Violence Against Women Legitimized by Argument of “Culture”

By: Farida Shaheed

Violence against  women takes place because it is accepted in patriarchal cultures – in which the concept of domination is inherent. Farida Shaheed examines how law, religion and culture attain male features and calls on women to reclaim these spaces for equality.

There is a common misperception  that “cultural ” justifications for violence only operate in “traditional” societies and are linked to specific religions or cultures. It is my contention that violence against women, regardless of where or when it occurs or the nature of its manifestation, is legitimized  by arguments of “culture” because  firstly, no society is devoid of culture and secondly, the dominant culture throughout the world is patriarchal culture which inevitably validates violence as an acceptable – even desirable –  attribute of masculinity, while simultaneously devaluing women and all attributes considered feminine, such as nurturing – not just of persons but also of relationships.


If  violence against individuals who are socially devalued  by the dominant culture is considered legitimate, specific acts of violence become acceptable. Consequently, explicit and implicit cultural legitimization for violence against  women are found  in “traditional ” societies   and practices,  in  contemporary political discourses and manifested in formal state laws. In  order to  overcome violence against women, it is the general pervasive culture of violence itself  that must be replaced by a culture of peace to ensure justice for all and to provide social spaces in which differences are resolved without violence.

It is important to understand that the law is not free of culture or biases. “Culture” translates into the law as prohibitions or  prescriptions and in the severity of punishment prescribed for a particular act compared with leniency for another. Culture is a lost evident in legal silences, in the very differentiation  between which acts a society considers to be crimes and which it condones by silence. In terms of gender-based  violence, the cultural underpinning of laws is visible in different countries across the world: in the absence of legislation criminalizing domestic violence or marital rape for instance; in what constitutes sufficient proof to establish forced intercourse;  and in the text of legal provisions that reduce culpability for murder in cases considered “crimes passionelles”.

In today’s context, as much attention  in South Asia   –   as elsewhere  –  is focused on so- called “ honour crimes”. It is worth remembering that it was the British colonial rulers who introduced this concept into  South Asian law, in the shape of the “grave and sudden provocation” clause.  The clause maintains that men should be dealt with leniently when there is evidence of provocation so acute or “grave” as to make their subsequent acts of violence excusable and, therefore, deserving of lesser punishments. The circumstances under which violence is  “understandable”  –  and  therefore to be excused –  include acts  committed to preserve one’s “ honour”, even at the expense of a woman’s life.

If  legal texts are patriarchal,  it is simply because laws have traditionally been the  prerogative of male legislators so that, as stated by Tove Stang Dahl it  “is generally men’s  experiences, opinions and interests that throughout time have been etched into law”. It  should also be added that the experience reflected in law is that of only certain men  belonging to the dominant class.

Yet laws do not implement themselves. Culture permeates  the  application and  interpretation of  laws  beyond their formulations. The law is administered   by people – the vast majority being men – who have specific cultural beliefs and understandings that they bring to and apply in their work, consciously  or unconsciously.  Textual biases against women become reinforced by the cultural beliefs of judges and other concerned officials of the law enforcement and justice  system. Indeed in some  cases, the cultural considerations and beliefs of sitting judges may be so strong as to overrule the text of the law.

In Pakistan, for instance, courts have virtually condoned men for murdering their female relatives when the accused claimed they had acted violently because  they suspected their  womenfolk of  having sexual  relationships   outside marriage. Using  the “grave and  sudden  provocation” clause,  judges  in  the  Supreme Court  of  Pakistan have opined that:  “Under  village  conditions  and even  in  many other  parts of  society in this country,  the  right  of the male member of the family to control the actions of their women folk, particularly in the field of sexual relations,  is  fully recognized and forcefully maintained. The idea that a young unmarried girl in a village family is entitled to leave her bed during the night and go where she pleases (…) simply cannot be entertained.”  In another case, the judge finding no other evidence held that: “The appellant had two children from his deceased wife and when he took the extreme step of taking her life by giving her repeated knife blows on different parts of her body, she must have done something unusual to enrage him to such an extent.”

