Monday, February 8, 2010

Victoria Police giving fashion advice to Indian students?

There's been a bit of a stir in the press (in India, particularly) over Victoria's top cop Simon Overland telling Indians to "dress poorer" in order to avoid getting robbed and beaten up.

And on the face of it, it doesn't look good from Overland; my initial reaction to hearing that was: "What the...?"

Indian students, particularly those in the highest risk category for attack in Melbourne - those forced to live in the cheapest areas and working odd hours to keep afloat while studying - are hardly flossin' and flauntin' the latest expensive gear, by any means.

But looking at the wider context of what Overland said, it's nothing to huff and puff over.

Overland told Indian students at a safety forum Saturday that although police were doing all they could to stop violence against them, students should adopt self-protection strategies like avoiding public transport late at night, not living where crimes rates were higher and avoid working as taxi drivers or at late-night convenience stores.

"Don't display your iPods, don't display your valuable watch...try to look as poor as you can," he said. "If you can live somewhere safer, live somewhere safer...if you can avoid public transport in high-risk areas at night, avoid it."

Ok, so he's giving some general safety advice - advice which is common knowledge to most people, but helpful anyway - as part of his discussion which includes what the police are doing about the violence.

One of the problems with the media everywhere is that it is so over-reliant on soundbites that context is often omitted. So turning this into a headline like "Overland says Indians should dress poorer" will only succeed in making Indians unneccesarily pissed off. And it will also possibly damage sympathy amongst non-Indians in Australia, as many will interpret that quote as "It's Indians' fault for flaunting their wealth."

The reporting of safety advice is often problematic, because it can often be interpreted as blaming the victim. An example would be advising women to dress more conservatively to help avoid sexual violence; it's probably good advice, but it's easy to take out of context by misogynists, and in any case people should ideally be able to wear what they want, where they want.

So no need to get cranky at Overland for this. Not that I think Victoria Police are doing enough to combat street violence. And if the Indian community in Melbourne hadn't raised such a fuss, the police wold probably be doing even less. But it's important not to get worked up over quotes taken out of context. That doesn't help anyone.

Also check out this article today at ABC Online about the conflicting messages being conveyed by the police, the media and the Government, about these attacks.


  1. Except it's classic victim blaming! "Don't dress provocatively or you'll be attacked" *is* something to huff and puff over! It's him saying, it's your own fault if you get attacked.

  2. @ steph:
    "It's him saying, it's your own fault if you get attacked."

    That was my first thoughts when I saw the quote. However, after consideration, I think what he said was reasonable in the context that he said it.

    I agree, it sucks that anyone should have to limit what they wear, or not walk in a public place, because of fear of being attacked. Ideally, no one should ever have to do this.

    But we don't live in a perfect world. Even if the police really do get their act together, there will still be a chance of mugging. So we unfortunately need to modify our behaviour in certain situations. I have heard a number of Indians saying that Australia should educate new arrivals about staying safe.

    Whenever I'm in Jakarta, my relatives always tell me to take off my gold ear-ring and neck chain, and to be wary of taking certain kinds of transport, because they worry for my safety due to the city's crime rate.

    It's a slight leap to say "He's saying it's your own fault if you get attacked." However I agree that some people will interpret it that way, and that is where the danger lies.

    I think we need to be able to distinguish between victim-blaming and giving advice about safety. I think what he's doing here is the latter.

  3. Thanks for this... I didn't know the context. However, when you look at the whole comment, it's just common sense really...

    Great blog, by the way!

  4. I don't know. I mean, I get what you're saying, but at the same time...if the police (in particular) are giving personal safty advice, I feel like they should also be making it safe (or doing what they can to make it safe) so such personal censoring actions aren't necessary.

    Like with your example - I similarly don't wear gold jewelery when I'm in Malaysia, because I'm doing what I can to keep myself safe from parangs (and the dickheads who wield them), but I would much rather actually be safe, you know?

    I make the leap to 'He's saying it's your own fault if you get attacked' because this feels quite similar to when you hear rape cases where 'she was wearing a short skirt' is supposed to mean the dude doing the raping is somehow less at fault. I mean, you don't hear the police saying to white people, "be careful when you go out, you might accidentally bash someone."

    I guess, in rambling summary, I understand what you're saying, I just think that in this instance 'advice about safety' is very similar to victim-blaming. And that might not be Overland's fault, we could say that's because we come from a culture where the emphasis is on 'protect yourself' rather than 'get rid of gross people who think it's okay to attack you,' but still.

    Plus, it doesn't help that the rest of the advice is unhelpful. Don't catch PT at night, don't live in places where crime rates are higher, don't take certain jobs? Combined together, it really does sound like victim-blaming. (As if they have a choice of where they work, where they can afford to live, whether they can afford a taxi four nights a week, etc)

  5. ^ Yeah Steph, it's a fine line, and a double-edged sword. To use the rape analogy, while the advice to not wear a short skirt does make sense on one level, on the flipside it perpetuates the idea of women being to blame, an idea which ends up encouraging rape.

    I'm prepared to give Overland the benefit of the doubt on this one and presume that he had the best of intentions.

    The key is how people interpret it, which is why public figures need to be really careful about how they express themselves. I think the comment he made last year about Indians being more at risk because they were carrying iPods and laptops was probably not intending to blame the victim either; just an observation and a safety warning. However, that quote was widely reported and then used as a means to blame Indians for somehow being brazen enough to flaunt their wealth.