Awalin N Sopan: Some of my friends were discussing this article on the Guardian today:
The article reflects on the safety issue of women on campus. Campuses are part of our society, they can be as safe or dangerous as our surroundings. But we hope that campuses would be safer, it would provide the students with an environment to concentrate on studies, parents will sleep without fear of their sons/daughters being murdered/raped while they study in a dorm or library at night. With that hope we start our mission to receive a better education. And those of us who were not privileged to be born in the first world — we give up our entire childhood and youth, and bury our heads inside books, to be as good a student as the ones who got the privilege. Then finally when we get the chance to study abroad, we feel that our life has a meaning after all. So after reading the campus rape stat report, how should I feel? What advice should I give to my fellow country-women? Do not leave your country? Stay with your parents and let them protect you forever?
Growing up, I did not know or care that someday I might get paid less than a man of same capability for the same amount of work, I did not feel that someone might discard my opinion because I am a woman. In fact I saw we have a female head of the state, women running the country for more than half the period we became a sovereign ‘country’. I had no issue with how societies perceive my ability. But for me it was all about keeping myself safe, coming back home uninjured, unraped, un-whistled at. I always got full support from my family regarding my studies, they always inspired me to pursue a technical career, as long as I am ‘SAFE’. Being a computer engineer was indeed a safe option, as I will work in a closed environment, with computers, and not meet many people (people are dangerous!). “Don’t go out to play, someone might kidnap you. Don’t stay late at campus, don’t spend alone time with any men who is not your brother/father/husband/son“. In spite of being a human myself, I always have to be scared of 50% of my same species, since any of them might be a potential rapist. Equal pay, maternity leave, gender gap etc. are something you can think about only after you first achieve the basic right to be alive. Those were ‘first world problems’ to me; the guy following me on street, trying to touch me in the public bus,–those were my real problems, right in my face, or more literally speaking, in my body.
Coming from south-Asia, I consider my current surroundings in USA a lot safer than where I grew up. Back in home, riding a public bus was so horrible, I wanted to quit my job many times just because of the commute horror. Here I use the public bus/train everyday, and no one tries to touch my boobs! Now when I see a group of men near me, I don’t think, “Oh my God, Men! Run for your life !” Men do not stare at me just because I am a woman. I can take a walk any time during the day, wear what I like. If I think someone is harassing me I can complain to the department and to the police. I don’t feel anymore that all men are potential rapists (although I wish there was an app for that, like “rapist-detector”, which will scan the surroundings for me). Above all, now I don’t need to think about my sexual identity all the time. I can just think about my overall safety like any other human.
Not worrying about your gender was such a new and liberating feeling for me; and I only got to feel it after coming here, passing 25 years of my life in my home country! In fact after I came to USA I started to feel that men are not as bad as I used to think, I can just talk to them like they are human beings like us. Eventually I changed my decision to be single forever, and decided that getting married would not be so bad after all.
So when I saw the article on Guardian, I felt that sore wound that followed me even to this other side of the world. Yes I feel safer here. But then I see articles like this one, and have to remind myself not to get too comfortable; no matter where I stay, there can be potential threats everywhere.
After some discussion with a few other women with similar background, who also came from the Indian subcontinent to USA for pursuing higher studies, I complied their advice for students like us. We learnt the cultural differences through our experiences, and most of us feel overall safer here than our home-countries. It’s a shame for me to admit how my country-men or the men of my religion treat our women, but I am going to keep my patriotism aside for a while and speak as a common girl who is trying to pass some guidelines onto fellow women who go abroad for studies.
1. Rather than just looking at the rape rating for schools you should look at the rape ratings of the neighborhood when you are looking for places to stay. Usually rent in bad neighborhoods are cheaper, so many international students end up choosing those to save money. Some online tools can help on this, like:
http://www.trulia.com/crime/ or https://www.crimereports.com/
There is also sex-offender database, available online.
2. If you feel that someone is stalking you, change your time and route for going to the destined place. So that no one can keep track of you. Always try to avoid any kind of eye contact with men. Try to walk quickly even the road is full or empty, be total aware of if someone is following you or looking at you. Before going to any unknown place Google map it and be sure of all the possible way for going back home. Please try not to give your full home address to anyone, if you are a single girl.
3. Take some self-defense classes. Be healthy, do regular exercise, (in case you have to run from the criminal). Carry a pepper spray, keep your keys handy; if someone tries to attack you, hit them with your keys or pepper spray to protect you.
4. The way women dress are no way correlated with rape or other offense. You may have seen the victim-blaming attitude a lot more among the people of your home country, or your religion. But if this was the case, south-Asia or middle-east would not have any rape victim at all, where general outfit (sari/kaftan/burkha) is much covering compared to outfits in the western counties, and every girl in nude beaches in UK would have been raped. However, that is not the case. You do not blame a person for getting hijacked for that hijacking, or getting murdered. It is the hijacker who is supposed to be blamed for. Wearing heels or bikini or drinking alcohol or whatever is a personal right, same for men and women. A wiki to document them.
5. Racial sexism: Men from certain countries (with low respect for women overall) also behave pretty badly with women from certain countries. They seem to behave nicely with white women though, probably they consider white race to be superior to their own, or they are afraid to behave badly with white people here, Such people also consider women from their own race inferior to men! Their racism mixed with sexism can make it more difficult for non-white women here.
In some countries, women are sent to jail for being raped, so they never file case. So you will see that the number of abuse reports from women is lowest in those countries. Before you trust the statistics, analyze the situation. If my friends and family alone reported all the sexual harassment we faced in our lives, I bet the harassment record of my country will see a sharp increase. Same can be the case for a campus, too. Like the aforementioned article says: “and a campus with a low reporting rate is likely a campus where rapists are free to keep finding more victims, as statistics show that most undetected rapists continue to offend.”
