Violence Against Women, Stigmatization of Victims Persists Across Cultures

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Posted Jan. 9, 2013

Interview with Hillary Haldane, assistant professor of anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Violence against women is a pervasive problem in virtually all cultures, though the forms it takes vary greatly. News reports around the world recounted the savage gang rape in December of a young Indian woman who later died of her injuries and the resultant outrage and demand for justice it provoked inside India. Ongoing mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and an epidemic of rape in post-earthquake Haiti are also in the news, perhaps obscuring the fact that gender violence – including domestic and dating violence, sexual slavery and forced prostitution – also occurs daily in the United States. One recent, widely publicized example is the rape of a young woman by members of the Steubenville, Pa. High School football team.

In 2012, Congress failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, when the House version could not be reconciled with the more expansive version approved by the U.S. Senate. Washington State’s senior Democratic Sen. Patty Murray plans to re-introduce the legislation in the 113th Congress that was sworn in on Jan 3.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Hillary Haldane, an assistant professor of anthropology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and co-editor of the 2011 anthology, Anthropology at the Front Lines of Gender-Based Violence -- stories from around the world by activists working in women's shelters, in anti-violence organizations, and outreach groups. Here, she puts violence against women in cultural context and describes some of the methods being used to combat it.

HILLARY HALDANE: Well, there's two things. First is that we are hearing more about it, just because I think generally with the Internet and various social media, we are more aware of what's going on in other parts of the world. That's the first part of it. The second part is that many countries now do have institutions and law or non-governmental organizations in place that are responding to the violence, so they too are reacting to and informing others about what is going on. But one thing as anthropologists we try to tease out is, are we just hearing more about it because of these various responses and institutions and laws that are in place, or is it that violence is actually increasing, and that is something that is very empirically very difficult to test and really ground scientifically. So we try to treat it as, look, we know there's a problem. We know it's extensive. We know that many, many, many women and children, and some men, are experiencing this, so what's the best way to respond in a local context, knowing it's a global problem?

BETWEEN THE LINES: In America, we hear about these really horrific cases of violence against women, like in India or Afghanistan, and we say, that's over there, not over here. What similarities and differences do you see in this violence that takes place around the world?

HILLARY HALDANE: Well, what I see as similar is (that) we do tend to find cross-culturally, unfortunately, is this response that does blame the victim. There really is very few places where you find an active stigmatization of the perpetration itself, and I think we can just look at the recent case in Ohio, where we're trying to save the football team, or with Penn State, where we want to save the football team – the dignity of the football team – over acknowledging the experiences of the victims and survivors of these crimes. So I think one of the unfortunate things we do find cross-culturally, is the stigmatization of the victim and that's an interesting dynamic that the response isn't to protect the vulnerable. The response seems to be to blame the vulnerable for what's happened to them. Now, obviously, in different cultures, the forms of violence and how people think about the violence and maybe what forms of violence are acceptable and are not acceptable, that's obviously cross-culturally variable. So there are forms of violence that we might consider violent as Americans that happen in other cultural contexts.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you give any examples of violence against women that might be acceptable in some cultures but not in others?

HILLARY HALDANE: Well, I would say thing as an anthropologist I want to qualify, within anything that we consider a culture, like American culture or Indian culture or Samoan culture, there's obviously heterogeneity and differences of opinion, so even within American culture there are some families who absolutely believe they should be able to spank their children, and there are other Americans who feel it's not appropriate. So I think it's very important to be very careful in both reporting and our scholarship to acknowledge that there is not a hermetically sealed culture. There's a diversity of opinion within everything that we draw a circle around as a culture. So obviously, in some places, some people think it's absolutely okay to strike their wife if their wife has maybe been unfaithful or done something that's disapproving. But there will be people...for instance, in one of the places I've worked, in Morocco, there's tension around whether or not it's okay to hit your wife. Some people think it's absolutely acceptable that they properly reprimand somebody they feel they have authority over, and there are going to be Moroccans and Moroccan families and activists who'll say no, absolutely not acceptable. What I would say is there are people within all cultures who believe they can do things to women that other people in that culture would consider unacceptable, so I think it's really important to be careful to acknowledge that there is no widespread homogenous opinion that say, slapping a woman in a certain culture is acceptable, or hitting a child is acceptable.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Hillary Haldane, based on what you just said, that in all cultures there are those who think it's not okay to abuse women, and that there are more avenues for women to report abuse. Do you see any specific way forward in trying to reduce violence? Is it more laws, is it more education, is it more emphasis on the role of men and trying to persuade them not to do it, or what?

HILLARY HALDANE: I believe, I think you hit on two things there, and the latter statement you said about how to address men. I think men absolutely have to be made aware that violence is not okay. I mean, we start out – and please do not make the connection that I am blaming video games for any type of male violence in our society – but we have so much celebration of inaction of violence, through games, through play, through the stories that we tell, through the language that we use even in our own culture, that we instill in the sense of masculinity something that is very much about being powerful and dominant of others. I think men absolutely have to be a part of the solution. They're 90 percent of the problem. So we're not going to eradicate violence against women if we don't eradicate the ideas that men cross-culturally hold about power and domination. That may sound feminist and cliche, but I think it's absolutely true. But the second part is about reaching out to women, and letting them know it's not acceptable for them to be treated this way, and they have rights. And those rights extend from everything, from economic – so in some places, women don't have economic control. They don't have ownership of land. They don't inherit things at the same rate as men. They don't have leadership roles and there are cultural and institutional barriers to having women achieve full equality. Look at how hard it's been for us to even get 20 women in the Senate, to be in decision-making power. So it's a two-pronged approach: You have to both have full economic and institutional empowerment of women, and you have to change how we think about masculinity and relationships between men and women. And if we don't do those things cross-culturally, this problem's just going to continue to persist.

Find more information about "Anthropology at the Front Lines of Gender-Based Violence" here.

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