[OPINION] When religion blames the victim

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] When religion blames the victim
'In congregations around the Philippines, women are enjoined to be submissive to their husbands. The Filipino translation is more forceful: magpasakop sa asawa.'

Rape happens not only because there are rapists. 

Rape happens when as a society we allow it to happen. How so? Way before the physical aggression takes place are the jokes and innuendos we hear among our relatives and friends. Too often women are on the receiving end.

And yet they get the blame for being raped.

Jokes and innuendos are not painful, at least physically. Most of the time they are meant to be funny. That is where their power lies. To laugh at something hard-hitting is to soften the blow.

This was exactly what the Lucban Municipal Police Station wanted to achieve on its Facebook page: “Kayo naman mga ghErlsz (sic), wag kayo magsuot ng pagkaikli-ikling damit at pag naman nabastos ay magsusumbong din sa amin. Isipin ‘nyo rin!” (READ: Police tell girls: Don’t wear short clothes to prevent sex crimes)

It is uncertain if anyone laughed at it. But what is clear is that it blamed the potential victim. Of course, Ben Tulfo could not resist himself and celebrities thankfully put him in his place.

We know that blaming the victim is the immediate response. To lay the responsibility on the woman is a far easier exercise than to consider gender relations, patriarchy, and sexism

There’s only so much though that we can achieve with firefighting. We need to question where exactly the habit of blaming the victim comes from. 

We might wish to begin with our religious upbringing.

Woman’s worth

That women must be modest is a colonial import.

The impressive work of the historian Marya Svetlana Camacho is instructive. During the Spanish period, chroniclers described Tagalog and Visayan women as “lewd” and “unchaste” because of their “perceived sexual licentiousness.”

Boarding schools were set up where women were taught “purity, modesty, and seclusion.” 

The whole point was to prepare them to become homemakers. Virtue, in effect, defined a “woman’s worth.”

Now that’s something.

The expectation that women today must practice modesty lest they become victims of rape builds on this religious socialization. 

Today, the Bible is still used around the world to shape believers’ attitudes towards sex (and gender identity). Biblical scholars Katie Edwards and Emma Nagouse argue that in the Bible, rape “functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.” Stories abound in which women are taught to protect their sexual purity because they are male property.

In congregations around the Philippines, women are enjoined to be submissive to their husbands. The Filipino translation is more forceful: magpasakop sa asawa (be conquered by their husband).

They are also instructed to dress properly as a sign of modesty. Women are taught too to be forgiving towards their erring husbands, without any regard for the reality of domestic violence and even marital rape. 

Also, I have encountered pastors who uncritically blame Eve, the woman, for the sin of Adam, the man.

To be sure, these sermons are not only concerned about rape. But at the very least, they constitute the dominant discourse that women are entities who need to either restrain themselves or be restrained.

Culture war?

If churches and their ministers are not judicious about how they deploy modesty as a spiritual virtue, they unwittingly place the burden on women. 

Asking women to be modest, after all, assumes that dressing properly and behaving as godly women would be enough to arrest rape and sexual harassment in households (and even churches). 

And yet the trap for religious ministers is to reduce everything to a culture war. Many pastors are convinced that the problem lies in the liberal (and “liberated”) virtues of self-expression. 

To them, these ideas are detrimental to the conservative principles espoused by what they believe to be the teachings of the Bible.

To consider the woman’s worth as a battlefield misses the whole point about rape and how it is ultimately about power, sexism, and control.

Fighting back

The reality of rape is undeniable. In 2019 alone, 2,162 rape cases were reported to the police, higher than the 1,656 in 2018. The figures do not include unreported incidents.

In the midst of the lockdown, reports suggest that abused women and children are more vulnerable. This is because during the quarantine, potential victims are forced to be with their abusers at home. Civil society organizations have thus expressed concern about the inability of victims to report incidents. (READ: To cross coronavirus border, prostituted women abused by cops first)

How do we even end all of this? Of course the answer is not only a theological matter.

At a time when even the president can get away with rape jokes, we know that the problem is far bigger.

But we can begin somewhere. Because the social environment enables rape, we need to question whenever women are asked to practice modesty — especially when it happens in our congregations. 

Women are not the enemy. Churches need to become spaces where they are empowered to fight back and say no to all forms of violence, chief of which is rape. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Associate Professor and the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist of religion, he is a recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology. He is currently working on a monograph on religion and gender with Anjo Lorenzana and Robbin Dagle. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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