Culture & Gender-Based Violence

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Cultural identities contain the histories of a people that include traditions, struggles, achievements, and triumphs. Cultures nourish pride, resilience, belonging, intersectional identities, and connection to community. But culture is used to justify gender violence and inequality by evoking traditional beliefs and practices about how women and girls should be treated. If culture defines the spaces within which power is expressed and gender roles are enshrined, then our movement is here to push back. After all, some traditions and explanations do have an expiration date and cultural DNA, just like individual DNA, changes with every generation.

Three interlocking domains of culture perpetuate gender-based violence

The culture of gender-based violence and misogyny devalues women, girls, and LGBTQ individuals; normalizes or minimizes abuse; claims GBV is accidental; ignores sexism; promotes aggressive or even toxic masculinity; and uses men’s achievements to exonerate, excuse, and/or deny the impact of their behavior.

The cultures of ethnic and identity-specific communities prescribe and maintain traditional, patriarchal gender norms and roles; define ‘transgressions’ from these norms; patrol the boundaries of what they deem is and is not culturally acceptable – enforcing compliance by violence, coercion, pressure, rejection, or, as one gay survivor put it, “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

The cultures of systems can erect barriers to services and resources, where race and gender bias compromise access to justice.

Culture influences how gender violence is viewed: minimized by society as an accidental problem, used as a convenient explanation by communities, or linked to stereotyping by systems.

Engaging in internal critiques of culture

In Culture: What It Is, Who Owns It, Claims It, Changes It (2002), Sujata Warrier elaborates on traditional and contemporary views of culture, questioning who defines ‘culture’ and justifies its practices. We have come to understand cultures to be stable patterns of beliefs, thoughts, traditions, values, and practices that are handed down from one generation to the next to ensure the continuity of these systems. In fact, traditions actually shift and change under changing social and political landscapes. Culture does not reveal stable patterns, but dynamic ones where experiences and commonalities continually re-shape it.

Patriarchy and colonization go hand in hand, and it is this nexus that keeps the structures of gender violence so well entrenched.

Colonization and Violence against Women (2002)

In Colonization and Violence Against Women (2002)Val Kalei Kanuha strips away the claims that colonization is to blame for domestic violence and draws parallels between the strategies of colonizers and batterers. Most activists do not excuse male violence because of colonization; although the men in our communities use this argument in their own defense: because they cannot, or will not, or feel threatened about, taking responsibility for their violence against women. So, they resort to blaming the white colonizers. We must not allow that analysis to dominate and resist the ways our own communities force us to silence, hurt, oppress, and disrespect the voices of women. It is up to us to ensure that women’s suffering, struggles, and strengths are not dishonored.

In Cultural Defenses in the Criminal Legal System (2002), Leti Volpp analyzes the use of cultural defenses in the courts by raising questions about our role in spreading notions of culture and negotiating between sexism and racism. Cultural defenses in domestic violence cases use politically expedient stereotypes of culture, forwarded by attorneys on behalf of defendants, to play into already existing negative depictions of culture. But ultimately, what are the consequences of using such defenses on future survivors and on our communities?

Resources on Culture and Gender-Based Violence