Monday, April 2, 2012

Blaming the Victim('s Wardrobe)

This country has a tradition of blaming the victim. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy. If you are sick, it is because you didn't take good enough care of yourself. I believe one of the most insidious forms of blaming the victim comes when it involves harassment, assault, rape, and murder. Judging a victim's clothing is a ridiculous addition of insult to injury.


This conversation is consistently brought up in cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Our traditional mythology is layered. It says that if a woman is wearing a short skirt or a tight shirt that she is intentionally signaling that she wants sex.  It also says that if she wants sex that she is okay having sex with any one at any time. This translates to judging any woman in a short skirt or a tight shirt as "asking for it."

This mythology has many major flaws. The core flaw is that rape is not about sex. Rape comes in three varieties: Anger Rape, Power Rape, and Sadistic Rape. The rapist is not overcome with sexual desire. The rapist is angry at the victim, wants power over the victim, or wants to hurt the victim. Rape is always caused by the rapist and not the victim.

The mythology also makes it seem like a rapist is a random stranger off the street. This is largely untrue. 73% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. And who are these victims? 1/6 of all women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. This is an epidemic and it is not the victims who are sick, it is the perpetrators.

If this mythology were true, wearing swimming suits would be dangerous and beaches would be danger zones where one should expect to be attacked at any moment. The thought of getting a swimming suit for a child would be abhorrent to all parents. 


Recently there have been two very clear cases of violent discrimination. Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager wearing a hoodie was killed on February 26th. Shaima Alawadi, an Muslim American wearing a hijab, was killed in her home on March 21st.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was attacked by George Zimmerman, a vigilante with a gun who was intimidated by the way Trayvon looked. The teen was carrying Skittles and iced tea. Amid the accusation of panicked discrimination at best and hate crime at worst an interesting alternate theory emerged. Geraldo Rivera propose that the hoodie was to blame. Blame the victim by blaming his choice in clothing.

Trayvon's case again comes down to a mythology around the meaning of clothing and how it intersects with discrimination. The dominant mythology is that a Black or Hispanic male is dangerous, especially if they have tattoos, if they have a hooded sweatshirt, or if they have baggy pants. They are instantly judged suspicious at best and a dangerous threat at worst. This mythology equates this appearance with criminal activity.

Again this blaming of the victim through their choice of clothing is ridiculous. Blaming the hoodie is ridiculous. Again, if this mythology were true, then high schools and colleges wouldn't brand them. Most companies wouldn't want their logo on them. Right now I am wearing a hoodie I got in high school to commemorate when my orchestra went to Carnegie Hall. This hoodie is in no way related to criminal behavior.

In the case of Shaima Alawadi, she was killed in her home while wearing her hijab. A hijab is a traditional head covering worn by Muslim women. The hijab ties in to the Muslim values of modesty, privacy, and morality. Her attacker left a note before the attack and afterward accusing her of being a terrorist.

Alawadi's attacker likely associated her as being Muslim because of her style of dress. Religion is often a private matter in America, so visible symbols of religion are the most likely way to identify someone's religious beliefs, unless they have a personal conversation with you about them. There are some who use this reasoning again to turn blame around onto the victim. It is not the head scarf that killed Shaima Alawadi, it was a person who hated her because of where she was from and what she believed.

In a country that has freedom of religion and freedom of expression, wearing a hijab is a protected right as much as wearing a cross is. If someone were attacked for wearing a cross the appropriate outrage would be against the attacker who was targeting Christians, not against the Christian who saw wearing the cross as a core part of their religious lifestyle.

Blame the Attacker, not the Victim, nor their Clothing.

Rape and assault are not about what we wear. It is about who we are. If we are women, black, Muslim, gay, or homeless we are seen as objects to be attacked, either because we are perceived as weak, or as threatening, or both. The problem is not how we dress. The problem is how those with power choose to see us and act toward us.

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