Monday September 20, 2021

The perfect victim

July 31, 2021

“I wanted to take the idea of a ‘perfect victim’ and tear it to shreds. Too often, society will only feel sorry for victims of rape if they conform to a certain ideal – we don’t tend to have too much sympathy for a woman [who] is sexually assaulted if she was [a] sex worker or if her clothes were too tight and too short. Sometimes, in the most secret part of ourselves that we hide from the world, we think that it was her fault…she was too drunk, too high, too promiscuous, too much”, wrote Louise O’Neill in a piece for the Guardian.

There are different standards for the supposed perfect victim: (i) the prime minister (until recently) claimed that a perfect victim is one who does not wear short or skimpy clothes; (ii) the former CCPO of Lahore contends that a perfect victim is one who does not go out late at night, checks the fuel in her car, and takes the more populated GT Road; and (iii) certain segments of society suggest that the perfect victim is one who is not allowed to spend the night out of the house and does not have intimate relationships with men. This approach allows us to question the history and decision-making of any victim who does not conform to these arbitrary standards.

A victim is only worthy of protection and/or mourning if she conforms to the ideal of a perfect victim. It is these ideals that dominate our response to crimes of violence against women. The ‘solutions’ offered in response to recent cases of violence against women have been to not let women go out at odd hours of the night or spend the night out of the house. Each of these supposed ‘solutions’ becomes another excuse to further police the behavior of women. Acts of violence against women must not be used to assert control over their autonomy.

To advocate for further control on the autonomy of women is to implicitly suggest that they could have avoided being raped, murdered, or assaulted. It completely overlooks how women are not made the subject of violent crimes purely because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Noor was at the house of a man she thought she knew. Quratulain was at home with her husband. Women are not safe in their own homes or in public places. To respond to such acts of violence by suggesting what a woman could or should have done differently, is to suggest that there is an escape, when in fact there is none.

Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney in the rape and sexual assault trial, Donna Rotunno, said she has never been sexually assaulted because she never put herself in that position. Rotunno claimed, “I’ve always made choices from college age on where I never drank too much. I never went home with someone that I didn’t know. I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstances ever.” This approach once again centralises the ‘imperfections’ of the victim. The onus is on women to not only be the protectors of their own safety but to also be equally responsible and predict the actions of violent men.

There is no rulebook which can protect women from crimes of violence. These crimes have nothing to do with the characteristics of the victim and everything to do with the perpetrators of the crime and the impunity they enjoy.

While commenting on the delay in filing the FIR in Mukhtaran Mai’s case, the majority judgement of the Supreme Court states: “in a case of an unmarried virgin victim of a young age, whose future may get stigmatized, if such a disclosure is made, if some time is taken by the family to ponder over the matter that situation cannot be held at par with a grownup lady, who is a divorcee for the last many years”. In the eyes of the majority, an older and divorced woman would not be impacted with the stigma of rape in the same way an unmarried virgin would. The majority judgement furthered notions that the perfect victim is one who is young, chaste, and virgin.

We must acknowledge, confront, and break away from these artificial stereotypes. It does not matter why she was there, who she was with, and why she put herself in that situation. A few of the many questions that society should actually be asking is why conviction rates for crimes of violence against women are still so low, why the domestic violence bill received such stark opposition, why existing laws are not being implemented, why intimate partner violence is considered an act of the private sphere, and why the state is more concerned about the image of Pakistan being tarnished on the global scale as opposed to tackling these crimes.

‘She did everything right’, said women across England about Sarah Everard. She did everything women were told to do and was as close to the perfect victim as was possible. Sarah Everard was abducted and murdered by a police officer while walking home from a friend’s house. According to reports, she left her friend’s house at a reasonable hour, phoned her partner before making the walk home, walked through well-lit streets, and wore running shoes. Yet certain parts of society still chose to question why she was out alone so late at night, did she not know any better? The reality is that there is no such thing as the perfect victim – in the eyes of a patriarchal society, no woman could ever be ‘perfect’ enough.

The writer is a lawyer practising in Lahore.

Twitter: @RidaHosain