Gender, culture and violence: Toward a "paradigm shift?"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Maneesha Deckha, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

In analyses of gender equality and violence against women, “tradition” and “culture” frequently are invoked to explain the phenomenon in non-western societies. Specifically, violence against women in non-western societies often is blamed on some lack or deficiency in those cultures, whereas in our society the problem of violence tends to be attributed to a disturbed individual. We see this with the case of, for example, the 1989 Montreal Massacre and Marc Lépine’s murder of fourteen women.  One media commentator rejected that “these women were victims of deep-rooted cultural misogyny,” suggesting instead, that “sick and twisted people sometimes do sick and twisted things, and such crimes are largely random.”  She went on to say, if we want to see culturally-based violence against women, we should look outside Canada:  “In Afghanistan, women are routinely killed for defying men. In South Asia, vast numbers of female fetuses are aborted, and girls are routinely neglected in favor of their brothers.”

It is fine, of course, to critically think about the impact of cultural practices on women, wherever they live in the world. What is problematic are the different ways we think about western as opposed to non-western cultural practices and how they affect women. We resist representing our own culture as “patriarchal” and our own practices as “violent,” yet we routinely apply these labels to non-western cultures we view as “traditional.”  In fact, it is rare to think about practices within western cultures as “traditional” or even, for that matter, “cultural,” in relation to gender equality generally or violence against women specifically.

When “gender” is talked about in relation to “culture,” it is “traditional” non-western cultures that are evoked and presented as in need of western intervention. And it is western societies that are held up as the models to which these traditional cultures should aspire. 

There is also a subtle tendency to racialize this discourse. Western societies (seen as white, European) are perceived to be advanced in terms of gender equality. Non-western societies (seen as non-white others) are imagined as barriers to gender equality and even inherently bad for women. We see the concrete operation of this type of logic in the recent Hérouxville immigrant code of conduct initiative.

This binary paradigm distorts our understandings of other cultures, but also ourselves. The practices we think need to be altered typically stem from stereotypical views of other cultures. In contrast, when we talk about violence against women in our own cultures, we do not think of this violence as a “cultural” problem endemic to the West, but rather the work of an aberrant individual(s).  Gender equality thus becomes a sign of the “backwardness” or “forwardness” of cultures.

This colonial way of thinking about cultures is not just present in mainstream representations, but has also informed feminist theory and gender activism. In her influential article “Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?”  feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin wrote about the challenges faced by liberal societies which seek to accommodate minority cultural groups whose practices may be harmful to women and other vulnerable members of these minority groups. Typically, she took her examples of harmful cultural practices of minority cultures from racialized non-western cultures and, in turn, presented western liberal values as sources of gender equality refuge for women in these minority cultures.

Postcolonial feminist and other critical theorists such as Bhikhu ParekhChandran Kukathas and Ranjoo Seodu have countered Okin’s claims. They called for a more nuanced view of culture and women’s attachments to their minority cultural identities, and for the recognition that our understanding of other cultures are often partial, ill-informed and limited by our own cultural perspectives. As well, we need to examine our own cultural values and the assumption that western liberal values are better for women.

These insights from postcolonial feminist theory have not had a wide impact on the way in which violence against women is conventionally viewed. Yet, there are examples of some important legal and political actors adopting this critique to reshape their approaches to the gender-culture-violence matrix. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SRVAW) recently issued a document entitled “15 Years of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences – A Critical Review (1994-2009).” The document emphasizes a radical conceptual shift in the SRVAW’s mandate in how gender, culture, violence and equality relate to each other.

As the SRVAW notes in its Critical Review in a section entitled “Demystifying Cultural Discourses,” formal international women’s organizations had adopted the western assumption that cultures in the global South were “traditional” and unequal to Western cultures in respecting women’s human rights. This is the conceptual history that SRVAW’s Critical Review now eschews by replacing the term “harmful traditional practices” with the term “harmful practices,” rejecting essentialist depictions of cultures of the global South, and recognizing internal societal cultural debates and negotiations.

The SRVAW further signals its commitment to developing better understandings of the precipitators of violence against women by emphasizing the intersectional nature of violence. In a section titled “Intersectionality of Discrimination and Continuum of Violence,” the Critical Review discusses how violence is a product of multiple oppressions sustained by gendered power relations as well as other axes of social difference. With this analysis it becomes difficult to reduce the “harmful practice” at issue to the standard explanation of a “patriarchal culture.” Simplistic and reductive accounts (as displayed in the comments about Afghanistan and South Asia extracted above) of diverse countries and cultures are also less convincing.

The influence of postcolonial feminist theory and activism on the SRVAW’s mandate is a step forward in rethinking – even decolonizing – the cultural narratives surrounding gender. One can only hope that more political, legal, and cultural institutions domestically and internationally follow the SRVAW’s example in rethinking how gender, culture, and violence relate to one another.

Dr. Maneesha Deckha is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia. Email: 


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