One of the most insidious ways of normalizing and justifying gendered violence is by tying it to tradition. By portraying perpetrators as if they were enacting the accepted practices of a culture, those in power position victims of violence not only against their victimizer, but also against the weight of a culture’s history. Additionally, “tradition” is a popular buzzword that protects a practice from interrogation, hiding it behind a shield of maintaining history or honoring ancestors.
Examples of this kind of use of tradition can be found in Niamh Reilly’s book Without Reservation: The Beijing Tribunal on Accountability for Women’s Human Rights, in which a number of women from all over the world provide accounts of gendered violence against women. A woman named Ruth Manorama writes about Dalit women in India, describing how “the ideology of caste, which classifies people as unclean and untouchable, has become an instrument to legitimize power and privilege in a hierarchical and unjust social order” (118). The result is a devaluation of Dalit women, which legitimizes their physical and sexual abuse by members of upper castes. The “tradition” of economic and social stratification within the caste system (already problematic by itself) becomes twisted into a justification for all forms of gendered violence.
In another account from the same book, Sultana Kamal tells the story of Nurjahan, a Bangladeshi woman who was driven to suicide “because of a fatwaa – a decree issued by an illegal and self-appointed village court” (129). The local imam, furious at his marriage offer being rejected by Nurjahan’s family, charged the woman with an illegal marriage and sentenced her to death by stoning. Kamal notes that “This was not a normal or customary punishment in the village or in Bangladesh” (130). Nurjahan did not have the chance to be inflicted with this punishment; she committed suicide out of the dishonor faced by her and her family from this spurious charge – a dishonor constructed out of the imam’s manipulation of authority, which allowed him to bring the power of tradition into the service of his own misogynistic desires.
Traditions don’t need to be respected in order to be used in the service of gendered violence, though. Even traditions that are dismissed as “backwards” or “exotic” can obscure the practice of gendered violence by relegating it to the domain of the Other – in fact, the weirder the better. It mean the perpetrators are freaks, uncivilized people who aren’t like us. As a result, we forgo any analysis of our own, “normal” violence against women, because we think it’s only caused by people “over there.”
Consider the case of Ciudad JuÃ¡rez, a city in Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas, which has been the site of a series of disappearances of young women for over a dozen years. These women are often found murdered and sexually assaulted. Lourdes Portilloâ€™s 2001 documentary, SeÃ±orita Extraviada, details both the pattern of the murders and the various responses by officials in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and abroad. These “responses” have been notoriously unhelpful, and have done little if anything to halt the murders.
There are many noteworthy aspects of the JuÃ¡rez murders and the responses to them in connection to an analysis of gendered violence, but for now I’m interested in a particular, though brief, bit of the documentary. At some point, several years after the murders began, investigators recovered a body with strange, deliberate wounds in a scene with other evidence of some sort of ritual. When news of this broke, there was fear and horror in the public’s reaction – a fear and horror which were conspicuously missing when the murders began, and the numbers of missing women added up. The possibility of “crazy devil worshippers” got the attention, while the possibility of normal, local people causing the deaths of hundreds of women did not.
In an article titled, “Girls and War Zones: Troubling Questions,” Carolyn Nordstrom describes the pervasive victimization of girl children both in and out of war. In the early 1990s, a series of disappearances of children from Maputo, Mozambique raised media attention. The media claimed that the origin of these disappearances was tied to feiticeiria, “indigenous medicine used to cause harm and to gain power at the expense of others. Body parts, often of children, are claimed to be the ingredients in the more powerful and dangerous medicines of feiticeiria” (68).
This was not actually the case, of course; the purpose behind the kidnappings was a child trafficking industry that sold children into domestic slave labor in white South African homes, or into prostitution. However, “while the fanciful stories of selling ‘body parts’ in the pursuit of sorcery were widely circulated in the media, the actual selling of living children was not” (69).
My examples have come from non-U.S. countries, but of course the United States and other Western powers are not immune from this manipulation of tradition. We have our own insidious ways of perpetuating gender bias, from the tradition of making women take their husband’s last name to the idealization of the private sphere, which sets up the nuclear family as the domain of the head of the household (read: men). The latter tradition directly influences the practice of gendered violence, as it has historically been one of the biggest obstacles to feminist attempts to raise awareness and resistance to domestic violence. And of course, none of these traditions are immovable barriers – they can be resisted, but to do so would mean resisting the cultural weight of society alongside the individual people directly involved.
However, relatively little attention is given to Western traditions that enable gendered violence, even when we identify traditions from other cultures that are harmful to women. We hear all about misogynistic laws in Middle Eastern countries that punish women for being raped, or machismo among Latino cultures. Then we can give ourselves a feel-good pat on the back for being concerned about women – all the while ignoring the women who are victims of violence in our own backyard, and maintaining the racist belief in the superiority of enlightened Western civilization.
But then, you may protest, does that mean we should just ignore the sexist traditions in other countries and cultures? Should we let sexism go because we don’t want to be racist?
But the question is a false one, one which serves both misogynist and white supremacist interests by trying to make us choose between one oppression or the other. The real answer is evident in the examples I gave, particularly from Reilly’s book. That is, we ought to listen to the women who are, at this moment, fighting against the patriarchy within their respective cultures. We don’t need to stick our hands in their business and try to solve their problems our way; nor do we need to lay off completely and ignore their plight.
Listening to the women and giving them support (rather than exerting control) would mean acknowledging their agency as an oppositional force to their own oppressions. It would also result in more culturally viable solutions to practices of patriarchy that draw upon the needs and desires of a people, rather than what would serve our own interests – not to mention a real understanding of the culture’s traditions that recognizes which practices are authentic, which are constructed, and how they need to be changed.