How We Talk about Violence Against Women, Trauma, and “Culture”: Study Abroad Reflections
The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives. Today’s is authored by Biz Berthy ’17. If you have a personal narrative you’d like to share with the Kenyon community, please submit to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The purpose of this editorial is not for me to recount to you my experiences with harassment and violence during my study abroad in Morocco. It has been exhausting to sort through the details of each event for myself, let alone sort through them with you as an audience in mind, too. As we continue to stumble forward in our collective discussions of sexual assault and harassment, I feel that it is much more important for me to discuss the overwhelmingly frustrating interactions I have had with my abroad institution throughout my semester. The institution’s neglectful responses and policies, I believe, point to larger issues of how we talk about violence against women, trauma, and the idea of “culture”.
There are two fears that I have struggled with throughout this semester: the immediate fear caused by the traumatic experiences that I have had here, and the fear that I will be judged for voicing these experiences as “traumatic” to begin with. Even as I write this, I am overcome with the anxiety that what I am saying does not matter. It’s a never ending cycle of victim blaming, something so ingrained in my consciousness that it wasn’t until very recently- months into this program- that I was able to recognize as such. If we are to understand why this particular thought process that I have just described is so harmful, then we have to look more closely at the emotional damage that it leaves behind. In her essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” Roxane Gay explores popular discussion of trauma and gender violence and makes the important point: “the illusion of safety is as frustrating as it is powerful.” We are never safe, even after we think the fear has left us. As Gay goes on to write, “we all have history. You can think you’re over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you.”
My abroad program is made up of 35 students, 29 of whom are women. Our institution places us in an area of the city that is renowned for its conservatism and high concentrations of harassment. There are hardly any street lights to illuminate the endless maze of narrow alley ways many of us women have to take in order to reach our homes. There are no police. Despite this, the institution knowingly continues to place its female students in this environment.
During the first week of our semester, our program provided us with a single session on the nature of what they call “street harassment” in the country. I could talk about the content of this orientation, but I feel it is most important to acknowledge that labeling what women in the country experience as “street harassment” is neglectful. It’s a form of violence against women. Walking down the street and being unwontedly touched is a form of violence. Being followed to your door step by a large group of men is a form violence. Being slammed against a wall in the middle of a street and screamed at is a form of violence. Witnessing women openly being abused in public by their male partners is a form of violence- for both the victim and the individuals made to watch. If my abroad institution were a socially responsible institution, they would advertise and acknowledge these experiences as violence. Moreover, they would take into consideration the way in which women of color here experience “harassment” in an even more heightened manner.
Other than providing this single orientation session, my institution has completely failed to actively provide its female students with resources for coping. When I and the other women on this program have requested a female psychologist to speak with, we have repeatedly been told that this request is “unreasonable”, and then directed to two male psychologists with whom we are designated to speak to. My abroad institution went as far as saying that they were “sorry that they couldn’t provide a therapist that looks like everyone” despite the fact that it is very reasonable to request gender specific psychological care for a gender specific issue. Only after exhausting persistence were we given the contact information of a female psychologist with whom we could speak with. Even still, a woman on my program looked into this supposed resource only to discover that this psychologist was limited to offering a single session. I spoke with another woman who studied with the same program in a different country who confirmed having the same experience.
What is perhaps most problematic, however, is the institution’s careless abuse of the word “culture.” When we have asked why we are placed in an area with such high concentrations of violence, we have been told it is so we can experience “authentic culture”- as if not all forms of life in Morocco are “culturally authentic.” Additionally, my abroad institution places an international travel ban for its programs in this region. Their student handbook, however, lists medical emergencies and family matters as appropriate reasons to request leaving. Yet, when I requested to leave the country to visit my sister in Europe after a particularly traumatic experience, they denied my request and said that I had to remain in the country in order to fully complete my “cultural immersion”. In an email, the Assistant Dean of Students told me that “needing a cultural break is not considered an extenuating [enough] circumstance [to leave the country]”, even though my request was strictly about my mental health and an occurrence involving violence against women, neither of which are culturally specific. Regardless, I was threatened with having my credit for the semester taken away should I leave the country to seek other resources.
My abroad institution’s response to my concerns imply an inherent weakness on my behalf for not viewing these experiences as normal. A third fear that I forgot to mention earlier: that I don’t deserve any support because this is what I “signed up for” by choosing to study here. Just because I and the other female students on this program knew that living here as women may come with challenges does not excuse my abroad institution of their responsibility to provide us with adequate resources for coping. That is their job. Through their pervasive lack of action, my abroad institution is normalizing violence against women. Furthermore, asking us to desensitize ourselves to this violence in the name of “cultural immersion” perpetuates the false notion that Moroccan women themselves are desensitized to this violence as well.
Recently, a friend of mine sent me a piece that his friend wrote reflecting on her experiences traveling abroad as a woman. In it, she writes, “I don’t know how to feel anyone else’s fear or sadness or shame, but I do know that no one should have to feel the depths of fear or sadness or shame that I have.” Somewhere between the essence of this quote and the fact that many of you may view this whole article as merely semantic, lay the self-destructive double bind of this whole issue.
Our attempts at earnestly expressing our personal experiences of trauma are far too often lost in translation when we express them to the very institutions that are supposed to provide us with support. We are repeatedly told, in a varying ways, that what we are relaying is unacademic or overly sensitive. In my case, I was/am overly sensitive to the “culture” of violence against women in Morocco.
It’s a depressing truism that violence against women is ubiquitous throughout the world, but that doesn’t mean the novelty of this reality will ever wear off for me, nor should it. Roxanne Gay is right, safety is an illusion. It would be foolish of me to waltz through life without anticipating danger and harm. Luckily, that is not what I am arguing. What I am arguing for is a more productive way to talk about and address the different kinds of trauma that we confront as women with distinct identities.
I recognize that even this discussion that I am producing right now is inadequate, but I hope that despite this faltering I am narrowing the gap between the isolation that comes with experiencing violence and trauma, and the distant, ambiguous “solution” for it all. No one experiences patriarchal oppression in a uniform manner, and normalizing this form of violence under a blanket understanding of “culture” is not going to get us anywhere. The model that my abroad institution, and many others like it, are functioning off of is not sustainable. It’s a game of high stakes when we let a group of white Americans define and package “culture” at their convenience when it comes to their female students’ livelihood.