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Redefining Ourselves, Our Bodies, and Our Futures through Culture

Publication Date: 
October 29, 2011

This post is by Donna Yang as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by Gender Across Borders and Violence Is Not Our Culture.   

Are we defined by culture or do we define culture? It seems an inconsequential the chicken-or-the-egg kind of question, but it is imperative to pose given that we live in a culture that condones and glorifies male violence against women. The fate of our very survival as women depends on it.

To answer this question, we must first understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and violence and why it exists. We need to gain an understanding of what these terms mean and how they fit within a larger framework of power dynamics in a patriarchal society. There is a fundamental struggle for power and legitimacy between men and women.

Culture influences how society defines masculinity and femininity. It delineates gender roles and expectations and reinforces them through the power of socialization. Socialization normalizes and traditionalizes dichotomization along these gender boundaries. As a result, both men and women are socialized to implicitly and explicitly accept male violence as normal. Gender-based violence becomes an expression of love, a religious tradition, or a common practice.

Patriarchy is a system of social structures and practices through which men dominate and oppress women. It uses culture to reinforce and normalize male supremacy.  Therefore, it is not culture itself that dictates whether women are beaten, raped, or killed, but rather those in power who define what culture is. Culture is simply a combination of customs, traditions and values within societies.

Culture is constantly evolving. This perpetual evolution is more accurately termed resiliency. Culture is resilient because it must perpetuate patriarchal systems of oppression across a broad spectrum of societies. Patriarchy survives precisely because of culture’s adaptive nature: it knows no boundaries and permeates all societies regardless of geographical context.

Globalization, characterized by the neo-liberalization of market economies and transnational flow of goods and services, information and culture, has resulted in the heightened transparency of patriarchal ideology across nation states. Furthermore, increased cultural interactions have proliferated the exchange of patriarchal ideologies and culturally endorsed violence. As a result, violence permeates and manifests differently, yet fundamentally the same across cultures.

Violence is a political tool used by those in power to subordinate a marginalized group. Within the patriarchal systems we live, the oppression of women, a marginalized group is maintained through gender-based violence and sexual terrorism.  Feminist scholar, and my former professor Dr. Carole Sheffield has written, “Sexual terrorism is manifested through actual implied violence against all females, irrespective of race, class, physical or mental abilities, and sexual orientation, are potential victims at any age, at any time, any place.” Several social dynamics work together to legitimize violence against women as a means of control including cultural myths, gender-based social roles, women as property, rape culture, and male bonding.

The UN definition of violence is important because it recognizes violence against women as gender based and both public and private citing, “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” Violence against women is not an individual, private problem of any one particular victim, but an institutionalized practice supported by the state. This institutionalization of violence against women in political, legal, and economic systems makes it invisible and acceptable.

No culture is free from the tyranny of phallocentric misogynist violence, including

Western culture. U.S. hegemony leads many to falsely believe that our culture is significantly less oppressive and violent than those of African, Asian, or Middle Eastern nations. For example, female genital mutilation, as practiced in many African countries, is often considered the paradigmatic ‘harmful cultural practice.’ Clarification: the U.S. has  myriad of culturally endorsed violent practices such as domestic violence, pornography, trafficking, prostitution, incest, and rape.

To stay relevant and effective within the globalized 21st century, feminism must recognize the culturally driven power of patriarchy and seek to address its implications. So I ask again, do we define culture or does culture define us? One of my personal HERoines, Gloria Steinem has said, “Lart, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before.” I am advocating for a movement, a revolution, to take back and define what is rightfully ours: our selves, our bodies, our minds, and our culture because violence is not our culture—we are culture.

About the author: 
Donna Yang is a recent graduate of William Paterson University with a B.A. in Political Science and concentrations in Women’s Studies and International Relations. She works as an Associate in the Development and Outreach Department of Human Rights Watch in New York City. Her academic interests focus on sexual violence, human rights, and globalization. Personal HERoines include Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, and Andrea Dworkin.