Shame is perhaps one of the most powerful controllers of human behaviour.
When one experiences it, it gives one feel a feeling of pain as if they have done something dishonourable, improper or ridiculous. A feeling of embarrassment and humiliation.
People may thus avoid certain behaviours and actions that are associated with shame because they are afraid of what others will say, of how others will treat them. They are afraid that others will see them as being open to being abused. They fear being rejected and being made to feel as if they are not quite human.
Perhaps one of the most unfair ways in which shame is placed upon others, is the shame that is put on women who have experienced sexual violence.
Throughout the world, shame has somehow weeded itself deep into cultural consciousness of societies where it is believed that if a woman has been sexually harassed, assaulted or abused then it she who should bear the shame of the abuse, as opposed to the abuser.
In my travels that have spanned the globe for more than 16 years, I have come across these ‘cultural concepts’ of shame that blame women for the violence perpetrated against them, everywhere.
In the small territory of Abkhazia for example, it is considered shameful for a woman to talk about their experiences of domestic or sexual violence. Should a woman experience such violence, she will for the most part stay silent, afraid of the shame that comes with speaking out.
In Burma, cultural beliefs of honour and shame run so deep that there are cases where women who have been raped, have been forced to marry their rapist. This is because it is believed that a woman is only valuable if she is able to get married and in order to get married, she has to be a virgin. So once she has been raped, then she has lost her value. The only option left for her to restore her value and get rid of the shame, is for her to marry her rapist.
In Northern Iraq, similar cultural concepts of honour reign. A woman is expected to be a virgin until marriage. Should she have a sexual relation outside of marriage or even be suspected of it, then it is believed that she had destroyed the family honour and the only way to restore the honour, is to kill her. This is otherwise known as an honour killing.
In Tajikistan women and girls are expected to remain virgins until they are married. Whilst it is considered acceptable for men to flaunt themselves and have multiple sexual partners, women cannot. So should a woman loose her virginity before marriage then she will be subject to cultural condemnation and shame that men who have participated in the same actions, will not.
These are just a few examples, however there are many such cases throughout the world. Women and girls are shamed, in varying intensities, for the exact same behaviours that men themselves carry out and most unfairly, for the violence that is perpetrated against them.
So the key question here is why?
What is it that has led so many cultures and so many communities all over the world to come to the same bizarre conclusions that women should be shamed for the same things that men do and for the violence perpetrated against them and not the men who have perpetrated the violence?
How is it that regardless of whether you are from a small village in Afghanistan, a big city in the United States or a rural town in Gabon, that similar cultural ideas have emerged that allow men sexual freedom but not women and that blame women for the violence that men have perpetrated against them?
In the case of sexual assault and harassment, it goes beyond human logic to suggest that someone who has been victimised should be the one to bear the shame. Yet, all over the world, this bizarre logic has taken shape. It has sedimented so deeply in the cultures, religious identities and mindsets of individuals, that they cannot see that these kinds of attitudes not only make no sense at all, but are in fact, incredibly violent.
We need to ask ourselves why things are this way and we need to ask ourselves if they are right. We need to ask ourselves if we think that its fair that half the population of the world should be shamed for certain behaviours, while the other half are not. We should also ask ourselves whether its fair that women have to live under constant fear of being shamed for actions that they did not do while those who have perpetrated the actions are left free of blame?
I say that it is not fair and we need change.
Part of the way in which we can make change is by changing the way in which we lay blame. We need to place the blame where it belongs, and that is on those who perpetrate the violent acts.
We need to shame men who rape, sexually harass, intimidate or threaten women. They need to be rejected by their families and communities and be punished for the actions that they themselves do.
When we begin to shame these men who perpetrate so much violence and create so much misery, then we will have a better chance at seeing a freer and fairer world for everyone, not just one half of the population.