Guest column: Miriam T Majome
THIS week the normally invisible Gender Commission was in the news for all the wrong reasons. It was widely reported and circulated that one of its officials had suggested the formulation of a dress code for female students in tertiary institutions to protect themselves from being sexually violated by men.
It was inconceivable how a public official this side of the 60s thought it was a good idea to think it, let alone say it, at a public forum. Due to the unwanted attention and public pressure the Gender Commission subsequently gave a lukewarm, but nevertheless, welcome denial of the statement. But like all bad news, it had already dashed out into the world like a plague. Even major international news sources like the BBC picked it up and beamed it for the world to see our latest national antics. We were embarrassed and disappointed by the Commission because the statement minimised all the work that has been done to stop blaming women for their sexual assault. The Commission’s officials will be very careful what they say from now on and avoid being loose cannons. The faux pas also helped to cast back into the public discourse the never ending debate about the perceived link between women’s clothes and sexual violation. From the time they are toddlers young girls are taught to dress “decently” to protect themselves from being sexually abused by men. All little girls are taught that skirts should never be too far above the knee, otherwise they will be inviting trouble. They are taught that they have no one to blame, but themselves if they “provoke” men because men are unable to control themselves. But how true exactly are these assertions? Is there any scientific basis for these widespread beliefs or they are just well preserved time honoured myths? These myths and beliefs are not limited to Zimbabwe and are as commonplace here as they are worldwide.
Research findings presented in an academic paper titled Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play a Part in Sexual Harassment Cases? Researcher Theresa Beiner revealed that there is no truth to the assertion of the link between sexual assault and dressing. More importantly, the research showed that people believe that women’s dressing is a major contributor in sexual assault, despite unavailability of statistical evidence to back this up. There is no observable link between reported incidence of sexual assault and the way the victims were dressed when they were sexually assaulted. Beiner says the belief is strong and very important because it plays a big role in the adjudication and outcomes of sexual offence cases. She quotes evidence which shows that judicial officials are influenced by this belief when determining cases before them. Those who hold this view personally believe that the victims had some responsibility for their own violation because of their “provocative” dressing, thus were complicity in their own violation. Therefore, the perpetrator cannot be held fully responsible because the victim forced him to violate her. Even though the official position is that the victim’s dressing is not a factor it does not stop defence lawyers from asking accusatory questions about dressing and sneaking in evidence to that effect to try and attribute some of the blame to her. These practices and beliefs play out throughout the world in almost all rape criminal cases. In 2018 a defence lawyer in Ireland argued that the lacy underwear worn by a 17-year-old rape victim was a sign of consent so he argued that the assailant had acted reasonably by raping her. In India, where rape is extremely common, especially gang rape, an 11-year-old girl victim of a gang rape was blamed for having invited it.
Many different studies do not show dressing as a factor in sexual offence cases. What is consistent in the various statistics is that rape victims tend to be young single women of lower socio-economic status.
Sexual violence, such as sexual harassment, assault and rape, is widely agreed to be about power rather than sexual attraction. Young single women feature more on the statistics because they are more vulnerable than other groups as they are less capable of defending and protecting themselves from violence and physical dominance. They are the least likely to have the physical and economic resources to pursue justice after they have been assaulted compared to older more assertive and economically better off women. This is the reason rape is more common in poorer and disadvantaged communities where there are more chances of getting away with sex crime. Rapists, like all criminals, target victims who offer the least resistance and the least trouble. Rape has nothing to do with sexual attractiveness and provocation.
If dressing was a factor, women in predominantly Islamic countries would not experience sexual violence. Muslim women in head to toe covering are commonly sexually harassed and violated as much as other women in other parts of the world. The hijab is not a deterrent to men who want to rape women. In Egypt the United Nations Women conducted a study of masculinity and gender relations in Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The study revealed that 43% of Egyptian men believe that women like to be sexually harassed because they enjoy the “attention.” Two-thirds of the male respondents admitted to have sexually harassed women. More than 75% of the men blamed their behaviour on the “women’s provocative clothing.” Just how provocative are Islamic dress forms for women like burkas, hijabs and niqabs, is anyone’s guess. This supports Beiker’s findings outlined above that the belief of the existence of a link between sex crimes and dressing is more prevalent than the reality itself.
In August, in another predominantly Islamic country, Malaysia, Member of Parliament was forced to apologise and retract a motion after unexpected public backlash. He had moved a motion seeking legal protection for male sexual assailants if the women victims wore what were deemed to be provocative clothes. Moving the motion he said: “Due to what women wear, we are seduced and end up breaking the country’s laws and face prosecution”.
In tandem with this is the equally common and unfortunate notion that men are incapable of controlling their sexual urges so they are forced into committing sexual crimes against their will. It is believed that it is in their nature and they cannot help themselves whenever they perceive that a woman “wants it” and is openly “inviting it”. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte disgraced himself earlier this year by inadvertently showing his inner untamed beast.
He foolishly thought it was wise to speak off the cuff while giving a speech on sexual harassment. He said “as long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases.” After the widespread condemnation that ensued his spokesman was quick to say that the President had been trying to crack a joke. It is good practice for politicians to stick to their prepared speeches because they rarely ever make good comedians.
The encouraging thing is that there are many men who detest sexual violence and reject the myths and stereotypes surrounding it. Victim blaming is done equally by both women and men. There are many women who believe that women ask to be raped because of their dressing because they believe men cannot control their sexual urges. It was heartening to note that the majority of men who responded to the Gender Commission’s guffaw on social media condemned the statement. They highlighted everything that was wrong with the Commission’s dress code suggestion. Many men do not subscribe to the notion that they are out of control primal sex maniacs who are always ready to ravage women if they think the woman is ‘asking for it’. This is encouraging in the fight against sexual violence and the myths that sustain it.
Miriam Tose Majome is a legal officer for Veritas Zimbabwe. She writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @MajomeMiriam