Don’t blame the clothes, blame the culture

LET me say it louder for the education officials in the back: We cannot blame women's and girls' attire for sexual violence. The fact that this has to be said in 2022 is alarming. The fact that it's being said in response to the declarations of educators is even more so.

At the height of protests over students being locked out of school because of the length and tightness of their uniforms two weeks ago, principal of Godfrey Stewart High, Emily Lawrence-Ricketts had this gem to say: "Since May 26, one of the reasons we are having this uniform conformity drive is that we have a number of predators who molest the young girls in taxis and buses. What we are trying to do is use the uniform as a deterrent. When the uniforms are short [the predators] tend to touch the students. There has been a surge in molestation cases at the institution because of the public transportation..."

Then, in a wave of support, Education Minister Fayval Williams defended the principal, saying she stood with her in defence of having children obeying school rules.

It's both archaic and harmful thinking that the way a girl or woman dresses is an invitation to predators. In fact, in a display of the clothing victims wore at the time of the assault — from sweat pants to overalls — an exhibition in Thailand in 2018 challenged the notion that women's appearance and behaviour were to blame when they are assaulted. Titled 'Social Power Exhibition against Sexual Assault', the exhibition was part of the campaign #DontTellMeHowToDress, Thailand's answer to the #MeToo movement.

Lawrence-Rickets isn't alone in her thinking, though; indeed, many educators and others feel that way — not just here locally, but in other countries too.

There was the case a few years back of an administrator at a New Zealand school who told female students that their uniform skirts must be knee-length to stop boys from getting ideas, and create a good work environment for male staff. Also, Italy's Court of Appeal said essentially that a woman wearing jeans couldn't be raped, and overturned a rape conviction, saying that the supposed victim must have agreed to sex because her jeans could not have been removed without her consent. And a 2005 Amnesty International UK poll, as part of Amnesty's Women's Rights campaign, showed that more than a quarter of those asked, said that they thought a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing.

But even though these beliefs have been proven inaccurate time and time again, they persist. Fact is, sexual assault and molestation can happen to anyone, including men. Who asks what a man or a boy was wearing when the assault happens to this gender? Predators choose their victims because of power, not because of how they are dressed. It's a very dangerous assumption to make that rape or molestation is something that can be prevented by a woman behaving a certain way or dressing a certain way.

What we should focus on is a cultural shift instead of policing the lengths of young girls' uniforms. Shift the idea to the perpetrators, who must bear responsibility for their deviance. Shift it to those in power who are offended by skin, so much so, that they make archaic rules to justify themselves. Because the more we push this belief that girls are to blame for what happens to them, the more we ignore the real problem of predators and paedophiles in our society.

Jevaughnie Smith is a second-year communications student. Send feedback to allwoman@jamaicaobserver.com.

JEVAUGHNIE SMITH

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