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     Volume 4 Issue 46 | May 13, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Confronting Challenges and Finding Solutions

Farah Ghuznavi

Gender violence continues to cast a dark shadow over us in the 21st century, damaging and destroying the lives of literally millions of people. It is by no means unique to our times, but the still-widespread prevalence of such violence today is shocking. Furthermore, it is one of the few common experiences in the modern world that cuts across all boundaries, including nationality, class, education, race, religion and creed. There are few who would actively defend violence against women. So why is it such a pervasive phenomenon?

Inequality between men and women is not only the result of individual actions, but also the result of how a society is structured. Access to resources (education, health), ownership of assets and opportunities for self-advancement, largely continue to favour men. To make things worse, different aspects of gender inequality often reinforce each other e.g. if women are not educated, they have less earning-power, and consequently, are less valued by society. Social attitudes are critically important: if women are considered intrinsically inferior, they will inevitably be treated as second-class citizens. Consequently, they become disproportionately vulnerable to violence at the hands of those more powerful.

Negative attitudes contributing to gender violence are based on a series of complex factors, including social practices, cultural and community norms and often, misrepresentation of religious injunctions. A typical example in Bangladesh is when women are told that because a woman's path to heaven lies at her husband's feet, she must accept the violence he inflicts on her. In fact, the belief actually states that the path to heaven lies at your mother's feet, the implications of which are quite different!

This kind of misrepresentation is by no means limited to Bangladesh. In many countries, the issue of forced marriage and related "honour crimes" (in which victims are assaulted or murdered - often by their closest relatives - because they have "insulted their family" by refusing to marry someone chosen for them) is a serious problem, including among immigrant communities in Europe. While sometimes practiced in parts of the Middle East, such practices are denied or ignored by most governments, though Jordan's Royal family have spoken out against such killings. The Palestinian Authority was recently criticised for failing to protect vulnerable women (violence is increasing because of high unemployment, and men's frustrations over the breakdown of their traditional roles as breadwinners), and the incidence of so-called "honour killings". Yet the incidence of such crimes is not limited to developing countries. Shockingly, the London Metropolitan police revealed at a recent conference that it had received reports of almost 500 cases of women (presumably of immigrant origin) being forced into marriage against their will in the last two years in London alone.

Proponents of excessive political correctness have skirted issues of this nature for years, hesitating to challenge religious or cultural practices. And yet as we all know, forced marriage is not sanctioned by any religion.

In particular, it is a practice that is expressly forbidden in Islam, which states clearly that women and men must have freedom of choice when selecting a life partner, as long as the person is considered a believer. That is why, the girl is expressly asked at the marriage ceremony for her consent. The Prophet (PBUH) granted girls who have been forced into marriages against their will, the right to have their marriages annulled. And in this regard, it is important to remember the distinction between arranged marriages (accepted in many cultures) and forced marriage (which is not). When culture is used as an excuse to promote backward and oppressive behaviour, including violence against women, this should be analysed and questioned even by those who promote multiculturalism, rather than being accepted as some kind of immutable truth. It is encouraging, and long overdue, to note that Saudi clerics have recently taken an unprecedented stand against forcing women into marriage, saying that fathers who have tried to do this should be jailed until they change their minds. Coerced marriages were described by clerics in the kingdom as "a major injustice" and "un-Islamic".

Other problems, which are often blamed on "culture", include issues such as female circumcision (sometimes practised among expatriate African/Arab communities in Europe). It is worth asking why some cultural practices that are acceptable in immigrants' home countries are deemed completely unacceptable in the countries to which they migrate (e.g. cutting off the limbs of thieves), while strangely enough, other so-called cultural practices which relate to the oppression of women are excused in the name of culture. It has been argued that the reason cultural grounds are accepted for women's oppression is that this is an area that remains less "worthy" of interference than others i.e. because patriarchy is common to all countries (to varying degrees), its manifestations are less objectionable or "alien" than other "cultural practices".

Globally, one woman out of three will experience domestic violence, abuse or sexual assault at some point in her life. The sheer scale of the problem is proof enough, if any were required, that the issue of violence against women is not limited to a single category or nationality. And precisely because it is so widespread, sometimes the problem seems insoluble, and overwhelming in its intensity. Just as we wonder what to do in Bangladesh, other countries - including western countries - are also searching for solutions.

The good news is that we are NOT helpless, and political will on the part of individuals and governments can improve the situation. Although changing attitudes and behaviour takes time, and requires considerable effort, there are many success stories to indicate that there is hope for all of us - whether as perpetrators, survivors or reluctant observers of gender violence - to change the existing situation for the better.

The willingness of governments to practise what they preach is one important step. The current UK government has made it clear that they are taking a "zero tolerance" approach to domestic violence e.g. police do not require violence victims to testify against their partners in order to take action. This is very important, because often the victims are too scared to report attacks, or can be intimidated into withdrawing such allegations once they have been made. The police are successfully reducing violence by using certain criteria to identify particularly vulnerable women, monitoring "at-risk" cases closely, and ensuring a preventive or rapid response to trouble.

Nor is it only western countries where effective action is being taken. In Nicaragua, male social activists are working with other men to identify behaviour and circumstances that trigger violence, and highlighting the damage done to those (including children) who are affected by it. In Kenya, the government is acting against female circumcision, by supporting women bringing cases against those who colluded in such violence. Turkey has recently initiated co-operation with the Scots, to learn from their experience in preventing "honour killings". In Bangladesh and India, using male role models and peer workers to speak out against violence has yielded positive results. We all - women and men - need to address this problem by learning from the positive experiences of others, in the hope of someday - the sooner the better - living in a world free of gender violence.

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