During the last few weeks, the world has been rocked by a series of highly visible reminders that violence against women is a shockingly prevalent phenomenon. This will come as no surprise to the hundreds of millions of women who do not lead middle-class lifestyles in developed countries; for them, it’s not a question of ‘leaning in’, climbing the corporate ladder, or balancing work and family. Their daily struggle is survival — which is all too often accompanied by some form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
The 24-hour news cycle has most recently been dominated by disturbing stories coming from the subcontinent: another terrible report of rape and murder of low-caste girls in in India; the ‘honour’ killing of Farzana Parveen in Pakistan. But such narratives are not limited in their geographic scope. Only a few weeks ago, we were demanding that Boko Haram free the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria; there is a similar movement afoot to #FreeMariam, in reference to the Sudanese woman who gave birth on death row, where she has been condemned after marrying outside her faith.
In South Africa, the Oscar Pistorious murder trial is currently on hiatus, but has so far featured a considerable amount of salacious testimony about his temper and the emotionally charged relationship he had with the now deceased Reeva Steenkamp. Then there is the shocking story of the Filipino maid in Saudi Arabia who suffered serious burns after being doused with boiling water for allegedly being too slow in making coffee for her employer.
Of course, the sanctimonious West is in no way immune from such horrors. The mass shooting which recently claimed the lives of seven people in Santa Barbara, California, is notable for the distinctly misogynistic motivation of the shooter — he allegedly carried out his attack because he feared rejection from sorority girls. And the news media in United Kingdom is avidly covering the ongoing trials and convictions of several prominent entertainment personalities accused of using their power and influence to sexually assault young women.
These stories represent only the tip of the iceberg — a handful of reports that have somehow garnered enough notoriety to briefly merit consideration from an international media with an infamously short attention span. As divergent as they are — spanning the globe in their provenance and the alleged motivations of the attackers — the one thing they have in common is that ‘culture’ is almost always offered as a defence. Outsiders are encouraged to view each situation through the lens of cultural relativism — and if they do not, they are accused of being cultural imperialists.
This is unacceptable. There is no ‘honour’ in honour killings. The life of low-caste women should be valued as highly as any other life. Attending school should not put you at risk of kidnapping. Marrying outside your faith should not be punishable by death. The pressures of being an Olympic-calibre athlete should not excuse domestic violence. The decision to emigrate and work in another country should not equate to a decision to risk bodily harm at the whims of capricious employers. A country’s criminally lax gun control laws should not be offered up as an explanation for the homicidal urges of an angry young man.
We can and should celebrate and preserve the diverse cultures, faiths, identities and social mores that are present in different countries around the world. But doing so at the expense of the inherent human right of each woman to live a dignified life free from abuse and violence is intolerable. No one is suggesting that all women everywhere need to dress, talk, act or pray the same way — only that they have choices. And the possibility that selecting an alternative path will not lead to threats against their lives, health or bodily integrity. Culture is no excuse for misogyny.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2014.
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