“You will find society asking you for the happy ending, saying come back when you’re better, when what you say can make us feel good, when you have something more uplifting, affirming. This ugliness was something I never asked for, it was dropped on me, and for a long time I worried it made me ugly too… But when I wrote the ugly and the painful parts into a statement, an incredible thing happened. The world did not plug its ears, it opened itself to me.”
When I was younger, I wondered why my parents avoided certain words when they came up in the news. It was as if something unspeakable had been spoken into existence, and if they didn’t react quickly, it would take the room by fire. The channel would be quickly turned, the word successfully quenched. One of these words was rape. I learned the meaning of this word around the age of 12, when I innocently asked my older cousin what it meant. Of course, I could not completely grasp the whole concept, but I got an abstract idea of it, causing me to no longer be insulated from the harsh reality as my parents had intended me to be. Every time I walked alone, the sound of steps behind me was paralyzing. This still continues. Rape culture is a tumorous growth on the heart of society and remains up for debate; if left unattended, it will spread unapologetically throughout the body, leaving behind only dead cells and pus.
For most of human history, sexual assault and rape have been persistent problems. In ancient societies, it was considered a property crime against the father or the husband of the victim. The trauma of the victims was not only ignored, but also in some cases multiplied by forcing the victim to marry her rapist (if she was unmarried) or by giving her the same punishment as her rapist because she didn’t have the force to scream for help. Rape has also had a very clear presence in wars, denoting its terrorizing, animalistic nature and the power structures that define it. It is shameful that even in the 21st-century, women are still subjected to physical violence and other forms of abuse, and their pain is muted and put promptly under the rug to this day. It is as if what we see and what we hear numbs us. It numbs shock, it numbs appalment, it numbs pain, it numbs change. This numbness, which has been built over centuries, is what we should fight for. We have to face reality even if it is painful, even if it makes our insides turn. We simply have to hold a moral candlelight for everyone to follow, or we will be perpetrators of rape culture.
In recent decades this tumorous phenomenon has found its way inside college campuses – a place that is supposed to be a safe hub for personal development and growth– yet, it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as needed. In fact, 13 percent of all students (undergraduate and graduate) experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. This is certainly an eye-grabbing number, considering that a majority of victims do not report their experience to the authorities, this statistic might be even higher. It is understandable that many victims dread reporting their cases, especially when they involve their college campuses, and we cannot reproach them for that. It is certainly admirable when they find the courage to visit the right offices and utter the irreversible words, creating a new reality where what happened can’t be ignored and where they are indelibly marked with a scarlet letter. Questions around their personal life follow: scrutiny over their behavior, appearance and whereabouts, justifications on why she caused the rape (she was intoxicated, her dress was too short and revealing, she asked for it in some way, she looked at him the wrong way, etc.), and of course assuming that what she uttered was falsehood, an act of vengeance. It is more believable that the victim is lying and risking everything in the process because she has a grudge against the accused rapist, than it is to believe that the victim is using her voice to tell the truth and find some justice, even though that may not remove her pain entirely. Not only does this take away women’s rights and liberties, it also feeds on the ubiquitous idea of what women did “wrong” and what they could’ve done to prevent the assault. These negative social reactions and judgments towards the survivors leave them feeling uniquely vulnerable and guilty. In truth, the journey that every victim goes through is unbearable, and it is even more so when a student is harassed or raped on a college campus, and then has to endure the aftermath. According to a report made in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Justice, 90% of campus sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators that the survivor knows, adding more to the severity of the issue and difficulty of recovery. How is one supposed to get an education while their rapist is just some halls away, or even in the same room? How is one supposed to trust the institution where they come to pursue higher education but that institution fails to protect them? Simply, one cannot.
It is important to note that this issue does not touch only women, although women make up the majority of victims. Men and the LGBTQ+ community also endure sexual violence, and they are more likely than women to not report to the authorities. So this is an all-encompassing issue which is not limited to women alone. It affects everyone, and those who are affected are held in a subordinate position in society. They limit their behaviors and live in fear of rape for their whole lives, which not only contributes to the issue of gender equality, but also has serious adverse effects on the quality of education.
The question then arises: what can we do? First, the most essential thing to be done is to spread awareness and to continue the conversations. A cultural change in how rape and harassment are perceived is necessary, and for that to happen an open conversation on the issue is required. Awareness is also an important weapon we can utilize. According to RAINN, many survivors cite among reasons for not reporting the assault to the authorities uncertainty and questioning, “whether what happened constitutes assault” and “did not know how to report”. Additionally, many parents, students, and even educators, do not know what protections Title IX provides, and also are not aware that the same protections apply to secondary school students. This kind of information should be common knowledge and become more accessible. Second, we can contact our representatives in the local, the State, and the federal government to express our concerns and compel them to pass legislation such as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act and the Teach Safe Relationships Act. Third, we can lessen the pain of survivors and create a safe space for them by talking and listening to their stories, by empathizing and offering them support so they don’t feel alone, but heard.*
The barrier that we have is a heavy one. Its historical significance and severity are engraved in major legislation from the Code of Hammurabi onward, and its pain is held by women everywhere, especially survivors. We have to be grateful for the legal and societal achievements that have been won throughout the years, but we also have to realize that the issue still exists in large numbers and there is an immediate need for change. College campuses are a rough ground to plow, but if we all work together, tomorrow we will witness little stems coming through, and one day we will bask in the warmth and beauty of sunlit flowers.
By Alba Bajri with editing by Ishmal Shaikh