In a recent comment on one of my posts dealing with the notion of “feminist ethics, I was encouraged to reflect on the related issue of women as victims, a recent cultural movement that has pretty much displaced radical feminism. In thinking about the issue I came across an essay on the topic by Alesha Almazroui that speaks to the important role words play in the way we think about and eventually deal with reality. It is suggested in this essay that the word “victim,’ like so many words we bandy about, demeans and exacerbates the situation of women the world over who are, indeed, discriminated against and often subjected to rape and domestic violence. The article suggests that we start to talk about such women differently if we are to avoid reducing the issue to one of self pity and perceived weakness; instead we should stress those situations in which those “victims” become empowered as a result of their experience. I enclose much of that discussion below, since I really cannot put it any better.
In a legal context, the word “victim” is usually used to describe an individual who has experienced injury or harm (or both) as a direct result of a criminal offence. However, using the word in a public discourse can, arguably, do more harm than good, as it helps to reinforce the disempowering narrative of victimisation of women.
This is not to underestimate the serious challenges that women around the world face every day. But the human ability to learn from our experiences and heal ourselves is something to consider and support when dealing with those who suffer from abuse, violence or discrimination.
The word “victim” is controversial, because it emphasises vulnerability and powerlessness. It is in essence a one-dimensional view that reduces a human being to a passive individual and undermines the human capacity to thrive after adverse events.
The term can be associated with weakness, deficiency, fragility and even shame. It could mean that the person is entirely dependent on others’ support to survive. Thus, it may potentially affect how women view themselves, how others treat them and how support to these women is designed and offered in the forms of programmes and services.
An important question here is this: if the word is avoided while discussing women’s issues, will it change anything? I think it will.
In this context, it’s helpful to remember how changing “disabled” to “special needs” has changed the entire discourse regarding this group of people. Pushing the term “persons with special needs” into the mainstream had led to a shift in attitude to the treatment and education of people who were traditionally described as “disabled” or “handicapped”.
The focus has shifted from what people with special needs were not able to do towards how we can, as a society, meet and support their special needs.
Reframing an issue by adopting a vocabulary that is more objective and less biased is more than an act of playing with semantics.
Such examples highlight the power that language has to construct. Viewing oneself as a victim can lead to a culture of dependency.
On the other hand, the word “survivor”, for example, has a positive connotation. Survivors are strong. They have conquered their bad experiences and managed to move forward with or without support. Language has the power to create positive and negative images of people which, in turn, affects social practices and even public policy.
Women who survived abuse or violence might be victims in some ways – but they are definitely more than that. There is much more to them, their lives, their feelings and their personalities than the instances of abuse or violence they have experienced no matter how profound these are. Each one of them has her own cultural and individual experiences. They are human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
Focusing on a negative narrative can be counterproductive. Instead, we can focus on “survivors” and tell positive stories to inspire young women to cope better with their challenges. It’s all about the narrative.
It is indeed all about the “narrative.” So much of our thinking is determined by the words we use and when we use them loosely it is highly likely that we will find ourselves thinking loosely as well. There’s far too much of that sort of thing going around. The notion that women who have been victims have shown the courage to become survivors changes the way we look at the situation and restores the women who have been badly treated to positions of strength. Self pity is replaced by a sense of self-worth by the women themselves and negative connotations are replaced by positive ones on the part of those who know of their situation only from the outside..