Victim blaming refers to holding the victim responsible for the crime committed against them. This can take an extreme form where the blame is shifted entirely from the perpetrator of the crime to the victim. More commonly, though, there is an attempt to transfer some of the blame to the victim, thus holding them partly responsible for the act. The following are some forms of victim blaming that are commonly encountered.
- Questioning the intent of the victim;
- Implying that the victim should have done more to prevent the crime;
- Blaming the victim for being complacent;
- Casting aspersions upon the victim’s character;
- Accusing the victim of tempting the perpetrator into committing the crime.
Whatever form victim blaming takes, it has the effect of making the victim feel liable for the crime while reducing the accountability of the perpetrator. It can seriously harm the victim’s morale and reputation, and create hurdles for them on the path to obtaining justice.
Islam calls for taking measures to prevent harassment-related incidents such as prescribing modesty and vigilance for both men and women. However, Islam never considers a lack of caution on the part of the victim as an excuse for any form of harassment or crime. It is thus rather unfortunate that victim blaming has become a norm in many Muslim societies, and some people even try to justify their defense of the perpetrators by falsely using the name of Islam.
Let us understand the Islamic stance on victim blaming in the light of authentic textual evidence. What follows is an analysis of three incidents that occurred during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and which clearly prove Islam’s uncompromising stance against victim blaming.
The Harassment Incident
There was a woman in Madinah who earned money by selling dates while her husband was out of town. As she was going about her business one day, a man invited her inside his house on the pretext of offering her better dates. Once she was indoors, however, the man forcefully kissed her. He later regretted his conduct and went to the Prophet ﷺ to seek expiation for his sin. The Prophet ﷺ angrily chastised him, saying, “Is this how you take care of a woman whose husband is away striving in the way of Allah?” The Prophet ﷺ made the man feel truly ashamed until he felt like he was “destined for Hell” at that moment. (Reported by Tirmidhi)
What is worth noting here is not just the empathy and compassion the Prophet ﷺ expressed for the harassed woman, but also the fact that he did not blame her in the slightest. A typical response might have been to probe into the woman’s intent. “What was she doing inside the house of an unknown man? Why did she go about knocking on strangers’ doors in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better for the woman to hire a man to sell on her behalf?” The Prophet ﷺ, however, asked none of those questions. Instead, he placed the blame squarely on the man who should have acted decently and treated the woman with respect.
The Rape Incident
Rape was quite rare in early Muslim society, but there is one recorded incident where a woman was raped while going to the mosque for prayer, and the attacker escaped without being seen by her. When she cried for help, a man was found nearby who denied the charge but the woman was confident that he was indeed the attacker. He was then brought to the Prophet ﷺ for judgment. As Islam prescribes the death penalty for rape, the Prophet ﷺ was about to sentence him when the real attacker spoke out and admitted to raping the woman. The Prophet ﷺ spoke some good words to the innocent man and freed him, while the rapist was executed. (Reported by Abu Dawud)
There are two points worth considering here. First, the Prophet ﷺ did not say anything to shift the blame from the rapist to the woman. He neither commented on what the woman could have done to avoid the rape nor asked her any insensitive questions: “Why did she have to go to the mosque when women have been allowed to pray at home? Why didn’t she shout for help during the act? Did she put up enough resistance?” It is simply against the spirit of Islam to ask such questions. Second, the Prophet ﷺ did not hold the woman liable for misidentifying her attacker. He understood the state of mind she was in and the agony she must have gone through. In fact, he assured the woman that Allah had already forgiven her mistake. Such regard for the victim is rarely seen even today.
The Slander Incident
A third incident worth mentioning involved slander against the Prophet’s ﷺ wife, Ayesha. While returning from a journey, Ayesha got separated from the rest of the caravan, until a man named Safwan arrived and asked her to mount his camel while he walked beside her. When the two rejoined the caravan soon after, some hypocritical men accused Ayesha of infidelity, and the rumor gradually spread throughout Madinah. The Prophet ﷺ was greatly hurt by the malicious gossip that put his wife’s honor at stake. After about a month, Allah cleared Ayesha of any blame through revelation and prescribed punishment for those who had slandered her. (Reported by Bukhari)
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It’s important to note that the Prophet ﷺ never once blamed Ayesha for the serious allegation against her nor demanded any explanation from her. He didn’t ask her any typical questions such as, “Why did you give people a chance to talk about you? Why couldn’t you stay with the rest of the caravan? Why did you ride Safwan’s camel and not wait for a larger group to come to your aid?” On the contrary, the Prophet ﷺ publicly defended Ayesha even when he was unaware of what had really transpired, saying, “I know nothing except good about my family…” The verses of the Quran that subsequently exonerated Ayesha also included no words of reproach for her. In fact, the Quran categorically states that the perpetrators of slander – rather than the victims – are to be blamed and punished even if the victims have been incautious or inattentive to the situation.
It is clear from these three incidents that Islam treats the victims of harassment, slander, and similar crimes with dignity, and provides them support instead of holding them accountable for the act in any way. It also accepts no excuses in favor of the perpetrators, as the Quran states, “Indeed, those who accuse chaste, unwary, believing women, have been cursed in the world and the Hereafter, and a mighty chastisement awaits them.” (Quran 24:23) Thus, Islam neither supports victim blaming nor tolerates it.