Exploring how seeing violence against women through the lens of ‘culture’ often obscures its real causes
A core aim of This Violence is not a Tragedy is to examine the ways that we create myths around violence against women that have the adverse effect of often ingraining this violence deeper in society.
When I first started researching violence against women, one of my main focuses was the various types of violence that women experienced around the world and in different diaspora communities. The more research I conducted, the more I began to realise that our narratives around such violence were flawed and problematic. While it was certainly true that types of violence like FGM typically affected women and girls from a certain cultural background, this didn’t mean that those types of violence were a category apart from the more ‘generalised’ types of violence that women experience across every single society and culture.
In fact, I saw this happening time and again. Western narratives of violence against women as a global problem had a habit of downplaying the ills women in the west faced and simultaneously characterising the violence faced by women in the global south as something alien and almost unintelligible to the western mind.
We know that how women are treated in the global south has become hugely politicised. A major justification behind the American invasion of Afghanistan was the treatment of women in the country. Women needed, according to the narrative, to be saved and protected by the western white knights.
It is undoubtable that women in Afghanistan have suffered a lot at the hands of the Taliban. Whether this justified an American invasion is a different question. Bringing years of instability to a country often does catastrophic damage to the fight for women’s rights.
However, through the invasion of Afghanistan, and through many western interventions in less economically developed countries, western countries have been able to construct a narrative about themselves that presents them as the saviours of women globally.
While this is a sophisticated use of an unsophisticated action – women have (once again) become pawns through which different narratives are played out – it also has the double effect of making western nations complacent about their own treatment of women.
Instead of seeing that all violence against women around the world is linked, western nations have taken on an attitude of exceptionalism. FGM, forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war – these things have become constructed by westerners as often totally alien. The political reasons for this are clear. But it is fallacious to suggest that there are no parallels between the treatment of women suffering from these types of gender-based violence and women who don’t.
I have always said that all violence against women stems from the same place; from a refusal to afford women the agency that is afforded to men. Women everywhere are objectified, and it is in this process of objectification that women find violence is done to them. Once a woman becomes an object, she becomes something that can be hoarded or discarded with little to no care for how that might make her feel. Ultimately, when women are subjected to male violence, this is what is happening.
Over the course of this series, we’re going to explore some key incidents of violence around the world, and show how they have often been used as a means for western nations to deflect from the very real gendered violence they play host to.