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The women who violently perpetuate oppressive cultural practices

20 May 2011

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The Guardian, 18 May 2011

The women who violently perpetuate oppressive cultural practices

Forced marriage and other abuses are not just about brutish men hell-bent on keeping women in their place

by Priya Shetty

For an estimated 8,000 women in the UK every year, their wedding isn’t the happiest day of their lives – quite the opposite. These women, usually from Indian and Pakistani families, are forced into marriages to ensure that the groom ticks the cultural, religious and socioeconomic boxes of the parents’ choosing. Those who dare to rebel might find themselves the victims of an "honour killing" (could there be a bigger misnomer for such a horrific crime?).

But the perpetrators of these crimes are not always stereotypically brutish men who are hell-bent on keeping women in their place. They might feature prominently in high-profile news stories about honour killings, but such stories rarely mention a deeply uncomfortable truth: a horrifying degree of oppression stems from other women, who help propel the grisly merry-go-round of cultural abuse.

Earlier this week, a cross-party group of MPs released a report calling for forced marriages to become illegal. Indeed, ensuring a zero-tolerance approach should help enormously. But to be truly successful, law-enforcers will need to understand the cultural complexities that underlie this oppression.

Jasvinder Sanghera, who ran away at 15 to avoid a forced marriage and later founded Karma Nirvana, a charity that helps women who are trying to escape such fates, says that in her case, her mother and other women in her family were the main instigators in trying to force her to marry. Such women-on-women oppression is far from rare. This week, two Muslim mothers in north India were arrested for killing their own daughters. The daughters’ crime? Marrying Hindu men. For this, the mothers were quoted as saying "they deserved to die". A couple of months earlier, in Bangalore, a woman was arrested for killing her daughter and grandchild because the daughter had married outside her caste.

Women often perpetuate other deeply exploitative practices. In Africa, for instance, female circumcision is devastatingly commonplace, especially in countries like Egypt and Sudan. Ostensibly, it is intended to "purify" a girl for her future husband. In practice, the girls – who can be a young as a few months old – can die through haemorrhaging, or contract an infection. Despite having suffered the horrific procedure themselves, it is the women of the communities who force their daughters through this procedure to fit in line with cultural expectations.

So why would women choose to wreak such severe physical and psychological consequences on younger, more vulnerable versions of themselves? There may be some element of the abused becoming the abuser, but this seems too facile to explain generations of women oppressing, or being complicit in the oppression of, successive ones.

More likely, it is that the foundation on which these societies and cultures are constructed rely on women being entirely submissive to the needs of men. By whichever means women are diminished – being denied education, being forced to cover up from head to toe, or by being pushed at 12 or 13 into marriages to men three times their age — they are forced to be the weaker sex. Empower these women, many worry, and like a twisted game of giant Jenga, everything will collapse.

In countries where civil conflict and war is common, women also tend, by default, to be the protectors of culture – if for no other reason than they are more likely to be around when their men are injured or killed in conflict. In many developing nations, children are raised almost entirely by women, often collectively. Women, then, are the ones who pass down tradition through folk stories, and oversee how girls are dressed and behave. Perhaps this great need to ensure the continuity of tradition from one generation to another explains why they are willing to tyrannise their own sex.

Yet if women can sometimes be the oppressors, they are also the most likely to be the saviours. The existence of organisations such as Sanghera’s is vital, and Karma Nirvana is now trying to engage with schools to support the victims of forced marriages. Many teachers tend to ignore the problem, or feel utterly helpless, because they are reluctant to offend the parents. If the government also encouraged teachers to talk to children who they think might be victims of forced marriages, and challenge parents who pull their female children out of school early, it would be a great start towards concrete action. So would encouraging women’s education and empowerment in ethnic communities in the UK.

Where the French are decidedly more forthright about which cultural practices they will tolerate – several women have already been arrested for wearing a burqa after it was banned recently – in multicultural Britain, we tiptoe gingerly around controversial cultural practices for fear of stymying a plurality of expression or being tarnished as racists. But British society now needs to take a deep breath and engage with these issues head-on: ancient cultural practices can never trump human rights.