Friday, February 27, 2009

Constructing Victimhood

Part of the work I see the Feminist Collective doing is creating a space for self-refection and critique of women’s and feminist politics in Lebanon – and the Arab world more broadly. I would like to offer up one such critique to the women’s movement: We need to stop fetishizing our own victimhood.

In every feminist discussion I’ve ever encountered on “honor” crimes, the outrage at the phenomenon is almost invariably followed by a disclaimer that points to the fact that an inordinate number of women are posthumously found to be “innocent” (read: virginal). The underlying assumption is that the crime would somehow seem less heinous, or at least more defensible, had the woman in question actually been “guilty” of having sex, the act which supposedly led to her murder. Honor crimes are made all the more tragic by the apparent sexual innocence of the victims.

There is a sort of twisted logic to this. To further the cause, it becomes politically necessary to strip agency from the victims. To gain people’s sympathy and to allay fears that by challenging the legitimacy of these killings we’re encouraging promiscuity or allowing women to get away with having illicit sex, the victims must be presented as pure and innocent. How else can we get people to identify with victims when they seem to have committed such unspeakable crimes? Soiled women don’t make good poster children for the cause, after all. By playing into this on strategic grounds we are vindicating the logic of the very system that allows for these sorts of crimes to happen with impunity.

This is not only a problem of practice, but it also points to the larger problem of how human rights, as a normative legal system, represents certain events and reconstructs people as victims of a particular human rights violation. This conception creates a set of disempowering and counterproductive social categories: firstly, that all victims should be innocent, and secondly, that all victims are in a perpetual state of need, denying them subjectivity and agency. When working on issues related to sexuality, this becomes acutely apparent. In advocating for the repeal of anti-sodomy laws for example, gay activists constantly find themselves having to downplay the actual act of gay sex itself. To sell the cause, we must create sex-less beings, we must transform them from criminals to victims, innocent and act-less in order for the issue to be palatable to a conservative social order. Instead of focusing on the illegitimacy of criminalization as such, we look for other issues to push the point: police brutality, invasion of privacy, torture, etc. Although this is strategically sound for our purposes, we nevertheless inadvertently end up selling ourselves short: Disembodied beings, we look up wide-eyed in supplication and ask for the world’s sympathy, insisting on our sexless innocence. It’s almost like applying a band-aid over a malignant tumor.

Still, this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, particularly not for the less “popular” victims of human rights violations such as sex workers, who suffer from systematic state persecution, situations of legal limbo (particularly if they are migrants), violence, denial of health care, and a host of other abuses. Discussions on the rights of sex workers in the human rights community are almost solely centered around their right to be free of sex work, and the possibility of some sort of agency or will in the decision to engage in sex work effectively becomes null and void. The solution becomes to reconstitute sex workers into victims of trafficking, forced into the sex trade against their will – which is firstly not necessarily true, and secondly often leads to the adoption of policies that further marginalize and criminalize.

As feminists, we really need to start critically interrogating this idea of innocence. We need to move beyond the dominant human rights model of innocent victim vs. evil perpetrator. Once we dig a little deeper and start looking at systems of social control and oppression rather than individual violators/victims, the question of accountability becomes murkier. We need to restore a model where people are active subjects of human rights rather than passive recipients, able to frame their stories and lives with autonomy and on their own terms.


Pazuzu said...

awesome I love it!

maheen said...

I agree with you in most of the points you have made but I am against the business of sex workers so I am against protecting them and giving them shelter, instead these people should be protected by state not by supporting the business of sex but by providing them alternative way to earn their livelihood. Why not try to convince them to start 1z0-042 and 1z0-050 and get ccna certification