(featured image taken from www.georgiahanias.com)
By Raeesa Ashique, Blog Contributor
The summer before I moved for university, my parents warned me repeatedly about walking home after dark, and told me to never walk alone. Now, let’s be honest: if I wanted to act on this advice, I’d have to skip class to get home before dark. Not to mention I’d never study, as I work best on campus. But they had a right to worry – we’ve heard too many horror stories about campuses, and it has instilled a sense of caution.
Alhamdulillah, I have always felt safe at my school, but the terrible truth is that campuses have become associated with violence and assault, sexual assault in particular. Let’s just take a moment to absorb this. Sexual assault cases are common at a place of opportunity and education, of personal and academic growth. How is this acceptable at an institutional level? How are students supposed to learn if they don’t feel safe?
Emma Watson, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, addressed these issues in her speech to the UN last month where she was introducing HeForShe’s Impact 10x10x10 plan. This initiative will include ten heads of state, ten global CEOs, and ten university presidents in the goal of erasing sexual violence from university campuses. She pointed out that inequality definitely exists in post-secondary institutions, although they should be a “place of refuge that takes action against all forms of violence”. She then questions the current culture on many campuses which send “the message that sexual violence isn’t actually a form of violence”.
I am very passionate about this topic, which is how I found myself sitting in a presentation a couple weeks ago on the topic of sexual violence, social justice, and compassion. I would like to share the story I heard, and a few words of wisdom.
Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin is a survivor. She is now an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at South Illinois University, cross-appointed in Africana Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the recipient of several awards, and has published in several journals. She travels the US doing keynotes and workshops on sexual assault, and has come to Canada several times as well.
She delivered a powerful, emotional, and compelling presentation, sharing her story of being raped in her own bedroom as a high school student by a boy she liked. She stayed silent for years, doing everything she could to feel better. She tried to be the best, the brightest, and the prettiest, but nothing could take away her feelings of worthlessness.
Seven years later, she finally told a peer support advocate at her university. The girl responded with, “I believe you. What happened to you was not your fault.”
Now imagine if, after years and years of silence when she finally built up the courage to open up, this girl had doubted her. If she had instead responded with “Are you sure?” or “I don’t believe that.” Dr. Griffin says this girl saved her. The woman with the PhD who travels the country to speak, the woman who has made something of herself and learned to live with her past, would not exist if not for this girl’s response.
So remember this, if you are ever in the situation of the peer support member. Be supportive, and keep your doubts to yourself. Dr. Griffin says that, as humans, it’s perfectly fine to doubt a person’s story, but that isn’t our place to vocalize. Never question whether they’re telling the truth. You don’t understand the damage you may unintentionally do.
Remember this as well, if you are ever (God forbid) on the other side of the table. It’s not your fault that something terrible was done to you. It is not your shame, and it should not be your shame.
Which brings me to the next key point from the presentation: compassion. Dr. Griffin says, “Survivors are people just like me and you. We have hopes, dreams, and fears… Survivors can be anyone and can be anything.” It’s never okay to blame survivors because of what was done to them. Remember that they are people too, and deserve the same treatment and respect.
She talks about how perpetrators are also human, and therefore also deserve compassion. A lot of perpetrators feel scared and alone after realizing what they have done, and therefore should not be demonized. Dealing with the situation should be left up to the law.
Finally, campuses need to make an effort to actively prevent sexual violence, because without this effort, they are effectively condoning it.
However, this is not only a campus problem, and we need to promote the conversation in all settings. It’s an uncomfortable and touchy topic, but it needs to be addressed much more than it is. We need everyone aware if we ever want to see real change. As Dr. Griffin says, “This is an all-hands-on-deck journey.”
As a society, we need to make sure that survivors feel safe coming forward and saying, “I am hurt. I need help.” We should all do our part in building this accepting and positive environment.
At Ahfif, we host sales that give part or all of the proceeds to organizations that advocate for human rights, such as our recent Warehouse Sale that donated one new clothing item for every order to the Grateful Garment Poject. This organization’s mission is to make sure every victim of a sexual crime is provided with whatever they need such as clothing, toiletries, snacks, etc.