the film, Bangladesh is the second largest fashion producing market in the world after China. In 2013 the Rana Plaza took over 1,000 lives and had been noted as the worst garment disaster in history. In the year following the tragedy, the fashion industry had its most profitable year. Despite the trillions of dollars made globally by the industry, the lives of the workers are disposable. There is no standard wage or guarantee of work conditions. In Cambodia, garment workers protested and demanded a living wage of $160 US a month. The protesters met with aggressive government force that resulted in the deaths of five workers and several others injured. Companies in low-wage countries do not own the factories or hire the workers. Therefore, they are not officially responsible for the treatment of workers and the human rights violations they endure as a byproduct of their need to work. The research of Kevin Bales reveals the depths of the impact of the global economy on human lives in his books on disposable people.

As consumers in a capitalistic society, we distance ourselves from the devastation of poverty and inequality by comforting ourselves with the notion of ‘at least it’s a job’ and ‘sweatshops have the potential to bring about a better life for workers eventually.’ In a Fox News interview highlighted in the documentary, Benjamin Powell of the Free Market Institute defined sweatshops as “places with very poor working conditions as us, normal Americans would experience. Very low wages by our standard. Maybe children working; places that might not obey local labor laws. But there is a key characteristic of the ones I want to talk to you about tonight, Kennedy [the host of the show], and that’s they’re places where people choose to work. Admittedly from a bad set of other options.” There are several things worth noting about Powell’s statement. First, he acknowledges that the conditions are deplorable. Second, he knows that ordinary Americans have not experienced any situations like this. Third, he knows that there is a possibility that children are employed in these factories because there is no enforcement of local labor laws. Lastly, he soothes his conscious and those of the viewer by suggesting people choose to work there. In an article, Powell and Zwolinski argue that the anti-sweatshop movement fails in at least one of two ways: internally by failing to maintain their allegiance or externally but uncontroversial by yielding to objections that should be viewed as legitimate concerns. They insist that sweatshop workers voluntarily accept the conditions because it is a better alternative for them. Is it American pride that allows us to assume that a citizen of another country would willingly choose to work in a job to feed and clothe their children/family that Americans would not do? Have we become so full of ourselves that we willfully accept the sweatshop conditions for others but not ourselves for a $5 t-shirt or $15 dress?

The documentary states that fashion is the most labor dependent industry with nearly 1 in 6 working globally in some part of it. Most of the work is done by those with no voice in the supply chain. Many factory working parents must leave their children to be reared by other family members who live outside of the city or factory area due to the long hours and low-wages; eventually seeing them only once or twice a year. Shima, an Indian garment worker, tearfully states, “There is no limit to the struggle of Bangladeshi workers. People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing. They only buy it and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. A lot of garment workers die in different accidents. [Regarding Rana Plaza] A lot of workers died there. It’s very painful for us. I don’t want anyone wearing anything, which is produced by our blood. We want better working conditions so that everyone becomes aware.” Livia Firth, creative director of Eco-Age, chides that we are profiting off their need to work. They are not different from us, but we treat them with disrespect and like slaves. Economist Richard Wolff concludes that American desire for profit at all cost is in direct competition to the values we claim to possess as Americans. In other words, as consumers of fast-fashion, we are perpetrators of injustice because we assist in the exploitation of workers through the violation of their human rights. Our capitalist economy thrives on our insatiable greed, our irrational fear, and our thirst for power all at the expense of someone else’s survival in poverty and inequality.

Am I anti-capitalism? Perhaps. I am anti-inequality and the continuation of needless injustice at the expense of those most vulnerable so if the divide between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen because of capitalism, then yes, wholeheartedly I am against it. Beyond whether I am anti-capitalist lies the question of whether I can remain unchanged when faced with the narrative of someone surviving in an unjust situation? Put another way: can someone with less social and economic power speak into my life and cause me to change? Yes.

If our economic system thrives on our individual and collective materialism, then any change in our behavior and values will change the system. Changes in our individual and collective action and values mean changes in the individual and collective lives of those on the other end of the thread and sewing needle. This year I have learned that challenging myself to live in a way that keeps the narratives of those who cannot speak up for themselves t the forefront of my mind is—I joined with them—our collective way of speaking truth to power.

You can join us!

Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.

Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia

In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.

Women2Drive. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Their Stories

Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada; she was seeking a place where she can be free. Even though she left her family behind, now she can make her own decisions. She said, “I don’t have any contact with my family, but I think that’s good for me and for them. I feel like this is my home now. It’s better here.” Two girls, Reem and Rawan, escaped from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong. Reem claims, “Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison.” However, they cannot stay in Hong Kong for long because they are at risk of being possibly removed or prosecuted. If they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the outcome could result in imprisonment or death. Cases similar to Reem and Rawn’s tend to often be covered up.

Why Women Run  

One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

 Technology and its Effect on Women’s Rights

 With every technological advances comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits can include a platform where people are given a voice to share their thoughts and an accessible platform from anywhere in the world. However, the drawbacks comprise of undesired scrutiny which can make one an easy target. As a result, one of the biggest questions now is “whether it is the responsibility of technology companies to make sure their platforms are not used by governments to repress their citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.

 

Free. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons.

The Future

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.

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