Monday, July 9, 2012

Can one discuss responsibility without being labelled a victim blamer?

I just read this article about victim blaming. I like the fact that young men are stepping out and condemning rape in unambiguous terms. But there is one thing about the article that I find troubling. It's the second paragraph:


Women staying out late in foreign places dressed in tight, skimpy clothes with some alcohol in their systems are often warned to be smart and aware of their surroundings. These type of warnings stem from the idea that if women look or act a certain way, they must be asking for it … right?

Really? Telling a woman to be smart and aware of her surroundings in a foreign country, to pay attention to her alcohol consumption and her clothing is victim blaming? What exactly is the suggested alternative? If you're in charge of a bunch of kids studying abroad in a conservative nation, are you actually going to tell them to dress in a fashion calculated to rile the locals? Are you going to tell them to go out and drink to their heart's content?

Realistically, drinking until one is out of control is a stupid idea, whatever the circumstances, and whoever is doing it. In an ideal world, people wouldn't do it. But we don't live in an ideal world. Many people drink excessively, to the point that their capacity to make wise decisions is impaired. A responsible adult should be concerned about this, and should be able to advice them about the risks that come with irresponsible drinking.

As for clothing, whether or not we like it, what we wear tells a story about us. It may be an inaccurate story: People's assumptions about us on the basis of our clothing may be completely wrong. But it is important to know what assumptions they have in order to interpret their behavior and to be better prepared to respond to it.

Let me give you an example. Wearing pants (as Americans call them) or trousers (as Kenyans call them) in some rural communities is considered to violate some unwritten principle about the proper place of women. Apparently, women who wear trousers in such communities are perceived to be rebelling against the social order. It doesn't matter how modest the pants/ trousers actually are. People judge first and ask questions later.

A woman going into such a community without prior knowledge of these conventions would likely encounter some resentment or hostility without understanding why. A woman with some understanding of these conventions would be in a position to decide whether or not to wear pants/ trousers while living in the said community. If she chose to wear them, she would understand where the hostility was coming from and have the capacity to respond to it effectively.

Mind you, this is not just about women. It is about men too. Communities all over the world have dress codes for men and women, depending on their age and station in society. The dress codes may or may not be set down in the legislation, but they exist all the same. If you're planning on living and working in such a community and want to build good will among the people, then you should show some respect for their conventions. That typically includes dressing in ways that they will find acceptable.

While we're on the subject, we should expand the discussion to include political awareness. If one is planning to go to a foreign country, then he or she should have some idea of what is going on in that country. Otherwise, he or she may waltz right into the heart of some political upheaval.

In this light, sending young men and women out into the world with the idea that they can and should do whatever they want, whenever they want without any regard for context is not responsible. There are actually places right here in the United States where wearing clothing of the "wrong" color will get you shot.

I think that it is important to recognize that a rape victim does not ask to be raped. Nobody asks to be attacked and subjected to violence by another. When violence like this occurs, the sole responsible party is the perpetrator. But recognizing that does not mean that we should send our young men and women out into the world with a naive sense about how human society works.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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