Spirituality on campus

Continuing the series on what faith means to students, Varun Anand, a 3rd year medical student from

Before I came to university I have to admit I was not very religious and did not know much about Hinduism, except that we have many religious scriptures and are not allowed to eat beef. Although we are a Hindu family, we only celebrate the major festivals like Diwali (festival of light) and Holi (festival of colours), of which I knew little about. I was more interested in the fun aspect like lighting fireworks and throwing coloured powder! However, this changed almost immediately when I joined the University of Birmingham.

At the societies fair in the first week of university, I got talking to a few committee members of the Hindu Society and then a week later I went to their first event; a ‘Meet and Greet’. It was nice to meet people of a similar background and make new friends and it was then that I became a member of the Hindu Society.

It was not until the society’s Diwali show, ‘Ujala’, that I was able to become more interested in my religion and culture. The true significance of why we celebrated it was explained with a play followed by an interactive talk. Afterwards I commended the members of the committee on such a brilliant event. They told me that I should apply to be on the sub-committee if I wanted to help out. At first I was unsure of the responsibility so early on in my university life. However, they persuaded me and by November I gained the position of PR on the society’s sub-committee.

I enjoyed being on the committee as I got to know the other members quite well and played a part in organising and promoting the Hindu Society’s annual ball, ‘Roshni’, which was a good experience. However, the highlight was when the sub-committee was left in charge to organise a Holi event. At times it was stressful but in the end it was rewarding because the event was a huge success.

In second year I got introduced to another society called Krishna Consciousness Society (KcSoc) where every Tuesday evening a group of about 20 students got together and had informal spiritual discussions. The discussions were mainly based on the Bhagavad Gita, which is an important Hindu scripture. I enjoyed KcSoc as I learnt a lot more about the basics of spirituality and aspects of Hinduism and since then have been reading related books whenever I have had time.

In my second year, the new Hindu Society committee introduced a weekly worship known as ‘aarti’. I vaguely knew the words of the prayer as I had sung it before at various festivals. What I liked about this was that I could come here once a week in this spiritual environment and forget about the hustle and bustle of university life. Sometimes there were also talks on an aspect of Hinduism or a yoga class which I really enjoyed as I invariably learnt something new.

Last year my interest in my faith and religion took up about 2 evenings a week and hence played quite a significant role in my student life. Of course the main reason why I participated was to practice Hinduism and to learn more about it, but the events were also very sociable and a nice catch-up with people I wouldn’t otherwise see in lectures.

Later on in the year I joined the committee of National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF). I felt it would be a new challenge so I applied and got a role on the PR team. I believe that my involvement with NHSF has meant that I now have more knowledge about the Hindu faith. So when I come home and we celebrate certain Hindu festivals, I am more aware of why we are doing what we are. I look forward to being part of NHSF this year and I hope to carry on going to the discussions at KcSoc as well as the weekly Hindu Society aarti. Over the past 2 years I have definitely gained a greater understanding about my religion and culture and I hope this continues throughout my student life and beyond.

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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.