Why is a woman’s character brought into question when she is, in fact, the victim?
Victim-blaming and honour killings belong in the same category. Or perhaps it would be better to see victim-blaming as a newer version of honour killing.
From the practice of satidaha to the stoning of women in the name of fatwa, these are the undeniable results of the objectification that women go through.
In Bangladesh, the psychology of victim-blaming is existent not only in the mindset of the people, but also in its laws. Recent legislations have been proactive in ensuring equality for women in the country, but there are some major legislations which still exist and continue to harm the social status of women and leave the doors open for the practice of victim-blaming.
For example, Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872 states that, when a woman accuses someone of rape or sexual assault, her immoral character can be a ground fo defense. The section also gives a justification and a moral cause to stop a prostitute from filing a false allegation against any man.
Almost in all of the recent high-profile cases related to women, the victims have been dehumanized in trials of the media and the courts. To prove a woman as a person of immoral character, the place of crime, and the presence of the victim have been adopted as attributes which fulfill such a justification.
In fact, the consent to be present in the crime scene has been considered as consent to sexual acts. And hence, immoral character is established. The section which aspires to “save” men from false allegations is the same section that dishes out injustice to women in the form of character assassination.
Because this section does not define what the attributes of immoral character are. This major gap creates an unjustifiable environment of victim-blaming in the court room. When the judiciary itself entertains victim-blaming instead of protecting them from blame, society is bound to uphold the same practice.
The nexus of 155(4) is closely interlinked with Section 146(3), which clearly permits the defense counsel to ask questions to shake someone’s statement by injuring his/her character. That means the act is permitting the counsel to ask anything, willing to besmirch the character of an individual in order to destroy their credibility as a witness.
Presumption of innocence means one shall be considered innocent until one is proven guilty.
The principle seems to be colliding with these two sections of the Evidence Act.
If the law doesn’t permit someone to call a person a criminal without proof, it should not have permitted a person to be called immoral with the same procedures, especially when she is the one seeking justice for a violation of the nation’s law.
Unfortunately, people still normalize victim-blaming, and a 150-year-old law cannot be expected to fix the issue.
If we aspire to stop the culture of victim-blaming, we need to amend these two sections of the Evidence Act. The amendments must stop character assassination and try to find justifiable ways of examining the victim or witness without questioning their character.
Secondly, if we aspire to stop social victim-blaming, then society’s mindset needs to change -- a mindset that doesn’t question the dignity of a woman, a mindset that doesn’t assassinate the character of a woman, a mindset that doesn’t judge with bias when someone seeks justice for sexual assault, rape, murder, or abetment. This will ensure a better future for us and our future generations.
Sakhawat Sajjat Sejan is Lecturer, Department of Law, Feni University.