About 10 months into my time in Baku, Azerbaijan, I became something of a minor celebrity. On a walk home from dinner one night, a friend and I were ambushed from behind by a quartet of boys. I was left with a couple of bruises; my friend’s arm was broken.
People nearby saw everything but did nothing.
Azerbaijan is a small, autocratic country with only a handful of Westerners. Street violence like what we experienced is almost unimaginable there and, therefore, completely compelling.
In the days and weeks after the attack, our story was repeated over and over again—in Azeri news outlets, by NGOs that saw us as easy anecdotes for reports on reporter oppression, by American and Azeri officials.
When people asked me about what happened, I was too shaken to offer much beyond my standard: “It was weird; I’m fine.” The only anecdote I did share—more times than I’d like to admit—was that in the days after the attack, a fellow American woman had circulated an email to other expats linking what I’d been wearing (listed in explicit detail) to what had happened.
As I tried to recover, the only thing I was coherently, consistently, ragefully angry about was this email. It was strange to me even then that this woman—not the boys who attacked us, the police who mistreated us, the officials who pushed rumors about what had happened—was the epicenter of my rage.
I was reminded of her as I watched the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case unfold, particularly as two girls were arrested for threatening to harm the victim. What had made this pair of students so furious at another girl when by all rights it was the boys who deserved their anger? Why do we all fall so easily into blaming one another in the face of sexual violence?
“It wouldn’t matter what you were wearing, though,” one friend helpfully pointed out after I repeated my story to her months later. I had spent long days alone, dwelling on what had happened and rehashing arguments about how my skirt hadn’t been that short, my top more than modest. Somehow, it had never occurred to me to just let it go.
And yet I grew up with a strong mother, attended an all-girls primary school, and was lucky enough to go to the kind of college where people examined their own privilege as a sort of parlor game. I knew all the platitudes. I knew about “victim shaming.” Still, in the moments after I was attacked, and for many moments to come, what mattered most to me was what other women thought. Because if they thought I’d done something wrong, maybe I had.
And it was easier to be annoyed with some gossip—something I could explain away—than to face the reality that I’d probably never feel safe in quite the same way again. Maybe that’s why this woman bore an unreasonable proportion of my wrath. Maybe that’s why we’re so simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the story of the two girls who menaced the Steubenville victim. And maybe that fact—that pettiness is easier to confront than violence, that girl-on-girl meanness is more comprehensible than the violations that could happen to any one of us—is why all three lashed out in the first place.