Shame and sexual harassment

Sexual Harassment: Moving from shame to action or how to make the personal political.

Professor Heidi Safia Mirza

Goldsmiths, University of London

The feminist mantra we love and know so well is the ‘personal is political’, but how do everyday painful personal experiences of sexual harassment become political? How do our experiences become the ‘thing’ that moves institutional structures and thinking forward? What must we do to make that happen- to turn our agency into the structure? How do we really make the personal political?

Individual experiences of sexual harassment are rarely allowed to do their work except through the courage of the few who stand up and make a difference – those pioneers who sacrifice their careers and reputations and lives challenging the institutional systems. This spring I visited University of California, Berkeley. I was moved to see young women frustrated and let down by their institutions standing up against sexual harassment at a candle light vigil on a dusky evening. Dwarfed by the grand pillared portico of their male hallowed halls of learning, they courageously named the rapists and harassers who they knew and reported, yet no authorities had taken action. I felt so proud of a generation of students who are willing to stake a claim at the table of sexual justice.


Making a stand

There are many historical precedents of women who courageously stand up to sexual harassment. It is a messy, tangled, gendered, classed and raced business. African-American feminists Kimberle Crenshaw (1993) and Patricia Hill Collins (1998) write about the case of Professor Anita Hill, who in 1991 broke the taboo of silence about the sexual harassment in the African-American community by calling out Clarence Thomas, the black Republican Supreme Court judge candidate who openly sexually harassed her and others.

In the horrors and injustices that unfolded in the hearings Anita Hill’s ‘race’ was trumped by her sex. She suffered what Crenshaw calls intersectional disempowerment. She fell between the polarization of black men on one hand and white women on the other, invisible in the separate rhetorical sexual spaces of antiracism and feminism.

There were no narrative tropes, no stories of black women as victim of simultaneous racial and sexual discrimination that enabled her to gain a fair hearing. She was seen as a black middleclass ‘lady overachiever’, out of place in a world of black ‘welfare queens’, who was willing to trade her ‘honour’ for her career. She was also characterised as a ‘traitor-to-the race’, vilified for using her sexuality to undermine the black community by entrapping a black brother. Thomas conjured up the racist guilt of the white establishment in his defence, provocatively accusing them of a ‘high tech lynching’. Constructing himself as the victim of a racist attack, he successfully deflected his actions as a sexual predator.

Anita Hill paid a high price for her courage, which left her the looser in the ultimate game of patriarchal power and male solidarity. Clarence Thomas backed by his white Republican brothers won the case and secured his position. Is what happens to you when you take a stand?

A certain private information

Felly Simmonds (1997) the black British feminist writer tells us that for black women and for women of colour it is impossible to escape the body when living and working inside the ‘teaching machine’. Visible difference written on the body means we are drawn into sharing our own ‘very private information’ to make a point. Black women can’t afford the luxury enjoyed by white male theorists who need not admit their unmarked bodies into theory. They have the privilege to opt for ‘silence’ about their own private information. Black women, on the other hand, and those who are marked by their disability or sexuality live in and with the body. Those who are trans, intersex, queer, gay and lesbian are also compelled to share a certain degree of private information just so they can be seen and heard and become legitimate. But in so doing the visible become exposed, vulnerable and open to individual scrutiny and judgment.

In my 30 years in academia, as a student but also as faculty I have witnessed and been subjected to endemic and sustained sexual harassment in higher education. There’s not an institution or time when I have not seen it. It oozes out of every lecture hall, lab, classroom, tutorial, eatery and office. It has different forms in different times, but I think the more times change the more they stay the same.

In the 70s our male lecturers (and they were all male!) had cushions on the floor and would invite you to ‘lay lady lay’ (a la Bob Dylan) ….with an accompanying spliff and the promises of the benefits of being in the in-crowd! As a young woman, the normalcy of your non-personhood meant you were no more than a tasty piece of meat- sampled and discarded.

It was in the 80s that I first noticed casual grooming. Collectivities of men, lecturers, professors even, flocking around the photocopier laughing as they discussed the latest intake of female undergraduates- the next piece of ripe ‘juicy ass’ and who and how they would seduce them. This was a Lad’s game in which young women’s bodies were being bought and sold for marks and favours. The sense of male entitlement and objectification of women as ‘sport’ was complete. I had letters sent to me about squeezing my tits with offers of condoms. I was stalked at conferences, followed home, attacked in cars, locked in rooms, and thrown up against walls in elevators- all for the sake of a disgusting, pathetic grope. If I rejected advances I was told I was nothing, nobody, and would be ousted as the academic fraud I am. I tried to tell, but no one listened.

By the 1990s I came up against more organised grooming. These were men in ‘packs’ with ring leaders operating in departments with trained ‘gofers’ who were sent out hunting to bring back female prey, many of whom were SE Asian, mixed race and white working class female students who were seen as particularly sexually available.

