Tribalism and Power in the Sanctioning of Sexual Harassment at a Jordan University

Robbin Headshot

by Zoe H. Robbin 19C, Quantitative Sciences and Arabic
Fox Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

Since I began studying Arabic at Emory, I have been interested in the role of women across cultures and social classes. In the summer of 2018, I received a scholarship from the Emory Global Health Institute to intern at the Information and Research Center of the King Hussein Foundation in Amman, Jordan. With an international research team from the Rollins School of Public Health and the King Hussein Foundation, I helped to develop a primarily prevention intervention for sexual harassment at a Jordanian university. I was immediately fascinated by the impact of sanctions on harassing behavior, and sought to explore the social structures that legitimize and reinforce sanctioning power. This research question has served as the foundation for my senior thesis, in which I have examined how tribal affiliation mediates power in the sanctioning of sexual harassment.

Although there is widespread recognition of the barriers many women encounter during informal help-seeking and institutional reporting of sexual harassment, there is a lack of research discussing the specific bases of organizational power that enable harassment. My thesis attempts to address this gap in literature by focusing on institutional responses to sexual harassment at a Jordanian university. Specifically, my study focuses on the mechanisms through which tribal affiliation mediates the sanctioning of sexual harassment on campus. To answer these research questions, this study applies French and Raven’s model of the Bases of Social Power to the results of six focus group discussions with students at a Jordanian university. French and Raven’s model of social power enables a comparative analysis of the impacts of tribal power and institutional sanctioning on harassing behavior. The results of these discussions provide evidence that harassers rely on coercive and legitimate bases of power, while potential targets may rely exclusively on coercive power. Tribal power was also mediated between genders, suggesting gender also functions as a legitimate base of social power. Based on these results, I provide a recommendation for policymakers and institutional architects to increase protections for sexual harassment survivors during the reporting and sanctioning process. Because the negative implications of help-seeking are often social, this may center around the provision of platforms and safe spaces for student activists to organize and train together. I hope my analysis of organizational power will benefit policymakers across the globe as they seek to cultivate institutional climates that are intolerant to gender inequity.

The Fox Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellowship has been instrumental in my thesis project. Attending the weekly events and presenting my research to the many prolific scholars at the center has enabled me to expand my analysis. As I continue to examine the treatment of women across different societies, I am grateful for the foundation provided by the Fox Center.

Zoe Robbin is a senior in Emory College pursuing a double major in Quantitative Sciences and Arabic Studies. Zoe’s thesis in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies analyzes the impact of tribal affiliation on the sanctioning of sexual harassment at a Jordanian university. Her project builds off of her experience interning for the King Hussein Foundation as a Global Health Field Scholar at the Emory Global Health Institute. As institutional architects strive to develop policies that ensure equity, Zoe’s thesis provides a framework for analyzing and addressing power imbalances within organizations.

Silence, Voice, and Hegemony: The Advocacy Potential of Scholarship Beyond the Canon

Verghese Headshot
by  Namrata Verghese 19C, Psychology/Linguistics and English/Creative Writing
Fox Center Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

On October 14, 2017, the hashtag #MeToo appeared for the first time on Twitter, following actress Alyssa Milano’s now-iconic tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, reply #MeToo to this tweet.” Within 24 hours of her post, the words had been tweeted close to half a million times—a record-shattering level of engagement for the social media platform.

The hashtag, rooted in a demonstration of solidarity among survivors of sexual assault, spoke to the both the staggering prevalence of sexual violence, as well as the stigma shrouding the disclosure of these experiences. While not a call-to-action in itself, in its unmasking of the colossal, previously unspeakable scale of sexual violence, #MeToo became revolutionary in its own right. It led to several other social media movements (#TimesUp, #WhyIDidntReport, #BelieveWomen), which cumulatively translated to actionable change: over the next year, more than 200 prominent figures, from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, were denounced (and many arrested) for sexual violence. In recognition, TIME magazine honored the originators of the hashtag—dubbed the “Silence Breakers”—as their 2017 “Person of the Year.

In the wake of #MeToo, accounts of sexual violence are more abundant and less stigmatized than ever before. The seeds of my honors project came from this movement, and my desire to critically examine stories too long ignored, too easily silenced—fundamentally, to examine the personal and political power of trauma narratives in revamping our cultural consciousness. After all, as quintessential storytellers, humans are naturally predisposed to process, produce, and be persuaded by narratives; hence, the story has unique power in informing our subjective realities. In fact, narrative psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner argues that stories do not merely shape our realities, but become our realities: we are, collectively, the stories we consume and produce.

However, as I began my research in earnest, I saw that, for all the value in the #MeToo movement, it becomes necessary to note its significant homogeneity: it elevates the voices of white, cisgender, heterosexual women, at the expense of all others. For example, when Black actress Lupita Nyong’o published her #MeToo story, she was publicly denounced as a liar, a ladder-climber. “Not only is there a sense that we’re excluded from the narrative, but even when prominent members of our community are in the narrative, we’re the ones whose stories are pushed back upon,” Nyong’o lamented in a subsequent interview. “We’re the ones who are lying.”

