By Holly Walters
I arrived in Nepal for the first time in the spring of 2015, but 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. However, this isn’t an account of a young anthropologist’s first excursions onto a new and exciting field site, it’s the kind of account academics don’t talk about when swapping fieldwork stories.
I was sexually assaulted in the field.
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 to get there. I had stopped in a town called Pokhara, just 180km from my destination and, 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. But 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. 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 pack 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 weapon 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 about me and about my work afterwards.
The man was sent to the Nepali police. I left the next morning and went on to my field site as planned. It wasn’t that I was in denial or trying to pretend nothing had 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 in the US could do. So, what would be the point of calling home? I could have contacted my advisors certainly 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. And 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 research I was there to do and the field site 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?
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 teaching assistant course the following fall designed to help combat sexual assault on campus. Our instructors spoke a great deal about what to do in the case that a student might report an assault to me and I felt, in that moment, compelled to finally ask the question that was still haunting me. What if that student is me? But even more so, what if it wasn’t on campus? Or, for that matter, anywhere remotely near a college?
I was referred to the Rape Crisis Center and their help, support, and understanding in that moment 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 or student to have experienced assault far from home and I wasn’t going to be the last. I spoke at length with the Rape Crisis Center, started researching other university plans for student safety abroad, a new taskforce was formed, and new plans started. It has only blossomed from there. A year later, I joined #MeToo Anthropology; a then recently-founded collective of anthropologists and graduate students in Australia, the UK, and the US now working diligently to craft policy statements, raise awareness, and publish training materials for students and faculty everywhere. In fact, we are excited to announce the recent Open Access 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 http://www.metooanthro.org. It was also time to take our stories public. In June, I spent time with The Fieldwork Initiative and even went on their podcast; not only detailing the steps that had led to the founding of #MeToo Anthropology but beginning our outreach to other activist organizations in light of continuing stories of sexual assault and marginalization in the academy in just the past year. Together, as a broader organization, we are now in the process of publishing a special journal issue on the intersections of sexual harassment/assault and racial marginalization within academia. It’s been an uphill battle, but our contributors and editors are all in and the issue, #MeToo Anthropology: Building a Discipline from an Age of Reckoning, will be coming out from Commoning Ethnography in December of 2021. As graduate students, early-career researchers, and junior scholars, we are deeply cognizant of the intersections of power we are currently facing, not just in gendered terms but in the work of Black Lives Matter and the legal advocacy spearheaded by LGBTQIA+ communities.
I was also incredibly honored to have published an essay on a similar subject in the inaugural issue of Feminist Anthropology. “The Things We Believe” was meant to highlight the creative fictions institutions often use to keep real change at a distance, while simultaneously wielding the language of social justice as a method of protecting the brand and the status quo. In the end, I may only be one voice, but I have become a part of a concert of voices; growing stronger by the day.
Finally, I want to say that none of this is meant to scare anyone off of fieldwork or academic study, or to imply in any way that my work in Nepal hasn’t been awe-inspiring and profound. Or that other people’s experiences won’t be equally amazing. In all likelihood, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to do great. For me, that day 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. So, no matter what you do, remember, there are people who can help you.
There are people waiting to help you.
This piece is about anthropology, academia, and activism in the #MeToo era; from my own experience of sexual assault in the field to the founding of The MeToo Anthro Collective. I talk here about how we came to be and what we’re doing now as we continue to tackle the ever-present scourge of racial and gendered injustice in higher education.