Governments around the world aim to put in place systems of law and order to provide security and protection to their populace. Yet, the world at large is still afflicted by varied forms of oppression, persecution, and violence. Some such acts are perpetrated by individuals, others by societies, and even by state institutions. While the vulnerable are more prone to be victimised, it is hard to predict which person or group will become a victim of sexual assault, targeted acts of persecution, or other forms of oppression or violence.
Context specific factors such as local historical developments and specific societal norms make it difficult to construct a universal categorisation of victimhood. Yet, it is intriguing to note how the tendency to shift some of the blame for victimisation back onto victims remains a surprisingly widespread phenomenon.
The phenomenon of ‘victim blaming’ occurs when the victim of some sort of crime, violence or any other wrongful act is held entirely or partly at fault for the harm that befalls them. Victim blaming has devastating impacts. It compounds the trauma of victims, and allows perpetrators to avoid being held accountable for their actions, whereby enabling their sense of impunity.
Despite its evidently deleterious impacts, victim blaming is widely evoked in instances of racial discrimination, in cases of class-based discrimination, and in instances of sexual assault in rich and poor countries alike.
Setting aside the possibility of false accusations, whenever someone begins questioning what a victimised person could have done differently to prevent the act of violation committed against them, this is an act of victim blaming. Perhaps reference to some illustrative examples will help make clear how prevalent victim blaming is, and how it is readily evoked in response to varied circumstances. Consider, for example, the case of a senior police official in Lahore commenting on the incident of a motorway gang-rape last year. His remarks seemed to suggest that the victim shared some responsibility for her rape because she failed to take due precautions before setting off on her journey.
Similarly, when leaders of our country claim that women should cover up to avoid “temptation”, this statement puts the onus of being raped on the way someone dresses or acts. Such insinuations are not limited to conservative or patriarchal societies only but are also readily evoked in so-called liberal societies as well. Victims of domestic violence are also similarly blamed for how they may have provoked abuse, or for how they may have acted to prevent being abused.
Victim blaming is not confined to acts of sexual or physical violence by individuals. Victims can also be blamed in cases of institutional or structural violence as well. Consider, for instance, attempts to divert responsibility for marginalisation and deprivation of particular social or ethnic groups by labeling them as being lazy or incapable of deferring gratification, or in adequately planning for their future. Persistent stereotyping of black men in the US as being violent is repeatedly evoked to justify use of excessive force and high incarceration rates of this persecuted racial group.
Many marginalised groups are readily blamed for the unfortunate circumstances they find themselves trapped in. Aboriginal, native, and indigenous groups are blamed for being angry and dysfunctional, which may seem an accurate description given the socio-economic problems plaguing such groups. However, such a categorisation is nothing more than victim blaming as it fails to recognise that the problems confronting such groups are due to longstanding trauma, including genocidal acts of violence and injustice perpetrated against them.
Resmaa Menakeem, a trauma specialist, aptly asserted that trauma decontextualised in a person looks like personality, whereas trauma plaguing a people looks like culture. Keeping this assertion in mind would be a good idea anytime we feel the urge to vilify a group or an individual for the misfortunate that has befallen them, within our own country, or elsewhere, in this inequitable world.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2021.
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