Both statements express the cultural beliefs of the judges in support of their decision. In the first case, for example, the law does not give a male family member any legal right to control his female relatives; this “right” is “fully recognized and forcefully maintained ” only culturally and outside the pur view of the law. In the second  case, the judge’s  ruling was made on the basis of, at best, a rather naïve belief that, unless a woman does something unusually provocative, a man could not possibly murder the mother of his own children. In both judgments cultural beliefs superseded legislative provisions.

Culture is not equivalent to religion.  Even though religion, as customs and practices, does influence culture, I would posit that patriarchal considerations constitute the prism through which religion is interpreted. It is not a coincidence that, across the globe, religious interpretation has been a jealously guarded male monopoly. In the case of Islam, this monopolization has meant that, in everyday practice as well as in  law,  religious tenets supporting women’s rights are frequently overlooked, suspended or put into parentheses. Consequently, whenever there is a clash between patriarchal concerns  embodied  in “traditional customs” on the one hand and religious tenets on the other, customs almost always override even religion.

In  1997 Pakistan deleted the provision of “grave and sudden provocation” from the statute books because it was deemed un-Islamic. Nevertheless, judges continue to refer to this no-longer existent – and officially un-Islamic  – clause to reduce sentences. Experience shows that when state law, customs and religious tenets provide different options, in practice it is inevitably the one least favorable to women that is actually applied. For example, women have been killed in Pakistan simply for marrying someone of their own choice even though state laws and Islamic injunctions both unequivocally uphold an adult woman’s right to decide.

Religion per se is not the factor determining women’s oppression in Muslim societies. The essential components of patriarchy are the same as elsewhere:  women’s subordination occurs in the immediate family and in kinship structures, in state-building   projects and in international policy-making. It is the articulations of patriarchy that are always culturally specific.

Culture is not a definitive entity frozen in time, but an ever-evolving  process.  Ashish Nandy  says, “The  greatest tradition of all is  the reinvention of tradition”. Culture is continuously being amended as a result of societal contestations and in response to changing circumstances, thereby redefining norms of appropriateness. All change is not necessarily positive: developments may render violence less acceptable, but some developments may promote a greater acceptance of  violence against women as, for example, in armed conflict situations.

It is not a coincidence that, across the globe, religious interpretation has been a jealously guarded male monopoly.

Today in Pakistan– and South Asia as a whole – we face a two-fold  challenge: to confront both the traditional patriarchal culture that denies women their rights and the new patriarchal culture that presents itself in religious  robes  or other forms  of identity politics.  In Pakistan, the latter process started with the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq in the 1970s, including an acceptance of all forms of violence against citizens by justifying it in the name of religion, through the introduction of legalized barbaric punishments it claimed were “Islamic”.

Societies never have only one culture. Every society has both a dominant culture and multiple subaltern cultures. The dominant culture reflects the viewpoint and the interests of those in power at a particular time. Minorities who either do not accept or do not live according to the prescribed  “normative” behavior are often ethnic or religious  groups, but also individuals  living on the periphery of society,  such as the homeless, who also evolve their own cultures. Finally, there are the subaltern cultures representing  groups who consciously reject the main dominant culture, indicating not only differences within society but also a proactive resistance to the existing norms.

We face a two-fold challenge: to confront both the traditional patriarchal culture that denies women their rights and the new patriarchal culture that presents itself in religious robes or other forms of identity politics.

Women rarely define the dominant culture, because they do not have the economic, social or political power to do so. Of course women are not a homogenous category and are differentiated by class and other factors of power and powerlessness.

Nevertheless, while all men enjoy – in some measure  – the advantages  of a patriarchal culture and structures of power, all women suffer, albeit to differing degrees, the impositions and constraints of that same culture and structure.

When multiple cultures contend to be heard within a society, a key question is which voice is given or acquires legitimacy as the voice of the people. Where the dominant cultural trend becomes articulated by the state, a critical question for minorities is which voice the state accepts  as speaking on behalf of a particular group? Currently, for instance, certain self-proclaimed “community leaders” in the UK demand to be the voice of a ll Muslims, or of a ll Sikhs or of all Hindus, etc. Significantly, these “ leaders” are not elected by the constituency they claim to represent. Another example in South Asia are fundamentalist forces that seek to project themselves  as the sole authentic spokespeople for a community appropriating for themselves the power to define what are cultural norms: re-writing history or making reference to religion and other sources of “authenticity” to advance their essentially political and social agendas.

