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September 15, 2020

Stop blaming the victim

Opinion

September 15, 2020

Most sensible people are rightfully indignant at the remarks of the CCPO Lahore in which he appeared to blame the victim of the recent motorway gang-rape for the crime.

The outrage on social media and traditional media was fairly swift and universal. As a result of the mass condemnation of his controversial remarks, the officer has now been summoned by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice.

This in itself is somewhat of an encouraging outcome of the otherwise extremely unfortunate series of events. My contention, however, is that the culture of victim blaming in our society is much more prevalent than we tend to acknowledge, or perhaps because of the subtlety with which it happens, realize. And I think it is about time we initiated a broader discussion surrounding the issue of victim blaming and how it ostracizes victims and denies them fairer access to the justice system.

The foremost aspect to take into account is the psychological roots of victim blaming. It is quite predictable that the perpetrator of a crime or an atrocity will blame the victim. What is harder to fathom is why the rest of society would blame the victim. When a crime as shocking and as utterly vile as gang-rape happens, society at large feels a level of guilt towards the victim. It results in the feeling that the vulnerability that resulted in the crime was created due to neglect by society. And as somewhat of a primeval reaction, society tries to ward off the guilt by trying to blame the victim for what happened to them.

The other psychological reason for victim blaming is the subconsciously held belief in what psychologists call ‘the just-world hypothesis’. The hypothesis, as the phraseology suggests, is the inherent belief that we live in a just world and if something bad happens to someone, it must be of their own making. People find such a belief reassuring because it soothes the heightened insecurities they feel when such a shocking incident happens. It allows them to comfort themselves with the thought that the same cannot happen to them because they are either better or more careful people. Therefore, we often hear people blame victims of domestic violence, especially women, for their bad choices in male companions.

At a structural level, victim blaming also occurs because societies, especially those as resistant to changes as ours, wish to depict such monstrous events as one-off and not worthy of instigating systemic changes. Now, going back to the motorway gang-rape, the crime happened because of systemic failures at various levels. At the broadest level, it took place because of our failure as a society to protect women and children against sexual violence. We have over time created a sense of impunity among perpetrators by shaming and silencing victims into obscurity.

At a more substantive level, this recent crime is indicative of the failure of the justice system, right from timely access to law enforcement to the manner in which cases are handled both by the police – in part evidenced by the comments of the CCPO – and eventually by the courts.

Our society blames victims, whether they are the victims of economic injustice, of physical and structural violence and of political marginalization, because society and the hierarchies within it are invested in the status quo. Such offences call for a restructuring of the status quo. Therefore, those who are empowered by their positions in these hierarchies find it more convenient to scapegoat the victim rather than allowing a discussion that might result in them conceding some of the power they so jealously guard.

The discussion here is not meant to take the attention away from the abhorrent remarks the police officer made. Rather the purpose of this piece is for all of us to go deeper and introspect, both personally and as a society. Why did the police officer feel so comfortable in saying something so objectionable in a TV show? It is because we believe that we can say things like this in most social settings and get away with it – or rather receive approval for it.

The writer is an assistant professor

of Political Science at the University of Peshawar.

Email: [email protected]