'Victim' vs 'Survivor': feminism and language

Rahila Gupta argues that the term ‘victim’ needs to be reclaimed by feminist politics; whilst 'survivor' is important because it recognises the agency of women, it focuses on individual capacity, but the notion of 'victim' reminds us of the stranglehold of the system.

Rahila Gupta
16 June 2014

Anyone who joins a political movement will recognise the importance of asserting their right to belong to that movement by using the right language. When I became active in feminist politics in the eighties, one of the first signifiers of my new consciousness was to use the word ‘survivor’ to describe women rather than ‘victim’, a way of thinking popularised perhaps by Liz Kelly  in her book Surviving Sexual Violence  Describing women as survivors rather than victims was to emphasise the positive, the heroic; it was a triumph of hope over despair, of the future opening up rather than closing down. Partly it was also a question of accuracy: many women who had faced the most appalling levels of violence had escaped, survived and gone on to build a life for themselves. Partly it was a question of jettisoning all the negative connotations that had attached themselves to the concept of victim: ‘helpless’ and ‘passive’ particularly grated on feminists when our political project was all about the fight back. Passive, in particular, smacked of weakness and quintessential feminine qualities. ‘Damaged’, ‘powerless’ and the shamefulness of being considered weak were also part of the baggage of victimhood. Besides, the terminology laid down a clear marker of difference between feminists and bureaucrats because government policy documents had yet to come round to the use of ‘survivor’.

In the 70s and 80s, when activists were setting up refuges and centres in the UK to deal with domestic and sexual violence, it was strategic to construct women as victims of male violence in order to win over public sympathy to their cause and government funding for their services. Having portrayed domestic violence as a toxic situation and the perpetrators as indefensible,  activists needed to find a way of explaining why battered women often returned to their abusers and answering the age-old question, ‘why didn’t she leave’ in such a way that no blame was attached to the victim. “To the extent that victims are presented as trapped, and survivors, conversely, are shown as making choices, they are constructed in ways that place them at opposite poles of an agency continuum” says Jennifer Dunn who has traced the history of the changing terminology.  Activists cited psychological motives such as being trapped by fear, love, guilt or societal expectations of a woman’s role i.e. they constructed a narrative in which the ‘victim’ could not be held responsible for her misfortunes.  But this devaluing of women’s capacities did not sit well with feminist politics.  Activists began to construct a narrative that posited staying in a violent relationship as a form of resistance and not merely a coping strategy. When ‘staying’ is constructed as a woman exercising choice, the concept of choice becomes so elastic that it’s likely to boomerang and cause serious injury. I part company with such idealisation - especially when there are systemic reasons such as lack of refuges or loss of financial support - which prevent women from leaving, particularly in the developing world. The downside of the political drive to endorse a woman’s actions is to underplay the oppressive power of the system.

It is the same language of choice that is used by supporters of prostitution to portray women entering the sex industry as free agents. Women like the research scientist, Brooke Magnanti, who worked as a prostitute to finance her studies and wrote a blog under the pseudonym of Belle De Jour, helped to perpetuate that myth. For the same reasons, women like Laura Maria Agustin who support sex work, dismiss mounting evidence of trafficking of women and girls because any element of ‘coercion’ destroys the central plank of their argument.  Agustin rails against what she calls the trafficking ‘rescue industry’  because it takes away the agency of sex workers and ‘objectifies them, treating them as unthinking things that are moved around the world against their will’. However, a group of ex-prostitutes, ESSO, claim that only 2% of women freely enter the sex industry.  It is also estimated that 70% of those recruited into prostitution are minors who, by definition, cannot be seen to have made a free choice. Add to this, poverty, homelessness, a history in care, a history of physical or sexual abuse, and drug addiction: if a ‘victim of circumstances’, opts for prostitution as an escape route, it is hardly an example of agency.

There are those who argue that the victim narrative saturates first world discourse about third world women. Chandra Mohanty in her famous essay Under Western Eyes objects to the representation of third world women as ‘victims’, and questions feminist scholarship that homogenises a category as wide as ‘third world woman’ without taking into account the specificities of class, religion, cast and culture.  While I would agree with her, this approach has also spawned a problematic anti-orientalist  feminist scholarship; any critique of harmful cultural practices, religious orthodoxy and their impact on women tend to be dismissed as Orientalist.  In 2012, openDemocracy carried a series of articles on ‘Citizenship after Orientalism’, some of which exhibited exactly this tendency. For Lisa Pilgram, any opposition to shari’a law is a form of orientalism. Similarly, Letitia Sabsay believes that any challenge to the hijab is reproducing the Orientalist trope of victimhood that has bedevilled the Muslim woman. However, what this counter narrative cannot accommodate is the existence of dissenting traditions and voices like mine, speaking from within the culture whilst being critical of it, and so it too, ends up homogenising third world women as a group who happily accept their culture as it stands.

An enabling state with better resourced provision of shelters, and better implemented legislation on violence against women, reduces the prospect of women becoming victims. As it happens, an unpalatable fact to some, this is more likely to be found in the developed world rather than the developing world.  Educated urban women in employment and with access to some personal wealth in places like the Indian sub-continent are less likely to become victims of their circumstances.  But many women and girls, by reason of poverty, misogyny, entrenched caste prejudice and a negligent police force, like the recent shocking case of the Dalit girls, who were gang-raped and hung, are victims. Others like the Delhi based sisters, who were blinded and burnt by acid thrown over their faces by a rejected and vengeful suitor, on whose behalf Southall Black Sisters ran a fundraising campaign in 2010, may have survived, but their lives are blighted with depression and suicide attempts. Although the fundraising campaign dutifully referred to them as survivors, they are, in fact, victims; they are surviving, not living.

There are also practical implications of the terminology used which can lead to a withdrawal of support or funds from the state or other donors. For example, Rob Jenkins, while discussing the role of women in food security and peacebuilding in post-conflict states, has argued that women’s rights campaigners in emphasising the agency of women in opposition to the ‘tendency to characterize women as ‘victims’ (of war, of development, of states, of patriarchy)’, have unwittingly sided with neoliberal demands for minimal state intervention.

Whilst I understand why victim became a dirty word in feminism, I feel that the insistence of ‘survivor’ does a disservice to feminism:  'survivor' celebrates the individual, but 'victim' recognises the enormity of the system we are up against, and its brutalising potential.

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