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Does a woman’s clothing seduce rapists?

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Bayo Olupohunda

Rape has become a major crime in our country today. Hardly does a day go by without one hideous report of rape or other abuse of women grabbing the headlines. Of major concern is the rising incident of paedophiles preying on minors. These are men old enough to be parents to their victims. The cases of rape in the country have also ensured that no woman is safe.  It can be safely said that the impunity with which these abuses are committed has made the female gender the endangered species of our society. Rape cases have also increased because many offenders often get away with the crime. The police are unwilling to investigate when rape is reported. The social stigma associated with the crime has also prevented the victims from seeking justice.

More worrisome is the recent trend to blame the victims of rape. There is nothing more ridiculous than this. Sometime last week, I watched a television debate about rape. Watching the programme was an agonising experience. The TV show, which ran in one of Nigerian local channels, focused on the escalating incidence of rape in the country. As an individual, the abuse of women and minors is repulsive enough. But listening to discussants in a TV programme ranting about how women’s “provocative” modes of dressing invite or tempt the rapist is the most bizarre justification of rape I have ever heard in recent times. The discussants on the programme blamed women’s choice of dress as an excuse for rape. The programme’s anchor also did not help matters. How could she have allowed such a sensitive issue degenerate into a blame game on national TV? One would have expected that a TV programme would be balanced so all opposing views could be represented. But I was not surprised. This is because the slant the programme took fed into the blame-the-victim narrative that has dominated rape discourse in recent times.

It is against this backdrop that I have been genuinely shocked by some people claiming that a woman’s dressing provocatively shares the responsibility for her rape with the rapist. The logic seems to be that women who dress seductively intend to provoke rape. That being raped is merely a consequence of that provocation. Therefore, the victims are equally responsible. While our society struggles with the evil of rape, its relation with what women wear has been the subject of unending debate. Voices quoting women’s dresses as invitation to rape appear to me to be squarely unjust and directly targeting their freedom to lead their lives in their chosen ways. Those who have advanced “provocative dress’’ as a reason for rape have made references to women who wear clinging fabrics, low-waste jeans and low-cut tops, bare midriffs, short skirts and liberally applied make-up as would be target for rapists. Women are often judged on the basis of the way they present themselves, as though the presence of a bra or a subtler shade of lipstick might have made all the difference between an uneventful occasion, and one on which a rape assault took place.

The assumption that dress choice can lead to rape – that clothes can speak for women who say no – are nonsensical and extremely damaging in my own view. In India, one of the countries with the highest incidence of rape in the world, it has often been argued, as do other patriarchal societies such as Nigeria, that women who were raped must have been asking for it by wearing provocative clothing and behaving in an inappropriate manner. In some Islamic cultures, the women who are the victims of sexual assault receive punishment ranging from lashing to stoning and being buried alive, and the men are often absolved of their crimes based simply on their word that the woman whom they raped “tempted” them by behaving inappropriately. In India, a rape victim is even forced to marry her rapist, thus condemning her to a life of torture, pain and humiliation. This issue is connected to a general culture of oppression of women and is often used as a tool to keep them subjugated. To properly put the issue in the right perspective, some questions about women and dressing need be asked. Does clothing ever play a role in rape? Do women cause rape by what they wear? What is the correlation between clothing and rape? In answering these questions, it is apt to note that rape can never be the victim’s fault. The truth is that someone has to commit rape. No one forces that choice. If seeing an attractive woman leads men to commit rape, all men would be rapists. Yet, there are many men out there who respect women’ choices and freedom over what they wear.

The point also needs be made that not all assaulted women are dressed “provocatively’’ as has been widely believed. Recent reports of rape in other countries have also included women draped in head-to-toe burqas. For example, Saudi Arabia is considered the most conservative society in the world, especially as regards the status of women. There, there are laws that require women to wear a hijab, a head scarf, as well as dress in loose, long garments that do not show the shape of the woman’s body. Yet, in a rape index by country released recently, on a scale one to five, Saudi Arabia had a ranking of four, making the country a high risk for women.  The argument that certain clothes provoke rape will fall flat when one also considers that countries with the highest incidence of rape are those deeply religious societies where women dress conservatively. In a recent survey of the most dangerous countries to be a woman by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia were found to be countries where rape is rife.  In Nigeria, rapists have targeted minors and in some cases babies. Do minors also dress to kill?

I find it rather preposterous that women are blamed for rape by using their appearance as an excuse. It is a horrible travesty of the principles of justice. The implications are so bizarre that I cannot seriously believe that any rational person supports this line of thinking. It has to be stressed, however, that women are raped because they are vulnerable–not because they “dress provocatively”. In a free country, a woman should have the right to dress however she wants with whatever intention – even if it is to provoke. In other words, even a complete sex worker should never have to “share the responsibility” for her rape. Just like an artist should have the right to paint whatever they want no matter how offensive it seems to other people. Physically violating a woman can never be a justifiable reaction to her dressing – no matter how seductive it is. Rapists violate women for other reasons. Some rape to feel powerful; others gang-rape to demonstrate their “manhood” to one another.  Some become aroused by sadistically bringing sex and violence together.

The people who justify rape are so primitive that they do not have the capacity to understand that feeling a sexual urge is not a licence to assault another human being! To these men, a woman is merely an object, so of course when they feel a sexual urge they do not see a person in front of them, just a toy to be used to satisfy their urges. This sort of objectification of women must then be justified by such absurd reason such as her dress. Let us for a minute ignore the lunacy in the idea that women who are raped must have been seductively clothed and are trying to get any man to sleep with them. Let’s suppose this is true, for argument’s sake. How does this make it legitimate to rape these women? The only conclusion I can draw here is that these barbarians really do not even see women as people! Now my fear is that such warped thinking seems to becloud the real reasons why some men rape. This is dangerous and unacceptable.

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