This takes place in the absence of organised alternative voices from within these communities  and the fact that many progressive voices from within the same communities eschew a religious or ethnic basis for their engagements, preferring to identify on other lines such as ideology or class. Surely, it should be the responsibility of the state to elicit a full compendium of voices from within a particular community of citizens as from within the citizenry at large. That implies that the state is to provide equal opportunities to different voices in society to articulate their opinions. It should mean actively searching for, and listening to, the voices of subaltern cultures and opinions within the minorities, and ensuring women’s representation. And, under no circumstances, should the collective rights and special interests of any group be promoted at the expense of the fundamental rights and human dignity of individuals within that community.

It is an of ten posed question, especially in discussions around Islam and women, whether the concept and desire for women’s self-determination is merely a western con- struct. It needs to be clearly stated that neither is women’s oppression an eastern construct, nor is women’s resistance to such oppression a western construct starting  in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women have resisted oppression throughout the ages – in ever y society. Still, the idea that women’s resistance is a western monopoly has gained so much ground that women in third world countries as a whole, and women from Muslim contexts in particular, seem to have bought into this myth. Precisely  to refute the claim that the struggle for women’s rights is a lien to women in Muslim societies and contexts, I traced women’s assertions for rights from the 8th century to the 1950s, from Indonesia in South East Asia to Nigeria in Africa, in the Arab world and in Central Asia; in South Asia and in China.  The answer to whether women’s rights  is a western construct  therefore is no. Women have fought for their rights in ever y era and society even though the articulation of rights, priorities set and strategies adopted differ across both time and space.

It needs to be clearly stated that neither is women’s oppression an eastern construct, nor is women’s resistance to such oppression a western construct star ting in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women have resisted oppression throughout the ages – in every society.

Finally, it needs to be emphasized that politico-religious parties and militant groups who present their agendas in a religious idiom and project themselves as the only true mantle  bearers  of  Islam, are not religious movements. These are political movements aiming to  gain political power at the community, national or international level. A major strategy is to monopolize the religious discourse and impose this as the only legitimate framework for all political and social discourse. This is similar to instances of ethnic-national collectivities formulated in such dichotomous terms that they preclude both dissent and pluralism from within.

These actors control people by silencing all dissenting voices, including other religious
voices. They do so by blackmailing people into silence, by equating any dissent to their proposals with an opposition – even betrayal – of people’s religion and faith, and by
crushing dissent through violence, including against their own communities.

From South Asia, I can categorically state that the political use of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. I see this as part of a wider global challenge posed by identity based politics replacing ideological political agendas. Unlike ideological agendas that aim to change underlying structures and systems, identity politics simply promise a better deal – for a particular group – defined by religion, ethnicity or language – but only if you give up your agency and let them appropriate your voice, and only if you divest yourself of all other markers of identity, and buy into the proposition that your interests are threatened
by other identity-based groups.

In conclusion, to really eliminate violence against women, we need to replace the culture of violence with a culture of peace, starting with the very earliest socialization that defines cultural notions of gender as well as acceptable and unacceptable practices, acts, behaviors.

What does this mean? It also meant that just enacting laws to address and prevent violence against women though necessary, is never going to be enough. Legal provisions need to be accompanied by measures to overturn the culture of violence promoted in news and entertainment media as well as in textbooks. Impunity for acts of violence against women rests on the cultural outlook of people in society at large and the cultural perceptions of state agents. Therefore, in order to eliminate impunity, all state agents – especially those engaged in any aspect of the justice system – must be sensitized and oriented to uphold the right of women (and other citizens) to be free from violence. In countries where legal systems coexist with informal dispute resolution forums (some traditional, some news), the state needs to take steps to ensure that informal forums are not allowed to pass rulings and/or take any actions that deny women their legal rights, respect or dignity. After all, these are rights and entitlements enshrined in many constitutions and fall under the responsibility of the state.

It would be naive, however, to expect that the state shall automatically take these steps since those with decision making powers tend to be precisely those people who benefit from the existing power dynamics, economic structures and political processes. Consequently, the state will only exercise due diligence when enough of groundswell has been created in society by political and civil society actors.


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