Victim blaming – the glass wall between harassment and justice


When you hear of an incident of abuse or harassment, has it crossed your mind that you need to inquire about what the victim was wearing, or what they were doing, or if they were trying to ‘provoke’ the harasser? Let me break it to you, you are part of the problem.

In this article, I discuss the concept of victim blaming which is explored under the larger phenomenon of rape culture, alongside street harassment in Sri Lanka which is an equally rampant issue. My analysis is based on some interviews I did with the targets of gender-based violence in public transport where they talked about their experiences during and after the incidents of harassment.

What is rape culture? According to Inside Southern it is “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture”. This could manifest itself as victim blaming, glorifying and trivialising sexual harassment, and rape jokes. Examples for rape culture can be observed in popular media where a rape is portrayed as ‘the end’ of a woman’s life in movies, to memes that are being shared daily on social media, where ideas like, ‘you will not experience sexual harassment unless you are really pretty’ are circulated.

Victim blaming     

Victim blaming, in this context, is quite literally what this expression denotes, it is blaming the victim for the harassment. This could vary from ‘what were they wearing?” to ‘they probably deserved it’, views articulated by those who are bystanders to the harassment.

“One morning when I was going to work, mind you wearing a sari, a drunkard put his hand through the pleats and squeezed my stomach,” Sachini (pseudonym), 29, described. “I was so angry, I grabbed my umbrella and hit him with it shouting, ‘let a woman go in a bus’. Then the bus conductor came, and asked me to get down from the bus, ‘without causing a problem’. He said that I should expect this if I’m ‘exposing my stomach’”.

With the statistics relating to street harassment point out that as of 2015, 90% of Sri Lankan women have experienced harassment in buses, there is a possibility for the above incident to be treated as if it is a daily occurrence. However, in the light of victim blaming it contains significant nuances; let us break it down. The target describes where she was going, and specifies that she had been wearing a sari, which sends us back to the classic victim blaming retort, “what was she wearing?”.  It is as if the target knew this, and wanted to ‘clear the ground’ before she was asked what she was wearing.

Then, the aftermath of the incidents gets even more thought-provoking. This victim of daylight harassment is seen as a trouble maker, and asked to leave, without justice being served to her. Adding fuel to fire, the conductor victim -blames her, blaming her outfit for the harassment. While the damage that this does in marginalising the victim is quite apparent, there is another side to this that requires our attention; which is the sympathy that the harasser receives.

According to the above-cited report by UNFPA, out of the 90% of women who face sexual harassment in buses, only a 4% lodge a complaint at the Police. Sandra (pseudonym), 34 at the time of harassment, had to encounter the harasser’s wife at the Police station. While she wanted to lodge a complaint against the harasser, the wife pleaded that he was the sole breadwinner of the family and not to complain. The victim is faced with a moral dilemma at this juncture, would she make a complaint and have justice served to her, or is she going to empathise with the harasser because a complaint would mean that the harasser would not be able to make a living for sometime.

At the heart of the issues raised in the above incident, what we see is a trivialisation of harassment. Street harassment is often seen as a Colombo liberals’ problem, an issue that is framed within the boundaries of Colombo. Even the social media discourse surrounding the narratives of street harassment seem to sympathise with the harasser, with views such as the target is blowing the issue out of proportion, concerns about the livelihood of the harasser and normalisation of the harassment- which are again, signs of victim blaming, diverting the blame from the harasser to the victim.

Street harassment and justice

To conclude, it requires to be highlighted that there is a glass wall between the targets of street harassment and justice, which is victim blaming. What we could clearly observe here is that the street harassment is situated in the rather debilitating context of rape culture, and the need to view it in its own gravity. As long as we are not willing to view ‘harassment’ as harassment, and not to alienate the victim this would prevail and hinder our ability to seek justice.

By Isurinie Mallawaarachchi