Call It Like It Is: Taking culture out of the explanation for violence against (all) women

Art by Maddy Pease

Trigger Warnings: Violence, domestic abuse

In 2013, The Telegraph claimed that “A woman is killed every hour in India because her family failed to meet her husband and in-laws’ demands for higher dowry payments and lavish gifts”. In 2010, The Guardian reported on the murder of – by her husband, in which the coroner claimed that “cultural factors were also against her” and that her husband appeared “to have been motivated by a culturally entrenched, patriarchal… attitude.”  

These kinds of statements are commonly found in Western journalism. The Telegraph’s article paints the image that violence against women runs rampant in, and is specific to, Indian culture. By claiming that cultural factors were against the murdered woman in The Guardian article, the coroner implies that the murder was an inevitable result of her culture. Not surprisingly, the West fails to recognize that a similar trend of domestic violence against women is also found in our own countries. Instead, these murders in non-Western countries are framed as both specific to, and a result of, that country’s culture. Uma Narayan terms this “death by culture,” in which culture is given as the sole explanation for someone’s death. All the while, the domestic violence and murder of women in the West escapes this sort of cultural explanation.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, framing domestic violence in this way gives no actual explanation to why it occurs and paints victims as passive beings who will inevitably suffer as a result of their culture. Second, this framing is the only knowledge many Westerners have of these other countries. Consequently, we vilify cultures in framing these acts of violence as cultural patterns. Ultimately, we impose the idea that the West has transcended this kind of violence towards women and paints these other countries as culturally inferior.

The West has successfully avoided framing the violence against women in our countries as “culturally motivated.” This does not mean however, that we are immune to domestic violence. Refuge, a women’s aid group in the UK found that one in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. In 2007, the Bureau of Justice found that females made up 70% of all victims killed by an intimate partner in the United States.

While these murders in the West and India mentioned above are results of domestic violence, there is a stark contrast between the way the West is able to frame the abuse that occurs in our respective countries and the abuse occurring in other non-Western countries. Looking at these statistics, we could easily argue that there is a domestic abuse problem in the United States. However, the West has more of a privilege in seeing instances of domestic violence as isolated events rather than cultural outcomes. Because of this, seeing these murders framed as the result of an overall culture of misogynistic hypermasculinity in the West would be unlikely, despite the fact that every year 4,774,000 women report experiencing domestic violence, and that three women are killed a day by their intimate partners.

Women experience different types of violence everywhere, which is why it is important to report it. However, the manner in which it is reported (especially if reported by somebody who is not from these countries) becomes problematic when we frame these women’s abuse and deaths as a result of their culture. When we use this frame to describe accounts of domestic violence against women, we at once deem their suffering inevitable and therefore excuse the violence that these women face, as well as create negative stereotypes of non-Western countries and their cultures.

So, yes, call out violence against women; but call it what it is and avoid using culture to completely explain why violence against women occurs.

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