Why Reporting Isn’t Sufficient: Islamophobia and Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

By Christine Simonian Bean, Sara Armstrong, Eamann Al-Azem

people looking to the front of a room
Photo by Lisa Tune

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Understanding Sexual Harassment Through an Anti-Racist Lens

Raziyah sits across from her therapist, describing a weekend walk across campus. Suddenly a group of students burst out of a building, running from what they believe is an active shooter. Raziyah, caught in the panic, starts sprinting as well. Later she learns this was a false alarm: balloons popped unexpectedly in a nearby building. The event is downplayed on social media and in hallway conversations with colleagues, but it causes a significant challenge for Raziyah. She can’t detach the terror she experienced in the false alarm from her horror watching the news of the very real Christchurch mosque shootings that occurred just days before. “The fear,” she says, “didn’t just go away.” She touches her shoulders. “It’s still sitting right here.”

Raziyah’s therapeutic exchange is an excerpt from a performed case study in the University of Michigan’s “Creating Climates Resistant to Sexual Harassment: A Toolkit for Academic Leaders” training. The authors of this essay designed the learning opportunity at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s Theatre Program. The training supports academic leaders in better understanding the problem of sexual harassment, and foregrounds leaders’ responsibilities to cultivate professional and educational climates resistant to it. But why is Raziyah’s meditation on an active shooter scare and a racist, Islamophobic hate crime included in a sexual harassment training? On the surface, this inclusion may seem like evidence of an unfocused learning experience. In reality, it is an intentional design choice. Raziyah puts the experience of individuals who hold multiple marginalized identities front and center, compelling leaders to reckon with the insufficiency of institutional reporting mechanisms to address complex, intersectional acts of harm.

Raziyah, a Muslim woman faculty member of Arab descent, does not share a neat narrative. Her story is not aligned with popular depictions of sexual harassment: ones that picture a single harasser targeting a woman for sex. Instead, she describes a wide array of harmful behaviors. She tells stories from her and her students’ perspectives that include professional slights, racial profiling, gender harassment, exoticization, xenophobia, and unwanted sexual attention. These problematic behaviors occur across time and space, echoing both the research synthesized in the NASEM Consensus Study Report on the Sexual Harassment of Women and the way the Muslim women of color interviewed for this project described their own experiences. They do not experience sexual harassment as isolated events set against an otherwise supportive, affirming environment. Rather, these women encounter harassment as part of a pattern that signals they are unwelcome in the spaces they inhabit: a classroom, a faculty meeting, the campus, the academy, the United States.

The accumulated weight of this multi-sited targeting is significant. It is quite literally traumatizing. For Raziyah, it creates a state of hypervigilance. She comments, “I’m exhausted. I’m just so tired […] of waiting for the next terrifying news story; the next bit of ignorance lobbed my way. There’s this […] part of me that knows that something bad is always coming. Even when I’m happy. Even when everything is fine.” With no safe space in her professional sphere to retreat to, she is bordering on burnout. In 2021, the Chronicle of Higher Education released a report titled Burned Out and Overburdened: How to Support the Faculty that speaks to this issue directly: while experiences of burnout are increasing across faculty, they disproportionately affect women and people of color who are taxed in more and different ways. It is unclear how long Raziyah will stay in a place that continues to devalue and demean her and her communities.

Raziyah’s case study comes about halfway through the leadership course–after participants have explored social science definitions of sexual harassment and viewed another theatrical case study more commonly understood to be “traditional” sexual harassment. Raziyah, then, sets up an important paradigm shift. After engaging with this case study, facilitators ask participants two questions: 1) Is the institutional reporting process sufficient to address the concerns Raziyah has shared? 2) What is at stake in maintaining a status quo where leaders’ only responsibility to addressing sexual harassment is fulfilling their mandated reporter role? For most attendees, the response to the first question is a definitive no. The response to the second rarely requires imagination–participants need only point to the reality of the current circumstances. Universities will continue to struggle to attract and retain faculty who hold minoritized identities. As such, only some students will see themselves represented at the front of classrooms and receive the mentorship necessary to sustain work in their disciplines, foreclosing possibilities. As a research enterprise, the academy will continue to deprive itself of the diverse workforce necessary to make progress on the world’s biggest problems.

If leaders agree that sexual harassment harms individuals and communities in a diffuse manner in conjunction with other forms of harassment, and if they agree that institutional reporting is not a cure-all, then they must acknowledge that relying on a solution that does not work means that they are choosing to allow harm and inequity to continue. That logic flow positions participants to make a shift away from nebulous institutional responsibility toward active communal responsibility where everyone has a part to play in changing (or maintaining) the current status quo. And if leaders understand sexual harassment as an intersectional problem, that also means they are responsible for disrupting racial harassment, religious discrimination, transphobia, and other harms. The problem of sexual harassment is not simply finding a handful of “bad apples” and rooting them out of the institution. The problem is a system of micro and macro communities that does not proactively, explicitly, and collectively cultivate climates that resist harassment in all forms. Knowing this, a leader who refuses to step into the responsibility of shifting climate must accept that they are refusing to center those who are most harmed by the current status quo. Even if they do not directly engage in sexually harassing behaviors, even if they report all instances of sexual harassment disclosed to them, they are contributing to the problem instead of alleviating it. This knowledge well-positions the leaders to participate in the last half of the training: an extended team brainstorming session on how they can intentionally shift organizational climate in their units.

At the end of Raziyah’s performed case study, she says, “Unless people actually admit that this is… not okay and actually do something, change something, it is going to get worse.” For leaders, now primed to consider their personal and communal responsibility, this becomes a call to live out both an anti-sexual harassment and anti-racist principle: these inequities exist and they must do something about it. To echo a construction by the educator Dwayne Reed, intersectional harassment is not a problem that majoritized individuals need to empathize with, but a problem majoritized individuals need to solve, while keeping those most at risk of harm at the center of their efforts.

Christine Simonian Bean is the Assistant Director of the CRLT Theatre Program at the University of Michigan and blends applied theatre, educational development, and equity-focused institutional practice. Prior to working at U-M, she was an Assistant Director for Faculty Programs and Services at Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2016.

Sara Armstrong is the Director of the CRLT Theatre Program at the University of Michigan and leads the CRLT Players, an applied theatre company, in developing learning opportunities through which members of higher education communities can enhance their capacity to cultivate equitable working and learning environments. She earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2013.

Eamann Al-Azem is a lover of learning, teaching, theater, spirituality and culture. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Master’s in Drama/Theater for the Young, both from Eastern Michigan University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan. She hopes to bring all her intersecting identities, including being a Muslim, Arab, wife and mother of three boys, into her future therapy practice in order to advocate for mental health awareness and support minority individuals and families to grow stronger.

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