Students with a history of honour-based violence deserve support and recognition

Students often overcome traumatic experiences to sit in our classrooms, and we must support them to find new opportunities, says Ayesha Ahmad

February 14, 2020
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In a recent class for my ethics and law in global health course, I was lecturing about activism. I played my students the TED talk “Politics of Fiction”, in which the Turkish writer and feminist Elif Shafak explains her own life journey, the narrative that is imposed on her as a woman of Muslim origin and the stories of other women whom she fights to rescue from being silenced.

The lecture had begun with an overview of my experience working on gender-based violence in conflict settings and my own challenges to guide and develop discourses in mental health that spoke the language of suffering from different contexts.

When the TED talk finished, there was a heavy silence, the kind of silence that felt full of common experiences and sudden reflections that were trapped in a doubt about whether to share them or not.

At that point, I knew it was essential to take a moment to recognise that my students had their own stories that were worthy of a stage and an audience that would listen and learn from them.

With a full heart, I told my students that I imagined that just being in that classroom required many of them to break with their family status quo, cultural narratives and social expectations. I can still remember the head nods and hands tentatively raising in affirmation.

In a recent conversation, a senior colleague told me that during his career as an academic, not a single student had disclosed their being threatened with or actually experiencing honour-based violence.

This revelation shocked me because such disclosures have been a regular occurrence throughout my career, and I have been consistently frustrated by the lack of knowledge about how to adequately respond to students with these experiences.

The idea of female honour infiltrates all experiences, not only the events where it is magnified and ruptured through violence. Honour is also a concept that is not confined to a religion or an ethnicity, and thus we should find ways to understand that the students in our classrooms are alone in their commitment to walk a different path.

I’ve seen, for example, students who have been in forced marriages; have received death threats; have survived violence after being accused of being a witch or possessed by spirits; or have been ostracised and abandoned by their communities for being a victim who refused to be silenced feel isolated when they finally try to speak out.

The standard approach in higher education is to quantify and assess the risk of any harm to the student. Yet, the students embody this harm because they have already lived it. They stand before me and ask me how to write about their experiences in a way that will help others. In their work, they want to address the injustices and shortcomings that they have had to battle and overcome just to attend a university lecture.

As an academic, I have to somehow find a way to respond to their questions. I need to address why it is that out of a group of 30 students, over a quarter share my surname, “Ahmad”. I also hear confessions that they have taken my course in culture and mental health because they have been waiting all their lives to find a way to make sense of what they and their families have suffered.

I feel pressed to explain why they have had to wait until early adulthood for such an opportunity and also to be honest about my own limitations in helping them on this journey. I am torn between approaching my class with an objective academic mode of enquiry and a more personal reflective treatment that fulfils the compassionate pastoral support that they have never received or known to be possible.

In confidential meetings, I struggle to maintain composure when colleagues interpret notions of honour as benign because the family is presupposed to be a safe and unifying entity. I have to calmly explain that there is no justification in blood being spilled when honour is perceived to be severed.

I often wonder about the unrecognised terrain my students travel during their studies and how we, as academics, can learn to understand their stories better.

Providing pastoral support is merely one response. These are students who have had to break through ideologies, strict traditions and imposed identities. As their guides on this journey of intellectual awakening, they need us to create space for them to explore and carve out new understandings of the world.

We mustn’t ignore their disclosures, often the first time they’ve ever spoken about their experience, through detached procedural responses. Rather, we should be a witness to the magnificent step they’ve taken to be in our classrooms and we should show them the new opportunity they have to write their own narrative.

Ayesha Ahmad is a lecturer in global health at St George’s, University of London and co-investigator on the Medical Research Council/Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Storytelling for Health: Acknowledgement, Expression, and Recovery.

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Reader's comments (1)

The world at large is filled with “honor based violence “ ... that ‘honor’ being either the self proclaimed/ evinced attribute of one side or the other in the duel. Anti-orthodoxy or iconoclasm or swimming against the currents have always attracted ‘violence’ from the orthodox or the icon to the cultural or religious or political or intellectual maverick who wishes to break out of the mould or sometimes even break the mould. It is the constant risk run by a ‘renaissance’ rebelliousness ( any ) inside a majoritarian dictatorship ( any) the latter presenting and visciously protecting a rather sanctimonious platform where their so called honor has been traded and soldered unquestioningly to tradition or to majority mindset. the questioner whatever the form or scope ...,Galillean or neo Galilean... will be tried and or executed in a Pilate inquisitorial setting with as much possibility to escape intact or less intact or go under. An outlet for ‘exhale’ by those who are lucky enough to escape is good both for the victim and the larger world. Countercurrency will always be with us so long there is a currency. It is almost as if it is a Darwinian necessity for social evolution . The countercurrent must be prepared for the price whilst hoping for a prize . Basil jide fadipe.