Ranking of countries by livability for women:
Just because your host-country respects women, does not mean that everyone living here carry the same value. Men growing up in a culture where women are criminalized for being raped might just bring their attitude towards women with them even when they move to other countries. So be aware of that. When in doubt, avoid people from countries where safety of women is a big issue, especially when searching for a good neighborhood to live in.
6. Trust the law enforcement, they might be better here than your home-country. One time, I went to a car mechanic shop, the mechanic realized I have the same religion as his, he became overly ‘friendly’, he tried to touch me several times, I was afraid that if I complain to police, I would be seen as a racist. Next time I was walking past the garage I saw him hiding behind a tree staring at me, I called the police, showed the garage, after that the mechanic stopped stalking. Since he did not do any ‘crime’, the officer could not arrest him. But the officer and my department were very helpful, I felt safe as I could call police just because I felt unsafe. If this happened in my country, no one would care. Being whistled at or stalked, are so common in there, we just learn to ignore them.
7. May be in your home country/in your religious community, women are always blamed for anything happening to them, So when you see similar attitude of men in your host-country, you think there is no hope for a solution, no one will care if you complain. But, remember, the cases may be different here. May be people here actually care. Complain to the department, file a report to the police, even if you just feel unsafe, or have a feeling of potential threat. May be in your home country a man can touch a woman in the crowd and get a way with it, but in your host-country you may be able to actually get that man arrested for that.
8. If you are uncomfortable reporting to the department/police, first talk to any female fellow student, or a female faculty member. They might already know about the situation, empathize with you, and be more willing to help.
9. When you are a person who has a higher value in the job market, have a chance to choose where you want to settle, try to choose wisely.
10. But again, you may have moved from a place where women are safe and men are all, well, just human beings. And now your host-country is a living hell for women! Take some precaution no matter where you are or who you are. My campus is filled with crimes like theft, hijack, assault, but those are similar level of risk for both women and men. Walking alone at night it is risky if you have cell phone and laptop with you, but that is same for guys. A Computer Science major from University of Virginia sent this list of precautions:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Awareness of where you are and who is around you may help you out of a bad situation.
- Do not let a cell phone conversation or listening to music distracts you when walking alone, especially at night. Keep your attention focused on your surroundings.
- Most US college campuses have blue telephone. If you are on Grounds and need help, pick up one of the blue-light telephones. You automatically will be connected to University Police.
- Avoid isolated areas and walking alone at night when possible. Use the University transportation service if your school has one. Definitely those are more accountable and even if you are alone, your school bus operator is less likely to rape you (he has to keep his job after all, and those buses are GPS tracked).
- When walking, scan the area around you for potential dangers.
- Many schoolshave a drop-at-home late night bus service, use it. Especially when you are not sober, as you might be more vulnerable then.
- Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, get to a safe place and alert the police.
- Walking around in late night in a quiet neighborhood is unsafe – for both men and women. But most universities have escort security services, who can walk you home if you are working late at lab. Schools here are extra cautious. Anything happens, they alert everyone. But don’t let anything happen to you.
I am quoting some fellow women’s experiences here, all of them came to the USA for higher studies, lived alone in different states (CA, OH, OR, MD, NJ, PA,and TX). Coming from a very close-family-oriented society, it may not seem to be an easy transition, but they found it to be safer and more independent here.
“I lived alone in four different cities in US, every time for 3-4 months. I always feel hundred times safer here than I ever did in my home country. I went home alone at 3/4 a.m. (using school’s escort services). No one had a second glance at what I was wearing. But that being said, I also Googled a lot about the safety of the neighborhood I was looking for apartments.”
As a brown woman, I feel more sexism vibe from Middle Eastern and south Asian men toward me. I was not surprised because being a south Asianmyself, I know how women are treated in those regions. Getting PhD, being a professor–nothing could change what get ingrained in people’s mind due to how they are raised.”
“Back home I was groped when I was 11, I didn’t even have boobs then! Here I stay alone, I wear quite short/tight cloths but never felt uncomfortable around men from western countries because nobody would make bad comments or look at part of my body or try to touch me.”
“In my 6 years of US life, I felt freedom and independence everywhere I went. For the first time in my life, I felt I am a human being, not a piece of meat. In my home country, we faced countless incidents worse than this everyday, like those horrible bus rides/ semi-rapes. Here if anyone touches you by mistake in a bus, they say sorry 100 times.”
“I stayed alone in USA and I used to go home every night around 12am from my lab to home. I took bus or I should say same route to home. When we rent our apartment my policy was to take the apartment in rich neighborhood, so the area would be safe. I may not save extra $100 per month, but I can save myself.”
“As a female, I do not want to go back to a society where women do not have equal opportunity, where women do not have safety… I have no intention of raising my kids in such a society. Having the opportunity to settle in any country, I will always avoid countries with no democracy and no established equal opportunity practices”.
I grew up reading reports on men beating their wives everyday in local newspapers, that did not keep me away from getting married, or worrying about potential rapists did not keep me away from going to school/relatives’ house/college. I am glad that I managed to get a scholarship, and came abroad. The post-graduate degree was not even the best thing I received from studying abroad, it was the freedom that I got, and I don’t regret giving up my childhood fun times anymore (what is childhood for a girl-child anyway, she has to know about rape and assault as soon as she learns to speak!).
Doing all the math rigorously, solving the physics problems whole night, all paid off, because now I feel a bit more free than I used to be. I am not saying that if I am unsafe in my own country I should just escape it rather than trying to change it. But how can I fight the system if I am already defeated by it!
HCI Research Scientist,