PhD student Lise Zurné compares the culture of the re-enactment of historical events in the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Indonesia. For her research, she carried out fieldwork in the four countries. “The people involved in these re-enactments are mostly men, so as a female researcher you occasionally hear sexist comments or jokes – which is annoying, but it’s okay.”
In 2019, however, she experienced more than sexist jokes while conducting fieldwork in Indonesia. Her contact person, someone who introduced her to sources and played a very important role in the research, began to harass her. He initially sent Zurné text messages and asked her out. When she refused, his behaviour escalated into threats and stalking. “He said he would stop helping me with my research if I did not go out with him,” says Zurné. “That made me feel very anxious and insecure.”
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Since she no longer felt safe, Zurné ended her research prematurely and left earlier from the field site. “I didn’t even say goodbye to the people who had helped me, because I was afraid he would be there too. It was only after I left that I let people know and thanked them,” she says. “He got very angry that I had left secretly, so he sent nasty messages about me to all the Whatsapp groups and people who had been in contact with me.”
What Zurné went through is not unusual. According to a survey of 666 female researchers, 70 percent have experienced sexually transgressive behaviour during fieldwork. “Even though this percentage is very high, we hardly ever hear about it,” Zurné says. “When people talk about transgressive behaviour in the academic world, they are often referring to what happens on campus and not so much to what you might experience in the field.”
Upon arriving back in the Netherlands, Zurné’s motivation had taken a severe blow. She felt anxious and depressed. “At the time, I didn’t know where it came from. I thought: what happened in Indonesia is a closed chapter, it’s over now. It took me a few months to realise how traumatic it had been.” Seven months later, she reported in sick. After a year of sick leave, she came back to work with a feeling that she had to do something with her experience.
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Compiling the journal
Zurné encountered other PhD students from other universities who had experienced transgressive behaviour or even rape during their fieldwork. In collaboration with LOVA, an organisation for feminist anthropologists and gender studies, she organised webinars and they joined forces to set up the working group Safety in the Field. Together with Janne Heederik and Tine Davids of Radboud University, Zurné took on the primary responsibility and compiled a journal focusing on the experiences of female researchers.
Zurné gives a few examples: “Some colleagues who are conducting research among the military or football fans get a lot of sexist comments, are not taken seriously and are not involved in everything.” Transgressive behaviour occurs everywhere, emphasises Zurné, regardless of sexual preferences. “Because it is not just women in masculine environments who are faced with this issue, someone researching a lesbian community in Senegal had also experienced it.”
Even the location doesn’t make much of a difference, says Zurné. “These occurrences are not exclusive to far-off countries in Africa or Asia either. Colleagues who are doing research in Europe are having the same experiences.”
Although anyone can experience transgressive behaviour, according to Zurné young PhD students are slightly more vulnerable. “They are very keen for the research to succeed and are less willing to say that something is not acceptable to them, even though the experience as a whole can drastically impact the research,” she says. “Among other things, it impacts the data you collect and your relationship with the research sources.” Looking back on her own experience, Zurné says: “For example, I knew that the re-enactment group were recording some footage at one point, but I didn’t go because I didn’t want to go alone. What’s more, there came a time when I always took a male friend with me because I didn’t feel safe. I said he was there to help me translate, whereas my Indonesian more than sufficed.”
According to Zurné, the fact that PhD students don’t often speak out about transgressive behaviour during fieldwork relates to issues such as the competitive nature of the academic world. “We only talk about our successes but never our failures, because if you mention what’s going wrong you might get stamped as not being a good researcher.”
And she thinks this needs to change. Everyone, including male researchers, must have the courage to express their vulnerability. “If only female researchers or researchers of colour tell their story, it seems as if they are the only ones experiencing these kinds of issues. But these are absolutely not exceptional cases.”
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Zurné believes that the academic world should be more open about the potential impact of this kind of behaviour on researchers. The university has policies on privacy, data management and consent to protect interviewees. EUR also has a guide for researchers who are working in remote or dangerous places. “But it doesn’t spend much time discussing transgressive behaviour, even though it’s common,” she says.
Zurné also considers it important to focus on and understand the long-term consequences of the incident, as the unpleasant experiences can influence the researcher’s productivity and mental health. “So it would be nice if the university offered guidance and a safety net, for example by being more lenient in extending the contract if the researcher takes sick leave.”
One researcher who was raped during her fieldwork wrote an article in the journal about her experiences under a pseudonym. “It shows how taboo this topic is,” says Zurné. The researcher in question fears that she will otherwise become known as ‘the raped researcher’. Isn’t Zurné afraid that she will also get stamped because she’s telling her story? “I believe that raising the issue and openly discussing it are incredibly important, so I don’t mind being associated with the issue.”