The prevalence of victim-blaming speaks volumes about our societal attitude towards women
“Why was she out so late at night?” is, among many others, a particularly disconcerting and accusatory question victims are subjected to whenever a crime of a certain nature is reported.
The emotional and, depending on the case, physical trauma inflicted upon them is already excessive as it is. Even after gathering the courage to speak up, it is a grim reality that confronts victims, acting as a catalyst to perpetuate crime and suppress the victims.
Victim-blaming, as the name suggests, is a scenario in which the fault is off-loaded on the victim, rather than the perpetrator of the crime. This is a recurring phenomenon that has been deeply ingrained in the societal disposition towards women.
This does not only happen explicitly under the comment section of a news post. Regrettably, in most cases, the victim’s own family members and close associates have, unwittingly or otherwise, partaken in this underhanded notion. Multiple layers exist within victim-blaming, from downright accusations to more subtle references of fault.
The normative practice of victim-blaming speaks volumes about our societal attitude towards women. Evidently, we know that women face prejudice in different spheres of society and being blamed entirely or partially for the harm that befell them is a manifestation of it.
Social scientists say that the negative attitude towards women stems from the status of women in society. Historically, women were put at the bottom of the social hierarchy which left them significantly less empowered over their own social, economic, and political lives.
Globally, despite facing institutional discrimination and cultural sanctions, women constitute almost one-third of the world’s formal labour force. Although women’s entry into the formal economy is a relatively new event, they play a significant role in both manufacture-based industries (like RMG in Bangladesh) and service-based sectors (like nursing and teaching) globally.
In spite of their growing presence in the formal economy, women’s earnings tend on average to be less than men’s throughout all regions of the world. As per the latest report of the UN, the gender wage gap in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world (2.2 %) but the world average is still 21.2%. Even in agriculture-based countries, it is estimated that women grow half the world’s food, but they rarely own land.
Not just in the economic sphere, but also politically, women have been subjected to subordination and oppression. Take a look at the political structure of Bangladesh: Women remain noticeably underrepresented. For example, only 22 of the nation’s 300 members of parliament are females. Female representation in local-level politics is even more uninspiring. There have been some improvements, but there is much more to be done.
The aforementioned economic and political subjugation of women makes them suffer from second-class status. Their socioeconomic status in society encloses them in a vulnerable position that ultimately makes them susceptible to sexual harassment, hate speech, rape, and eventually, victim-blaming.
However, the Munia suicide case generated a moral panic among the people of Bangladesh, at least on social media. General people, political commentators, experts, and social rights organizations have raised their voices. This unprecedented example of raising a voice against victim-blaming opens the door for a greater social change. We could use the public sentiment to amend the existing laws of Bangladesh that upholds the immoral character of a woman as a ground of defense, even though she accuses someone of rape or sexual assault first. These outdated legalities are not conducive for a progressive society.
Crimes happen because criminals commit them, period. It is nonsensical to correlate someone’s disposition and shift the blame on them, rather than correcting the deranged psychology behind the perpetrator.
In this regard, education can serve as a driving force to curb the societal epidemic of victim blaming. By education, it must then not be limited to quantitative figures of high school enrollment or participation. The qualitative aspect requires much progress if the state wants to deem its education as a holistic instrument to raise better individuals. Topics on consent, personal space, and ethics need to be imbued with the current structure, where the focus needs to be getting the message across rather than to secure scores.
Primary learning begins in the nascent stages of a person’s life, usually very young. It is in this time frame that young children are most impressionable and develop their individual values later in life. It is incumbent upon the care-givers to ensure basic values of decency and ethics are conveyed properly, which can significantly aid in their development as empathetic individuals. This is not to say that attitudes cannot be changed later on in life, these concepts are not very difficult to comprehend. With the proper social messages and school curriculum, behavioral change can be sought out.
All being said, change starts from within. The individual self plays the indispensable role that can propel the collective change within society that we direly seek. It would pay very well to sit back and critically dissect one’s unwarranted comments and how heavy it can weigh on a victim. Empathy is a flagship trait of human nature and thus, we must learn to exercise it when it is needed the most. After all, a little consideration does no harm.
Md Aftab Alam is a Lecturer, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Brac University. Mahir Labib is a Graduate in Economics, Brac University.