This gap in the cultural narrative perpetuates hegemonic structures of power by actively silencing those voices that deviate from the experiences of white women. It bears sinister implications for the ways in which we conceptualize and tackle the issue of sexual assault, from treatment to intervention to outreach to simple empathy. It also motivated my project, which homes in on the specific and severely understudied traumas of women of color. After immersing myself in this research for the better part of a year, I understand on a visceral level that intersectionality—the compounded effects of overlapping marginalizations—should lie at the moral core of all nuanced scholarship. The concrete, immediate aim of my project, then, was to create a platform to hear the too often silenced narratives of sexual violence from women of color, and to consider how these stories contribute to the master narratives in the #MeToo era. However, on a broader scale, I hope my thesis contributes towards an enduring legacy that moves the needle of scholarship towards elevating the stories of marginalized, understudied communities.

Moving forward, as I wrap up this paper and think towards my work as a graduate student, I aim to never forget that scholarship is necessarily and inexorably intertwined with advocacy; in fact, scholarship is advocacy. In the project of knowledge production, scholarship that does not actively subvert structures of power serves only to perpetuate them, as, to echo postcolonial scholar Edward Said, for every page published, “there is a social fact being requisitioned, a human life engaged, a class suppressed or elevated.” To that end, it has been an immense honor and privilege to learn from the other undergraduate Fox Fellows this year, who are all brilliant scholars, but perhaps more importantly, are all caring, curious, engaged individuals. Every FCHI event I have attended has buttressed my belief in scholarship as service. After all, in the luminous words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Namrata Verghese is a senior in Emory College, pursuing a double major in Psychology/Linguistics and English/Creative Writing. Her honors thesis, housed in psychology but necessarily interdisciplinary, examines narratives of sexual violence and trauma. Specifically, it centers the stories of women of color in an attempt to elevate the voices missing from our cultural conversations around sexual assault, in the wake of #MeToo and other contemporary movements. The project considers both autobiographical narratives collected through the Fivush Family Narratives Lab and literary memoirs. By placing the two traditionally disparate corpora in conversation with each other, Namrata hopes to investigate whether, together, they will yield enriched understanding of experiences of sexual violence, particularly in regards to marginalized communities. 

“Becoming American: A Historical Parallel between Chinese Immigrants and African Americans, 1868-1904”

Yi photo

by Yi Xie 19C, History and English
Fox Center Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

Race, ethnicity, and immigration in American history have always fascinated me since I arrived in this country, so I write my thesis on the shaping of a white republic in the second half of the nineteenth century and the race relation between Chinese immigrants and African Americans during this significant historical period.

The major historical legislation of the nineteenth century reflected anti-Chinese agitation and resulted in the limited inclusion of African Americans and the complete exclusion of the Chinese. In Boston, California, and Washington, whites promulgated the principles of racial difference and discouraged cooperation among racial minorities for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy. Some whites juxtaposed the Chinese with African Americans and conflated their group identities as alien, barbaric, and unassimilable. Others emphasized the difference between the two groups, considering one more inferior than the other. Since the passage of the ineffective Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, whites increased the use and threats of violence to strengthen white superiority and non-white inferiority. Internalizing this idea of whiteness, Chinese and African Americans competed for inclusion into the American mainstream culture and body politic at the expense of the other. The Chinese struggled with their declining status and tried to elevate and stabilize their social standing as racially and culturally superior. Some Chinese intellectuals and race leaders portrayed African Americans as uncivilized monsters with ancestry in African jungles. Some African Americans worked for their racial uplift by identifying against the Chinese— depicting “Chinamen” as “foreigners,” “interlopers,” and “invaders,” while others identified with the Chinese, pronouncing a brotherhood of man. An inclusive perspective for the study of the nineteenth-century racial dynamics that take into account inter-minority relations therefore is necessary. I investigate why and in which ways the “Chinese Question” and the “Negro Problem” were conflated and differentiated and analyze the dynamic and complexity of the relations between the two during the historical development of American whiteness.

The Fox Honors Fellowship provides me the time and space to discuss my research with my peers and senior scholars. I enjoyed every lunch meeting I participated at the Fox Center. Listening to post-doctoral fellows and senior scholars’ research projects help me to reflect on my own research and inspire me to further improve my research and presentation skills.

Yi Xie is a senior double majoring in History and English. She is currently working on her honor thesis, “Becoming American in a Multiracial Context: Chinese ‘Sojourners’ and African Americans’ Battle for Inclusion in a White Republic, 1868-1904.” This research aims to develop a clear understanding of the racial dynamics of the second half of the nineteenth century by studying the “Chinese Question,” the “Negro Problem,” and the relations between the two from the perspectives of abolitionists, Caucasian immigrants, African Americans, and the Chinese. She investigates why and how the “Chinese Question” and the “Negro Problem” were conflated and differentiated, and how dynamic and complex were the relations between the two. She also conducts a comparative study of anti-black and anti-Chinese violence on the West Coast. She has visited archives in Northampton, MA and will conduct more archival research in Seattle, WA.