Aayesha Aijaz started teaching at the age of 14 in an all-girls Islamic center and says that she “always had a positive working environment.”
Shortly after turning 18, she “entered the ‘real world’ workforce” and much of its attendant ugliness.
“As a restaurant hostess,” Aijaz says, “I experienced multiple customers, sometimes once but more often than not repeating customers, insinuate the same thing: Money in exchange for attention.” Some asked her to deliver food to their car, promising “large sums of cash.” Others asked for company as they sat down to eat, and when she refused she said they would act confused. “This happened so frequently that I chalked it up to a restaurant hostess workplace hazard,” Aijaz says. “After being followed to my car multiple times, I decided the restaurant business wasn’t for me.”
She moved on to tutoring at a local place. “I truly believed that in an academic setting people would be less demanding of my body,” she says. “It did lessen the frequency of harassment on a daily basis but it still happened.”
Students—mostly ones who were older men—asked for her number, and when she declined, they would insist it was for needing “further tutorial services,” she says. Some students would call the center to find out when Aijaz would be there. Another would sit outside of the office and stare at her. “The same student ended up following me to class and would wait by my car when I got out around 8 p.m. in the winter time,” Aijaz says. “A different student who was persistent on the idea of us studying together, slapped down a tightly wrapped bundle of 50’s and asked me to come over to study. I walked out.”
“After multiple incidents of blackmailing and stalking, I started to ponder my discomfort with the way we as a community are conditioned to handle harassment or assault,” Aijaz says. “The first question anyone would ask me at work when I would tell them something disturbing is, ‘Do you want to file a report?’ This sometimes meant including the police and I was not comfortable with that. So what is the alternative?”
This thinking led her to consider community accountability, and what the process could look like. With her group Strvnge Encounters, Aijaz creates spaces for healing and has hosted community accountability workshops. She has also worked with the collective Baltimore Community Accountability Project, which supports survivors and others interested in accountability processes.
Aijaz stresses the importance of “trusting the process,” and admits that the process is often highly complicated. She has yet to see an example of community accountability, in the context of intimate partner violence or sexual assault, actually work.
Many open-ended questions abound in these workshops: What does it look like when the process is actually finished? Is it possible for us to really accept the perpetrator back into the community without judgment? Is it fair to ask survivors to accept that person back?
The other thing, Aijaz notes, is the often-frustrating but simple fact that change takes time; it takes far more than a few meetings for a person to grasp the ways they’ve abused their power. “It takes a long time for that person themselves to recondition themselves, to truthfully recondition themselves—they can pretend to—but it’s going to take a lot of years,” she says.
The ultimate goal is to reckon with abuse from different angles: There are the individual examples of abuse, which often have links to larger structural, societal problems. “You’re trying to stop it but you’re also trying to uproot it,” Aijaz says. “I think if people got together and did the work and put in the time, and men put in the time to have their own group sessions or just talk to other people. I never see two dudes sitting in a coffee shop talking about this—ever!”
Accountability can (and arguably should) start hyper-locally, too. Aijaz recounts a recent trip to India, where her cousins—boys in their late teens and early 20s—were asking her about the organizing that she does. One of the boys asked his sister to get up and get some water, and Aijaz told him that he could get it himself; he was right next to the fridge. Those little things matter. “Within 15 days I saw their mindset changing a little bit, and being more aware of what they were doing,” she says. “They”re not changing completely—as long as they were conscious of what they were doing, that’s a big change.”