How we racialise and deflect from violence against women in western societies

radicalising VAW

Violence against women is a global problem, affecting women from across all cultures and societies. 

However, we are frequently alerted to the fact that some places are far more dangerous in which to be a woman than others. Just a quick google will reveal countless articles listing the most dangerous places for women to go travelling, or polls ranking countries by how dangerous they are for women to live in. 

It is, of course, absolutely necessary to recognise that women face different risks and different risk levels all around the world. And yes, there is no getting away from the fact that it is more dangerous to walk around alone at night as a woman in India and South Africa than it is in the UK. 

But sometimes, western countries use these polls and statistics to deflect from our own failings when it comes to keeping society safe and equitable for women. We point to countries like India, where around 90 cases of rape are registered per day with police (and of course many more go unregistered) and look at the horrific stories of sexual violence that have emerged from there in recent years. We discuss domestic violence statistics in Afghanistan, a country where nearly 90% of women have been subjected to it. 

It is important to adopt a global approach in how we seek to combat violence against women. But this does not mean that we should forget the violence that takes place in western countries. Most significantly, we should remember that the attitudes that underlie violence against women in every country in the world all stem from a similar place and from similar patriarchal values. These values – in different intensities and in different forms – are causes of violence against women from Sweden to Somalia. 

Not convinced? Here are some of the ways we racialise and thus deflect from violence against women in western societies.

ranking countries on how dangerous to be a woman
We culturally ‘other’ some types of violence

When we look at violence such as FGM or honour-based violence we often consider these types of violence to be particular to the cultural groups in which they typically occur. While it is true that cases of honour-based violence (a type of violence which is typically perpetrated by male family members towards female ones who are deemed to have violated the ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ codes of their particular community) most commonly occur in South Asian, Middle Eastern and certain African communities, this does not mean that the motivators behind these crimes are different from the motivations for gender based violence in the UK. 

And yet, our response to this type of violence is to frame it as culturally other and completely distinct from what we see in ‘westernised’ communities. Consider this BBC report on the first UK conviction for female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. The report discusses what police found upon entering the home where the crime took place. 

It leads with an image of limes, and a caption underneath reads:

‘Police said they found evidence of “witchcraft” in the woman’s home, including limes stuffed with written curses’.

The second paragraph of the main article reads:

‘Spells and curses intended to deter police and social workers from investigating were found at the Ugandan woman’s home, the trial heard.’

Though this is a factual news report, it emphasises the cultural difference of the victim’s mother (and perpetrator of the crime) above all else. The focus of the article is not so much the landmark conviction as the supposed cultural ‘otherness’ of its perpetrator. Yes, what the mother did was shocking, but emphasising aspects of cultural difference only serves to make the mother appear not the same as the largely western, British audience that would read this. 

And yet, it’s not like the same attitudes that underlie FGM don’t simply exist in different forms in western society. FGM is centred around notions that without it, a girl may become promiscuous. But in Western societies we make exactly the same judgements about women for the clothes they wear, the things they say, or where they choose to go. The same attitude exists – except in one case it manifests in a very severe crime; in another it manifests in judgemental attitudes which are often overlooked.

This cultural othering has been going on for centuries. In Shakespearean and renaissance drama, several killings of women are carried out in the name of ‘honour’. And yet if you examine the plays closely, all the plays featuring such violence are set in continental Europe. In fact, hardly any plays featuring violence against women at all are set in early modern England. Now early modern England was still a very dangerous place in which to be a woman – a man was allowed to beat his wife to the ‘point of lawful and reasonable correction’ without it being considered a crime. What the plays of the day tell us is that violence against women (though it happened in England) was culturally constructed as un-English. 

And often, that is just what happens with the way we frame violence against women today. 

cultural violence
We downplay the extent of violence against women in western societies, and downplay the links between incidents. We pretend that feminism should only focus on the global south

As I have said before, we frequently downplay and fail to link the instances of violence against women that take place in the UK. All over the world, across cultures and societies, the most dangerous place for women is actually the same: the home

In UK femicides, killings are linked by method, weapon and motivation time and again. While reports like the Femicide Census have done brilliant work to bring these links to the fore, too often we continue to act as though the instances of violence against women that we see are unstoppable and unrelated ‘tragedies’. 

And yet, when crimes of a certain kind are committed – especially those that seem unique to particular ethnic or cultural groups – we are all too ready to make links. We always link honour-based violence under a certain terminological umbrella, and while this makes sense, it does create the notion that there are links between all crimes in this category. 

And indeed we can tell that this is the case from popular culture. The BBC’s 2014 drama Murdered by my Boyfriend is a hard-hitting retelling of the murder of Casey Brittle in front of her toddler by her partner. The drama follows the true story of Casey Brittle’s life and death quite closely, and documents the abuse she experienced at the hands of her partner. 

In 2016, the BBC then produced a companion drama to Murdered by my Boyfriend: Murdered by my Father. The drama focuses on a girl who is killed by her father in the name of ‘honour’ after she has a relationship with a man other than the one she is promised to marry. The interesting thing about this is that the drama took elements from several honour-killings that had taken place in the UK and blended them together into one story. The links between honour killings were a fundamental part of the drama – whereas the drama focusing on a more ‘typical’ case of domestic violence singled out a lone incident. 

Additionally, we know that ‘culture’ is often seen as a defining feature of crimes like honour killing and FGM. Victims of these crimes sometimes report feeling overlooked by police or other protective services because of their ethnicity. In a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a survivor of honour-based violence tells her story of child marriage and how her sisters were married as children. She says that none of the teachers at her school seemed to be bothered, deeming what had happened to be ‘Pakistani cultural practice,’ and therefore not the business of whites.’

The survivor also says that other children at her school were known to have been in forced marriages, and yet no-one did anything and no safeguarding procedures were followed.

This indicates that the attitudes around certain types of violence other the victims and the violence itself, making it harder for us to accept that this violence exists on the same continuum as all violence against women. 

Feminism should not just focus on the global south. A primary aim of modern day feminism needs to be challenging the attitudes and beliefs that hold women back and harm them. These attitudes and beliefs are exclusive to no nation. Sometimes, those who wish to deflect from the issues faced by women in the western world point to the plight of women in less economically developed nations and say that we should be prioritising them. We should never exclude women from any nation in our feminism, but those who continually point out non-western women in their requests for what feminism should be are cynically trying to exploit feminism to the extent where it works for no-one because it focuses only on some. 

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