During my last year of undergrad I had a class where we had to work in pairs. Our partners were assigned and I ended up with one of my female classmates. We were not friends nor even acquaintances, but we were determined to get the highest grade for the project assigned, which meant spending a lot of time in the library together.
What started as an academic relationship turned into something that, at the time, I just could not name. One night we were working late in the library, and as I was working on one of our posters, she suddenly put her hands under my skirt. I jumped back, confused and startled. In the meantime, she tried to convince me that I wanted it. Needless to say, I grabbed my stuff and left.
In the following weeks, she stalked me. She would be outside my campus office when I went from work to class, she would sit through my classes — even those she was not registered in, I would see her in the bathroom constantly, and worst of all, in the class that we shared together, she would sit next to me and make sexual remarks.
I did not quite know what to do with it. I was not sure if I was being harassed. I was not sure if confronting it would seem like I was perpetuating homophobia. So I just did nothing, hoping that it would go away. One day, as I was walking past the hallway, she was there. She said hi and I replied. She grabbed me by the arm and kissed me. As I pushed back, I tried to explain to her, in whatever way I could, that I was not interested. But she kept holding onto me in an attempt to kiss me again. She only stopped when she saw our professor walking towards us. Once my professor got closer and called my name, she let go and walked in the opposite direction.
My professor had seen it all. When I walked into her office, however, the first thing she asked me was whether or not I was in a relationship with this girl. Then she asked if I had “given her any motive” to think I was interested. After giving my answers, I was instructed to talk to her and sort it out.
As I left my professor’s office, I called my boyfriend at the time and told him what happened. He believed me, but he acted as if it were funny because, at the end of the day, it was a girl and not a man. But it wasn’t until I broke down in tears that he understood what I had experienced. And it was violence.
What followed was just a lasting reminder that the ways in which we conceptualize women-to-women relations and how we understand women as agents of violence (take for instance women in conflict), is pretty patriarchal and gendered itself. Everyday Feminism’s recent article “Another Woman Raped Me and Nobody Cared” speaks to this very issue.
As women, in many different societies, we are socialized to believe that the only real safe spaces that we can aspire to are women-only spaces, and that the only relationships where we can truly be free of harassment, is with women. This, in fact, is a very common notion in mosques and mainstream Muslim spaces. The assumption, though, is that these are safe spaces and relationships not because we have worked to make them so, but because women are unable to perpetuate violence and, even if they tried — being the little weak things that they are — any woman would be able to stop it.
Well, it does not work that way. Women are just as capable of perpetuating violence regardless of their sexual orientation, their background, their class, their religion, etc. Violence is not inherently a male trait, and it should not be a gendered attribute, a matter for celebration or the all too common boys-will-be-boys attitude. Violence is a type of behaviour. Attributing violence as a male-trait is not only a disservice to those who are survivors of intimate heterosexual violence, to the way we conceptualize masculinities and to the various efforts that feminists and activist have engaged in to challenge masculinities, but also to women of different identities. In gendered social discourses, such as those deeming women weak and nurturing, women are essentialized. So how are we to tackle woman-to-woman violence if we think that they are incapable of it?
In my case, it took me so long to find someone within my university’s student services that would not minimize my experience just because the person stalking me was a woman. I was eventually able to present academic charges against her, and she was not allowed anywhere near the places where I was supposed to attend class or work. But the attitudes of, “it is only a girl,” “you can handle it,” “just talk to her” or “wow, let’s have a threesome!” were just too common.
There is very little discussion about woman-to-woman violence, let alone how to create spaces that prevent and act upon abuse and violence when women are perpetrators. Oftentimes as women, particularly heterosexual women, we believe the “gendered lie” that other women cannot hurt us. We think that hurt and abuse exclusively belongs to relations with- and comes from- heterosexual men.
One of the things that I experienced was a kind of “feminist guilt.” Having been involved in different feminist activist circles, I believed the very twisted logic that women, my “sisters in the struggle,” were not capable of violence because men hold a monopoly over abuse. And while it is incredibly important to acknowledge that most of the violence against women is perpetrated by men, we need to come to terms with the fact that women-to-women violence being overlooked does not deny its existence. In fact, the lack of acknowledgement is an extension of patriarchal norms, so to portray women without agency, weak and powerless.
On the flip side, it is important to note that some women perpetuating violence do not always know that they are doing it, something that some male abusers have identified. And while that by no means exempts them from accountability, it does offer perspective. While I was going through the process of pressing charges against this girl, the counselor told me that she did not understand that what she was doing was abuse. Apparently one of the things this girl argued is that she often saw guys in residence do the same with their peers, and everyone was “cool” with it. This did make me realize that violence against women has become so normalized that it has become more difficult to recognize, especially when it comes to women-to-women situations.
Such an experience definitely made me question my own assumptions about violence and the ways in which patriarchy conceals different types of violence that women experience, including woman-to-woman abuse. Even more, it made me realize that no space is safe just because it has only women or only men or only LGBTQ folks. Instead, making spaces safe entails an active and very deliberate effort to implement preventive measures, to call out abuse and to make abusers accountable, something that, in my experience, has yet to happen in many activist circles and Muslim communities.