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The real shame: Forcing women to marry their rapists

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In some countries, like Myanmar, women are pressured to marry their rapists (Image via flickr)

Women are being shamed and punished worldwide for being "too sexual", which needs to change, writes Johanna Higgs.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

HONOUR. IT is inherently important to the vast majority of people around the world and the cultures within it. In fact, I would argue that it is the quest for honour and respect that is at the core of what drives many, if not most, people throughout the world.

People want to be respected and will go out of their way to avoid being disrespected, or more distinctly, shamed. They will avoid certain behaviours or actions associated with shame because they are terrified of what comes with it. They fear being rejected or having it be suggested that they are not worthy of respect or value as a human. They are worried that others will see them as legitimate targets of mocking and humiliation and as slightly less than human, making them open to abuse.

Essentially, honour and shame are very powerful controllers of human behaviour.  

If you can very carefully weave ideas of honour and shame into a culture and make people believe that they are a natural part of the world instead of man-made constructions, then what you have is a very powerful ability to control people. You can make people believe that they have to behave and dress in a certain way or that there are certain things that they must and must not do. You can control where people go and with whom. You can even make people believe that they deserve violence and discrimination.   

However, one of the most unfair ways in which shame is distributed worldwide is the shame put on women for being "too sexual".  

Throughout the world, it is believed that a woman can lose her honour and value if she has been "too sexual" in some way or another. A belief that is typically not applicable to men.

This could involve having too many sexual partners or having a sexual partner outside of marriage. It could be because of the clothes that she wears and the colour of those clothes. It could be because she wears makeup or because she wants to go out at night.  

Though what is perhaps the most common form of shame put upon women worldwide is the shaming of women who have been harassed, abused or sexually assaulted in some way. Throughout the world, many people believe that it is women who should bear the consequences for the violent actions that men have done to them instead of the men themselves.

In the small territory of Abkhazia, for example, I learned that if a woman has been abused, it is considered shameful. Therefore, most women who have been abused don’t speak about it, allowing the abuse to carry on unchallenged. This consequently places women in a subjugated position where men can control them.

In Myanmar, there are cases where women who have been raped are forced to marry their rapists. This comes from the belief that a woman is only valuable if she is a virgin. Once she has been raped, she is no longer a virgin and no longer marriable, and is therefore unable to attain social value. The only option for her to restore her dignity and attain some form of social worth is for her to marry her rapist.

In Northern Iraq, a family’s honour is attached to a woman’s sexual behaviour. She is expected to be a virgin until marriage and is not allowed to engage in any kind of sex outside of marriage. If a woman is accused of having a sexual relationship outside of marriage or even suspected of it, then it is believed that she has destroyed the family honour. The only way to restore that honour is to kill her — otherwise known as an "honour killing".

These are just a few examples that I have encountered in my travels around the world of how women are shamed and punished for being "too sexual", though I could recount many.

So the question here is: why are women so targeted for their sexual behaviour when men are not?

Why are women and girls blamed and shamed when they are sexually harassed or abused? It goes beyond human logic to suggest that someone who has been victimised should be the one to bear the responsibility for what has been done to them. Yet, throughout so many parts of the world, this bizarre logic has taken shape.

In fact, it has sedimented so deeply in the mindsets of individuals throughout the world that they cannot even see that not only shaming victims of sexual violence or women who have been "too sexual" is illogical, but also incredibly destructive.

We need to ask ourselves why "things are the way they are" and question if this is right. Is it fair that one half of the population should be subject to shame for certain behaviours while the other half is not? Is it fair that women and girls are blamed for being abused rather than the abusers themselves?

American politician and lawyer Hillary Clinton said it best:

"... women’s rights are human rights..."

Everyone, everywhere, has the right to live well. They have the right to go about their daily activities free of the fear of violence and free of being shamed if somebody is violent towards them. Human rights should be just that, human rights. Not just rights for one group of people. We need to strive, as a global community, to achieve this.

Part of how we can do this is by changing the way in which we lay blame. As long as we continue to blame and shame victims as opposed to abusers, then we are not going to stop sexual harassment and violence.

Furthermore, as long as we continue to allow men to have sexual rights while not allowing women the same freedom, we will continue to see violence against women and girls justified on the basis they have been "too sexual".

Once we change our attitudes and start distributing shame fairly, we will have a better chance of experiencing a freer and fairer world for everyone — not just one half of the population.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online. Also, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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