In 2000 these packs morphed into more sophisticated ‘harems’ that complimented the desperate needs of neoliberal performance in higher education. Smart female students or early career researchers were seduced into giving up their intellectual labour in return for ‘love’, to serve male (and sometimes female) academics in fear of their unproductive failing careers. Louise Morley’s (2010) study of gender mainstreaming in universities in Tanzania and Ghana shows how rumours of sexual exchange undermine and denigrate women’s achievements. When women gain access to male spaces, the soothing belief among men is, ‘of course it is only because of their ‘prostitution’ that women get in and do well!’ In a self-fulfilling prophecy they re-confirm to themselves that women are still not yet ready to occupy an equal place in higher education. When it comes to looking at our patriarchal practices suddenly Africa does not seem that far away!

Now, in 2015 I notice more and more courageous women are fighting back. In the war of post-feminist attrition they are picked off as mentally ill, needy, serial complainers and mischief makers, punished with failed degrees, careers in ruins and palmed off with therapy. The fate of the perpetrators? No more than a slap in the wrist, unpaid leave, early retirement often with a handsome payoff. Burying the human evidence appears to be the HE sectors institutional strategy. The reputational profile or ‘honour’ of the university is the ultimate currency in market driven higher education. But what a price we pay!

Shame and silence

I like to think of myself as a survivor, but unlike my brave sisters who have outed their perpetrators I find my experiences so painful that they live deep in my soul…in a place of shame. I nearly didn’t come to speak today, but Sara (Ahmed) agreed to hold my hand (under the table) and that is what a feminist place of safety is about –a place of growth and nurture and encouragement. So now I can begin to exhale, with you all here, and say that it is by unlocking the door of shame that we can begin to understand the ‘affect’ or emotions that sustains and feeds gendered sexual harassment. To do this I need to ask difficult questions like, ’how does shame become such a powerful silencer, a compatriot, a ‘bedfellow’ of institutional acts of gender domination and oppression?’ ‘Why do we engage in regimes of self-regulation that collaborate with systems of sexual power?’

My research on honour based violence in south Asian communities shows how honour and its mirror image, shame, is fundamental to the survival of oppressive patriarchal regimes (Meetoo and Mirza 2007). We like to think that honour based ideologies belong ‘out there’ to other cultures: ‘hot blooded’, vengeful Mediterranean or Latinos, or in these Islamophobic times, ‘barbaric’ Muslims who must cover or avenge their women’s ‘honour’. We say, comforting ourselves, ‘Surely honour is not part of our western liberal democratic societies where women have freedom, agency and choice?’ But sexual harassment and violence cuts across all cultures and predicates itself on the insidious dyad of ‘honour and shame’. The shame of being vulnerable, shame of being a victim, of being different, the shame of your sex, the shame of rejection, of not being loved – of not belonging.

Sara Ahmed (2005) explains that the ‘bad feelings’ shame brings is attributed to oneself rather than the object or other who is the cause of the ‘bad feeling’. So when you feel you have failed (to achieve your ideal, where honour elusively resides), you experience shame as hurt and anger which you turn inward to the self. Elspeth Proybyn (2010) says shame makes you sick. Writing about shame is painful, it involves exposure of the intimacies of the self in public, it gets into your body, it makes you sick and I have been very sick – please don’t let sexual harassment make you sick!

By invoking shame to get to the root of the reproduction of sexual harassment I am not sanctioning or celebrating victimhood, but rather asking us to rethink the power of the self and ‘affect’ in understanding the emotional cement that keeps the ‘Walls’ (Ahmed 2012) of everyday gender power relations sedimented and in place.


Surviving and moving forward

I began by asking how we make everyday painful personal experiences of sexual harassment – these incursions into our very being – political and outward looking. How do we make that happen? How do we move monolithic structures and thinking to make a more accepting womanist world – a place we can all be safe, normal, respected and loved for who we are?

Sara Ahmed (2012) has invoked her ‘slim shady’, alter ego, the ‘feminist kill-joy’, as the one who must remain ‘sore’ and ‘angry’ and refuse to be appropriated as the ‘happy object’ of diversity and equality in our institutions. After 30 years of witnessing entrenched institutionalised sexual harassment, I can say we collectively (not individually) must share our shame with our institutions. Shame them just as we are shamed by them. In neoliberal times universities are concerned with their honour, with their reputational gain. But how can they be proud if we are not safe under their keep? Individual shame can become collective acts of anger and outrage if we talk, meet and share our ‘sore’ and hurt souls to political effect. This is how we make the personal political and move from shame to action! I thank you for asking me to speak and for giving me the opportunity to make my shame my honour.

Heidi Safia Mirza, Professor of Race Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Transcript of talk given at the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) Conference at Goldsmith College 2 December 2015.



Ahmed, Sara., (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberle.(1993) ‘Whose Story is it anyway? Feminist and antiracist approapriations of Anita Hill’, in Morrison, Toni (ed) Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill Clarence Thomas and the Social Construction of Reality, London: Chatto & Windus

Hill Collins, Patricia (1998) Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Probyn, Elspeth. (2005) Blush: Faces of Shame. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Meetoo, Veena, and Mirza, Heidi Safia. (2007) “There is nothing ‘honourable’ about honour killings”: Gender, violence and the limits of multiculturalism Women’s Studies International Forum. 30, 187–200

Morley, Louise. (2010) ‘Gender mainstreaming: myths and measurement in higher education in Ghana and Tanzania’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 40: 4, 533 — 550