‘Every minute in the world a woman is raped and she has no-one to blame but herself for she has displayed her beauty to the whole world … strapless, backless, sleeveless … they are nothing but satanical. Mini skirts, tight jeans … all this to tease men and to appeal to their carnal nature.’
So declared Sheik Feiz Muhammad in a speech to a packed public meeting in Bankstown Town Hall in March, according to a powerful column in The Age last week by Pamela Bone (link here).
Some years ago at a fairly sedate Sunday lunch party in one of the more respectable suburbs, my then nine-year-old daughter and a bunch of other kids got all dressed up in some cheap, brightly coloured satin nighties and put on a show for the gathered grown-ups. As my daughter pranced and pouted and showed off to the music, thoroughly enjoying herself, I heard a man say; ‘Look at that little tart!’ followed by an unmistakably dirty laugh. I turned on him. ‘She’s nine!’ I said, but the damage was done and the fun was over.
Brian Keenan, an Irish teacher working in Beirut in 1985, was unlucky enough to be kidnapped by Hezbollah and held hostage for many years. In his remarkable book about the experience, An Evil Cradling, he discusses how he and his fellow captive, Englishman John McCarthy, realised that by refusing to show fear when their kidnappers came to taunt them and beat them up, the only fear in the room belonged to their torturers. Keenan also remarks on how his captors got their jollies beating up other fellow hostages who screamed, cried and pleaded for mercy more satisfactorily.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
In each of these examples, I believe we are seeing people who are projecting their own unacceptable feelings and emotions onto others, usually the less powerful. In the Sheik’s case, he is projecting his own sexual responses onto women, holding them responsible for something that is going on inside him. He is basically saying that women make men rape them, just by being and looking like women.
Does the Sheik also apply this logic to the rich man? Does he believe the rich make poorer men steal just by being rich, and that this is an acceptable defence?
‘S/he made me do it’ is an infantile response, and the classic defence of children when caught out in wrongdoing. It is also the classic defence of the paedophile; the child was seductive, the child enjoyed it. And, perhaps, it’s also the defence of some elite sportsmen; she came across for my mates, she was obviously up for it.
There is not only no maturity in this defence, there is also no kindness in it, and no recognition of the victim’s separate existence as a person.
The man who called my nine-year-old a ‘little tart’ was also projecting his sexual responses onto her. She had no intention of arousing anything more than admiration and attention.
And for Brian Keenan’s gaolers, the unacceptable emotion was fear. By creating fear in their hostages, perhaps they could punish the manifestation of the thing they most hated in themselves. Because Keenan and McCarthy refused to show them any, they had to face up to their own fear and own it.
The weak, it seems to me, have often been made the scapegoats for the unacceptable emotions of the powerful. Domestic violence and child abuse, of any kind, are classic examples of people taking out their own feelings of inadequacy and failure on people who are unable to fight back. The boss made me feel small; I will go home and make my wife or my child feel small in turn.
Playground bullies do it, workplace bullies do it, and it seems parliamentary bullies do it too.
Perhaps, as a nation, we are doing it to the asylum seekers in our detention centres. It makes a small nation feel powerful to beat up on refugees. And because we find it unacceptable to think of ourselves as bullies, we demonise our victims as queue jumpers and illegals, even potential terrorists.
Some of the controversy around the film Downfall and its portrayal of Hitler as a person rather than a monster may also be about this. How much easier is it to see Hitler as not human and therefore nothing like me, than to accept that within us all lies similar dark potential. We must accept that all human beings can act like monsters, but that acting like one is not the same as being one.
Sheik Fiez Muhammad is not a monster, nor were the men who held Brian Keenan hostage, nor was the suburban dad who found himself fancying a nine-year-old. They are just flawed human beings like the rest of us. The suburban dad’s sin was not in fancying the nine-year-old; in fact, it was in blaming her for it. To fancy a woman in a short skirt is not sinful, to stop her wearing one as a means of controlling your emotions, however, is. In fact, I would argue that stopping her wearing the mini skirt actually makes the idea of raping her and using her short skirt as a justification, appear more acceptable.
Until we own and take responsibility for our own impulses, feelings and actions, good and bad, acceptable or unacceptable, even monstrous, we will always run the risk of causing great harm by trying to pass on our own guilt and shame to others.
In other words, it’s not the thoughts you have that cause the problem, it’s what you do with them. It is also why concepts like remorse and redemption are only possible once the sinner, the evil-doer, the rapist, the murderer, the tyrant and the ordinary flawed human being finally accept responsibility for what they have done and return their guilt where it belongs; to themselves.
Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling Vintage Press, London, 1993
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