- Posted August 23, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
Violence and Trauma Can Be Cured: A Response to RoseChasm in India
I share many traits with the author. Like her, I've suffered sexual violence and developed PTSD as a result. Like her, my international work has been stopped cold by sexual aggression. And like her, I've traveled on the Indian subcontinent.
Unlike RoseChasm, though, my PTSD came from a rape that happened in America. My time in India and Bangladesh on a Fulbright grant to study mental health has involved virtually no harassment. Most importantly, I know PTSD can be cured.
I believe RoseChasm's account of sexual harassment in India. She is reporting a well-documented phenomenon. (For example, a colleague of mine has been blogging about her experiences with harassment in India.) The case of Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was raped and killed in Delhi last December, has prompted justifiable outrage over the dangers women face.
I've experienced sexual aggression abroad, too. For me, this happened in Africa.
In 2010, I worked for a school in Ghana. The job involved collaborating with a traditional council of village elders, a dozen men in waxcloth robes who assembled weekly in a courtyard surrounded by crumbling clay houses in their impoverished small town. (An urban colleague translated for us.) It was a strange, wondrous, irreplaceable experience.
It was also a sight most women never see. Only one other woman was allowed inside the council, on the condition she remain silent. Village women said the council was routinely sexist in its decisions.
So I wasn't surprised when one of the elders approached me in the market one morning to say he intended to rape me. “I'll come for you at your home,” he said, tracing his finger down the center of my chest. “I will be your husband tonight.”
“I don't want to,” I said.
“That doesn't matter,” he said.
“You cannot take me without my consent,” I said. “That is violence.”
“No, no, no. It is not violence,” he protested, looking confused.
“Yes, it is,” I said, pushing his hand away. I evoked the area's ardent Christianity: “Rape is a sin. You are sinning. I am a nun. I am a sister of the church. You will go to hell for doing that to me.”
“What?” he said, losing track of my swift English.
The conversation circled. Soon I strode away, heart pounding, praying he would not follow. (He didn't.)
In the internet cafe, I emailed an older friend at the Zen temple in Chicago where I was a layperson. The email was a request for support: I asked if lying about being a nun to avoid getting raped broke Buddhist precepts.
“You're a nun,” Joe soon replied. Reading the email, I thought, Joe, I love you.
I did not love the village elders. It was mutual: I came into their sacred space with education, power, and wealth that none of these poor farmers could attain themselves, usurping a long-standing tradition of male power. I controlled some of the school's finances, and this, too, provoked discord. To top it off, I was unrepentantly brassy when the elder tried to integrate me, as his subordinate, into the social structure he had always known.
I never got a damn thing done in that courtyard of crumbling clay.
This was especially true after someone ran up to me in a festival crowd and groped me as some drunken act of xenophobic ridicule. The guy wasn't an elder, and after I complained, the council asked the town crier to make an announcement along the lines of “Hands off the foreigner.” I appreciated this, but realized the incident squandered the last of my influence. My urban coworker told me that if I wanted to avoid molestation, “you should just stay in the house.”
Frustrated, I volunteered to go stay in my house in America, permanently. Leaving was a relief.
It's only permanent as far as those elders know, though. In 2012, I won a Fulbright grant to Bangladesh, where I am today.
The year has been productive. I've learned some Bengali, written three research papers, coordinated a course on mental health, began my freelance writing career, and traveled to neighboring India.
Naturally, it's been stressful. (The Savar factory collapse, which ended 1132 lives, heavily impacted mine.) Curiously, though, I've suffered little sexual harassment.
In part, this is because I've had the fortune to work with mostly female supervisors. But I've encountered no harm on a Buddhist pilgrimage in India this June, either, despite traveling alone, accepting motorcycle rides from others, and sleeping in the open bunks of India's overnight trains. I know there are violent men in India, but I did not meet any.
In Bangladesh, too, I rarely receive harassment. I know this is uncommon. Some Bangladeshi women wear burkas to avoid catcalls, and many suffer domestic violence. There is also an unpleasant tendency for men to furtively masturbate in Dhaka alleyways, although I've never seen this done with aggression towards passing women. (It's probably related to the city's extreme overcrowding, which eliminates privacy in many poorer homes.) But for me, unwanted attention has been limited to innocuous shouts of “Madame, your country?”
Am I just lucky? Partly. Some factors also work in my favor.
One is age. Women under 25 are at greatest risk of sexual harassment. At 31, I'm perceived as married, as very few Bangladeshi women are single in their thirties. Being “owned” by a man is a poor reason to have one's human rights respected (why not respect them because I'm human?), but this misperception keeps me safe nonetheless.
Another is social class. In America, I'm middle-class. Here, I'm considered wealthy, and experience the deference that only the wealthy enjoy. This is a huge injustice to women on of other classes – but it does afford me the safety to go outside at night.
But I think the most important factor is deliberate confidence, though. After being raped in America at age 21, I worked hard to heal. By the time I got to Ghana, I had trained in self-defense and karate. When the elder harassed me, I knew a community of martial artists would support my resisting him. It was easy to speak words (“that is violence”) I'd rehearsed in the dojo. I'd also attended psychotherapy at a rape crisis center. It was hard work, but it repaired my resilience and self-esteem.
My experience contravenes some of RoseChasm's thoughts. “PTSD strikes me as a euphemism, because a syndrome implies a cure,” RoseChasm writes. “What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what its like for one's humanity to be taken away?”
I'm unsure if “syndrome” implies a cure. (The “S” in still-mostly-incurable AIDS stands for “syndrome.”)
But post-traumatic stress disorder can be cured. In fact, many people who have PTSD get well. They are changed by their experience, but not lessened or sickened any longer.
I am one of them. It is this, not the Fulbright, that I consider my grandest achievement.
Recovery does not involve resuming unawareness.
In my travels, I've noticed only harassment, but also my own power. In Ghana, many women had no political voice or sexual agency. In Bangladesh, many women suffer harassment on the way home from work. Being an educated white American does lend me significant privilege. Having seen some stark realities, I want to use my education and comparative wealth to serve these women, whose humanity is often challenged far more than mine.
Because violence, too, is a problem we can cure.