As social media mourns the murder of yet another young woman, Olivia Petter examines how the responses illustrate just how pervasive our victim blaming culture has become
She was just going for a run: a simple phrase with tragic connotations. On Wednesday 12 January, 23-year-old school teacher Ashling Murphy was violently killed while jogging along a canal at 4pm in County Offaly, Ireland. Her murderer has not yet been found.
It’s a horrendous start to the year, one that serves as a brutal reminder that violence against women is a public emergency that shows no signs of abating.
As has become routine, many people have responded to Murphy’s death on social media. Some have focused on the fact that Murphy was attacked on a walkway named “Fiona’s Way” after Fiona Pender, an Irish woman who was heavily pregnant when she went missing in 1996.
Others have left touching tributes, honouring Murphy’s commitment to teaching and her exceptional musical talents. The majority, though, have posted that aforementioned phrase, reminding us of the sheer injustice that a woman was not safe going for a run in broad daylight.
It’s a powerful sentiment, yes, but one that might actually do more harm than good, illustrating just how far we have to go if we’re to eradicate violence against women.
In 2021, it’s been estimated that at least 138 women were killed by men in the UK. The reality, then, is that we already know that women are not safe going for a run, daytime or otherwise. Just as we know that we are not safe walking home (Sarah Everard), going to the pub (Sabina Nessa), or even being at home with a partner (Ranjit Gill).
On Thursday, the activist and author Laura Bates called on people to stop sharing the phrase “she was just going for a run” on social media altogether. “I know it comes from a place of grief and rage,” she explained in an Instagram post. “But it doesn’t matter what they were doing. When we say ‘she was just doing this’ or ‘she was just doing that’, it suggests that the case wouldn’t have been quite so awful or tragic if she had been doing something else.”
We already know that victim blaming is rife when it comes to any discussion surrounding violence against women. But what we may not realise is just how deeply woven it is into the very fabric of our society – to the point, in fact, that the same people protesting against victim blaming are also there endorsing it.
What if, as Bates points out, Murphy had been doing something less quotidian before her death? Like, say, “walking down an alleyway at 2am”? Or “going to meet her married lover”? Or getting drunk and taking drugs? Would that make her death any less unjust, or her killer’s actions any less abominable? Of course not. What it would have done, however, is invited judgment.
By highlighting the fact that Murphy was going for a run when she was killed, we are inadvertently turning her into a palatable victim. One that the general public can get behind and support wholeheartedly. Unlike, say, a woman who was doing something perceived to be in any way illicit.
The grim truth is that we live in a world that is constantly looking for ways to blame women for the acts of violent men, whether it’s by criticising their actions or their clothes. Hence why I was not surprised when I learnt that the second most-Googled question about Nessa, as highlighted by Bates, is “what was [she] wearing?”
I can recall similar conversations happening in the wake of Everard’s disappearance in March last year. Initially, before the circumstances surrounding her death came to light in court, many assumed she had been abducted while walking through Clapham Common at 9pm. Shortly after she went missing, I remember visiting a friend and overhearing her housemates, all of whom were women, lamenting the dangers of walking alone at night. “I’d never walk through the Common in the dark, who does that?” one quipped. “Really daft,” another added.
These comments persisted in some circles even after it was revealed that Everard had been deceived into getting into the car of her murderer, serving police officer Wayne Couzens, who had staged a fake arrest, accusing the 33-year-old of breaking lockdown regulations before raping and murdering her. Again, many people dismissed Couzens and instead found fault in Everard’s actions, claiming on social media that they would have never got in the car. I would have, and I know many others would have too.
We are conditioned to blame women instead of men unless, of course, that woman fits a societal mold of what people think a victim should look like a young woman jogging in the afternoon, for example.
Truth is, when it comes to violence against women, there are no “good” and “bad” victims. There are just dead women. Until people realise that, nothing will change.