‘Takeaway Chinese’, that’s what Anouk was invariably called during her initiation. She was adopted from Thailand, so she looked ‘different’ from the other students. “A lot of people thought that was funny at the time,” she says. “Racism was even less of a theme.” That did not alter the fact that Anouk experienced the remark as degrading.
In 1998 Anouk became a member of RSV Sanctus Laurentius, a large student association in Rotterdam. During the general initiation – or ‘acquaintance time’ (KMT) as associations call the period themselves – she was on vacation. So she joined the after-acquaintance time, a shorter version of the hazing.
There she, along with two other Asian girls, was forced to sing the union song with the ‘l’ instead of the ‘r’. Anouk: “Actually, I didn’t feel good about this. Yet I said nothing about it. You didn’t, during a hazing like that. The balance of power was so strong. So I sang along sheepishly.”
Head in the toilet
The two times she did speak up – to what she can’t remember – she was not thanked. One of the hazingers pushed her head into the toilet. And flushed. “I felt so small. How could anyone do this? And get away with that too?”
Yet Anouk did not open her mouth even then. “Then the whole association is against me, I thought. In retrospect, that still surprises me. Why have I never filed a complaint? I can now define my boundaries quite well, but then I wanted to fit in.”
Put to the test
Initiation rituals are of all times, according to Ton Robben. He is emeritus professor of anthropology at Utrecht University. As early as the 16th century, student associations organized hazing. But the army, the fire brigade or large companies also use a form of hazing. Just like some indigenous peoples.
“There are two meanings of hazing”, explains Ton. “The first is to put someone to the test so that that person is treated as an equal. You also see this at motorcycle clubs or gangs, for example in Central America. There you even have to commit murder to join the club.” The second meaning? An initiation ritual to become part of the group. That can be anything from singing a club song to drinking liters of alcohol.
forging a tire
The two meanings sometimes overlap, says the anthropologist. And then things go wrong. “As an association, you can easily organize a hazing as an initiation ritual. That increases togetherness. You are going through a difficult time together. But put each other to the test? That can lead to humiliation and violence.” And even to death, as happened to Belgian student Sandra Dia in 2018.
Why do people go this far? There are several reasons for this, Ton thinks. “It may be that someone from higher up instructs the hazingers not to be too gentle. It has also become the norm in some associations. You are expected to act hard. In addition, hazing can become annoyed if aspiring members don’t do what they say. That affects their authority.” And older students have often experienced a tough dejuvenation themselves. Now it’s their turn to teach new members some ‘mores’.
Associate professor of social and organizational psychology Arjaan Wit (Leiden University) expects student associations to continue with hazing for a while. Arjaan is specialized in group dynamics. “Joint trials create a group feeling. You get more personal and deeper contact with each other.”
Such initiation rituals occur, to a less extreme extent, in many places. “At our university, new employees always have to organize the annual department outing.”
Zeitgeist has changed
Despite the excesses that are in the news, Arjaan has the idea that the introduction period is less intense these days. “The zeitgeist has changed. We used to think it was funny to see a bunch of fetuses running down the street, like hunted cattle. Now we look at it differently.”
Universities are paying more attention to diversity and inclusion. People are becoming more empowered and associations are under a magnifying glass. “I think that associations are now really aware of the consequences of a bad image.” That also applies to the conservative world of the corps, Arjaan thinks. “Although of course we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”
Below the radar
According to the social psychologist, abolishing hazing does not solve much. “Then it happens under the radar,” he says. “In sorority houses, for example. And then there is no supervision at all. Now the association board can still exercise control. Moreover, you cannot prevent things from getting out of hand in fraternity houses, with young people with alcohol.” Arjaan does emphasize that some caution is important. “Violence and humiliation really go too far.”
Ton agrees. “Hazing should not be an excuse for violence. If a football player kicks the opponent’s head, he will also receive a penalty for that.” The emeritus professor also does not believe in a ban on all hazing. “If it happens without supervision, it becomes completely dangerous. Openness is better.”
Breaking Peer Pressure
How can we ensure that hazing does not get out of hand? Arjaan regularly gets this question from student associations. His tips: Make a script in which you describe the activities in advance. And use the four or six eyes principle. In addition, the dejuvenators should not like each other too much. “The chance of incidents is greater if those in power are friends. Then they are not quick to point out border crossings to each other. A diverse team can break through peer pressure.”
Which also works: Put first and last names on t-shirts so everyone is a name instead of a number. “That increases the sense of responsibility.”
Ton also emphasizes the importance of supervision, preferably by an outsider. “And make it clear in advance what is going to happen. Then people can make their own choice. Is such an initiation really something for me?”
If Anouk had known in advance what would happen to her, she would not have become a member. “I already had doubts. I found the group dynamics unusual. But I also knew the fun side of club life, because I sometimes went to the club with friends.”
Her experiences have not caused any mental or emotional damage, but they have strongly colored her period with the association. “It never felt like my sorority. I was really set apart, during the get-acquainted time. And I didn’t feel like I could be myself.” After two years, she decided not to be an active member anymore.
“Associations are based on uniformity,” she says. “Everyone wears the same clothes, no one is allowed to deviate. I had a nose piercing, but I always had to take it off before going to the club. I found that difficult. I think we should have an eye for diversity.”
Modify existing system
If it is up to Anouk, hazing may be abolished altogether. “The hazing with that extreme display of power anyway. I also understand that there is some form of introduction. It is very human to want to experience that bond.”
But she also believes that sometimes something has to be completely abolished before it can be rebuilt in normal form. “The existing system is rotten. It has to be kicked off. Because let’s face it, such scenes don’t fit at all in our current society, do they?”
By: National Education Guide / Bente Schreurs
Extreme hazing under fire: ‘I felt humiliated’
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