I write this for my daughter, my sisters and mother, for myself, for the women I know, those I have not known, and those I have yet to know.
In the light of recent events surrounding a public ’fight’ between Feminists of Maastricht (FOM) and Maastricht University (UM), I’ve decided to say a thing or two about this, because I am disappointed (as are many).
The first news I received about FOM’s outcry was from a colleague that was shocked about the serious accusations they made. In a series of Instagram posts and later a protest in front of the UM Board building, FOM voiced their anger and disappointment at how UM had handled a sexual assault incident by accusing the university of not adequately supporting victims of assault and “teaching rape culture”.
Many were shocked by the ‘aggressive’ and ‘ineffective’ activism of FOM, including the anger they were sharing with the public. Some suggested open discussion is more effective than screaming from the rooftops.
In response, the Executive Board send an open letter to the whole university refuting the claims made by FOM, stating that there is nothing they can do, that sexual harassment is bigger than them, and that they have no judicial or legal power to “fix this”.
That’s where my disappointment begins.
Need to shock
What is activism? According to the dictionary, activism is ‘a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue’. When it comes to systemic problems that run deep in our society, I don’t believe being ‘open for discussion’ is enough, it is not always effective. I want to emphasize the need for ‘direct vigorous action’, because such problems require a certain urgency that bureaucratic institutions don’t feel.
The Black Lives Matter movement was necessary. Climate change activists throwing soup on paintings is not ideal and can even be considered destructive, but they are important. Because they are raising awareness in a way that shocks you, yes, but sometimes we need to be shook to make a change.
I believe the FOM movement has a point. A very good one too. Yes, their communication strategies are not what institutions like UM opt for, but what they are asking for is completely normal. The gaps they are highlighting are worrying, and it’s necessary to ‘shake up’ those in power positions and add urgency to the matter. That's what activism is, adding urgency.
Threatening is not the way to go, I agree, but nor is ridding yourself of your responsibility as a university to create a safe learning and working environment for your students and employees. Has UM stopped for one minute to reflect and asked themselves, why is FOM doing what they are doing?
Instead of reacting to these activists and being defensive, as the Executive Board did in its letter, maybe this was an opportunity for us to stop and LISTEN. We should ask ourselves “Why are these activists shouting?” “Are we really listening?” “Are we being proactive and transparent enough?”
If an institution as big as UM points the finger away from itself, then what kind of message are we sending the victims? Or even worse, the aggressors?!
Then there is my second point. In her book Down Girl: The logic of misogyny, feminist philosopher Kate Manne explains a term that was unfamiliar to me at first but which resonated with me a lot: Himpathy. Himpathy is defined as “inappropriate sympathy given to men or boys, especially those who are guilty of sexual transgressions”.
I wonder, if this whole situation was about a racist comment made by a student to another, whether UM would have also said “it's not in our hands” “racism is everywhere” “we are not the first to stop it”. I don’t think so. Which makes me suggest that this is just another case of himpathy.
Creating a central point to vent your concerns and complaints is great, but it is not women that should be taught to speak up and file reports.
No woman should feel the need to explain to strangers why her case of sexual assault is serious and requires attention, only to be told there is nothing that can be done to help her or that there is insufficient legal proof. We are so invested in educating women and girls on when and how to speak up, when we should be educating our boys and men on what is an assault and best practices to abstain from committing it. Enough himpathy.
Katherine Bassil, PhD student at the School for Mental Health and Neuroscience (MHeNs)