Culture & Gender-Based Violence

Culture defines the spaces within which power is expressed, where gender relations are negotiated and gender roles re-defined. Cultural contexts are critical to the analysis of gender-based violence and are always applicable, since everyone has culture, not just people of color or from specific identity groups (such as, LGBTQ). Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander advocates maintain a delicate balance: engaging communities in internal critiques of their own culture, without rejecting or blaming it.

Cultural explanations of gender violence are a contested terrain because they are either used to excuse individual actions or to engage in racial stereotyping. When outsiders (e.g., police), or insiders (e.g., community members or family) link violence with culture, they obscure institutional responsibility and community accountability. Culture is often responsible for how the problem of violence against women is viewed and addressed: e.g., believing that women from a particular culture are passive and don’t seek help; or that speaking out about abuse – not perpetrating it – shames the family.


Proceedings from the API Institute’s National Summit, 2002

Sujata Warrier elaborates on traditional and contemporary views of culture, questioning who defines ‘culture’ and justifies its practices. 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. Leti Volpp analyzes the use of ‘cultural defenses’ in our communities and in the courts by raising questions about our role in spreading notions of culture and negotiating between sexism and racism.

Culture: What It Is, Who Owns It, Claims It, Changes It

Sujata Warrier, Ph.D.

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.

Colonization and Violence against Women

Val Kalei Kanuha, Ph.D.

The notions and strategies of colonial domination are used by patriarchy to continue male dominance over women. We need to counter claims that colonization has led to violence against women, by pointing out that there is in fact a tight connection between colonization and patriarchy. Some would even say that you could not have colonization without patriarchy. The institutions of colonization rely on political power, access to resources, and strategies of oppression. Patriarchy and colonization go hand in hand and it is this nexus that keeps the structures of gender violence so well entrenched.

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.

Cultural Defenses in the Criminal Legal System

Leti Volpp, J.D.

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. This raises difficult questions:

  • Can we balance the strong tension between helping an individual person and the broader effects of employing stereotypes?
  • Could this mean we are actually creating frozen descriptions of what someone from a particular culture is, and therefore, others who come along may not benefit from those frozen descriptions?
  • Is it ever correct to use stereotypes? When we use cultural terms to explain a particular individual’s behavior, what falls out of the picture?
  • What narratives or descriptions about culture work? What do people believe?
  • What do we do about the fact that stereotyping cultural practices are not just mainstream assumptions, but that this is also how culture is talked about within our own communities?

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