Monday, June 16, 2014

'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.
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’.

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