Author: Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Brandeis University, United States. Her work focuses on religion, language, and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Her research also explores the emergence of digital and robotic religious practices throughout South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora and virtual community-building between India, Tibet and Nepal in a time of globalization and great social upheaval. Holly is also involved in the MeToo Anthropology movement, and you can find an earlier version of this blog here.
This isn’t an account of a young anthropologist’s first excursions onto a new and exciting fieldsite. Instead it’s the kind of account we don’t talk about when swapping fieldwork stories.
I was sexually assaulted in the field.
I arrived in Nepal for the first time in the spring of 2015. It wasn’t my first extensive bit of anthropological fieldwork. I had been in the field before, in Belize in 2005 and in India in 2012. But as these things go, my first trip to Nepal was quickly followed by a second for more than a year of long-term fieldwork.
The temple site where my work is focused lies at nearly 4000 meters in the high Himalayas of Nepal; situated some several kilometers north of the Annapurna massif near the Tibetan border and as you might imagine, it takes a great deal of time and travel to get there. I had stopped in a town called Pokhara just 180km from my destination. As is typical of this kind of travel, I took a room at a local guesthouse where I could eat, rest, and begin again early the next morning. It was something I had done many times before. Guesthouses in Nepal are typically family-owned affairs and, though austere, are always welcoming with a hot meal and warm bed.
Late that night, after I had gone to sleep, I was unexpectedly awoken by a half-naked man (a friend of one of the guesthouse owner’s sons I would later learn) climbing through my outside window. He had broken the inner latch, and it was the sound of the wood scraping against the sill as he forced the window panel that alerted me to his presence. I instinctively went for the door but there wasn’t enough time. He grabbed ahold of me and tackled me to the floor before I could fully turn around or reach the latch.
I’ll spare you the worst of it but I will tell you that, some agonizing moments later, I was able to reach my field knife while he was momentarily distracted. With it, I finally fought him off. Even then, though I had injured him, he quickly came back; trying to batter the knife out of my hand and screaming at me to shut up. Thankfully, my yelling had already awoken the rest of the guesthouse and as he attempted to flee back out the window he was caught by the owners of the house. The entire ordeal probably lasted no more than a few minutes but it changed a great many things afterwards.
The aftermath: staying quiet and feeling alone
The man was sent to the Nepali police. I left the next morning and went on to my fieldsite as planned. It wasn’t that I was in denial or trying to pretend it had never occurred (though I can completely understand the want to do so). In my case, it was more that I was running up against two problems I was unsure how to address.
The first problem was that, as a graduate student working alone in a foreign country, I didn’t think there was anything anyone back home could do. So, what would be the point of calling home? I could have contacted my advisors, and I knew that they would have been as supportive as they possibly could be, but that would do little for me beyond emotional solidarity. If I am being completely honest, I am sure that, deep down, I simply figured I was on my own.
It was up to me to just deal with it as best I could and carry on with the project.
The second problem was that, if I did call someone at my university, I was immediately concerned about the work I was there to do and the fieldsite that I had fought so hard to get access to. Would they force me to come home? Would I lose my grant? Would I lose all the data and contacts I might gain during the coming months? Would my trajectory towards my degree be set back somehow? Would I face a stigma that might lose me opportunities in the future because I was now *that* student? And then I realized, even if I wanted to report it, I hadn’t the slightest idea who I would call? Where would I start?
Returning home and speaking up
I didn’t tell anyone about my assault until after I had returned home. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to me to mention it to anyone at my university at all until I was taking a TA course the following fall designed to help combat sexual assault on campus. They spoke a great deal about what to do in the case that a student might report an assault to me.
I felt, in that moment, compelled to finally ask the question I still didn’t have the answer to. What if that student is me? But even more so, what if it wasn’t on campus? Or, for that matter, anywhere remotely near campus?
I was referred to the Rape Crisis Centre. Their help, support, and understanding was invaluable. They gave me the option to report under Title IX (a United States education amendment that protects student access and resources on the basis of gender), even though we both acknowledged that there could be little in the way of follow-up. My attack had happened in a foreign country, at the hands of a foreign national, and I wasn’t part of a university or government-led program that might have intervened in some way. In other words, there didn’t seem to be any rules to fix!
It was precisely this lack that spurred me into action. I needed to advocate for myself but even more so, I knew I also needed to advocate for the rest of us. I knew I wasn’t the only fieldworker to have experienced assault far from home and I wasn’t going to be the last. I spoke at length with the Rape Crisis Centre, started researching other university plans for student safety abroad, a new task force was formed, and new plans started. The project has since blossomed.
Last year, I joined MeToo Anthropology; a collective of anthropologists and graduate students in Australia, the UK, and the US now working diligently to craft policy statements, raise awareness, and publish open access training materials for students and faculty everywhere. We are excited to announce the recent publication of our first set of seminar guides for university faculty, administrators, and graduate students to use in their home universities and field schools.
Everything is available for download at www.metooanthro.org. If you are interested in contributing, be on the look out for our upcoming Call for Proposals for a planned edited volume on Anthropology in the MeToo Era.
This is by no means meant to scare anyone off of fieldwork. In all likelihood, sexual assault will not happen to you during fieldwork. I also do not mean to imply in any way that my work in Nepal hasn’t been awesome and profound. For me, this is but one story in a much longer, richer, and more encompassing experience that isn’t defined by a single, if terrifying, moment. Though I acknowledge, it could have been.
I will just advise here that, before you go off to fieldwork, have a plan. Even if you don’t end up following it in the moment. And remember, there are people who can help you. There are people waiting to help you. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a long journey home.
[Image by Julia Brown]