Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Violence, Migrant Women and the Ostrich Approach

Published in Asian Currents (Dec. 2012)


Joumanah El Matrah is the Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights. In her article, Misrepresenting Migrant Violence, carried by the ABC on its website on the 29th of October, 2012, she argued how cases of violence against women were being represented in the Australian media as cultural problems in migrant communities or as ‘spectacular’ violence happening in some distant non Western locations. She cited feminist theorising around violence to talk about the exotic/erotic nature of violence and pointed out how media reports in Australia often seem to convey that, “violence and oppression are core to minority migrant cultures. It is something they import with them when they migrate and it is their dirty little secret they keep as they settle into Australia.”

As someone who teaches feminist international relations and researches on global patterns of political violence, I have bad news for the author. I do not necessarily bring up my own ethnic/migrant positionality (of Indian origin) in my writings but in this case it might add that due authenticity to my arguments that many feminists are more concerned about than the strength of the argument itself. And finally, as someone who has been a witness to the suffering of a friend exposed to domestic violence by her ethnic migrant partner, I would like to argue that being an apologist of one culture or another and speaking from our perceived moral high ground from where we preach ‘human rights’ of minorities and migrants is not going to help the situation much.

Fact is that in Australia the level of violence faced by migrant women (from South Asia, Middle East and Africa) is much higher than domestic violence faced by white Australian women. A careful study of the Anti-Violence Orders sought by migrant women will reveal a dismal picture. The cultural factor becomes even more significant because many of these women are unable to seek help even when laws are in place to protect them. In many cases, as even the author agrees, the governments and law enforcement turn a blind eye to abuses faced by migrant women. In the high profile case of the Indian Sikh couple which made news recently in Victoria, the woman had sought AVO against her husband who repeatedly committed breaches but the police failed to act on her complaints.

The author contradicts herself as she advocates specific policies targeted at protecting migrant women from abusive partners. That is ofcourse pertinent but cannot happen unless it is acknowledged in the first place that these women face unprecedented levels of violence coming from cultures in which beating/bashing women is a commonplace offence. Violence against women is not taken seriously by their families or by the law enforcement in their ‘home’ countries. Many migrant women are vulnerable, first time foreign travellers who have no support systems in place and carry with them their cultural baggage in which speaking out against their partners/husbands is not an acceptable, approved course of action. In the case of my friend, a highly educated medical professional, the violence came from a husband who thought intimidation and abuse was the ‘normal’ thing to do. Violence does not discriminate. It targets the professional and the home-maker alike and those who speak against it, like the Sikh woman Sargun Ragi, they pay the price with their lives.

Turning a blind eye to crimes being committed within migrant communities is not going to help the cause of human rights or gender equality. Respecting minority cultures cannot imply living in denial and ignoring (dis)honour killings, emotional and physical abuse, domestic violence, female foeticide and genital mutilation practiced within certain communities all in the name of one culture or another. Female foeticide in Australia is practised by migrant women from Middle East and South Asia. Ultrasound doctors are approached by families to determine the sex of the foetus and organise the medical termination of pregnancy of female foetuses. Similar cases of foeticide and declining sex ratio of girls born to women of Indian origin has been noted in a recent study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. We cannot pretend that “cultures” have nothing to do with these cases. All other cases of violence the author mentions about non-Western women; beheadings, gang rapes, acid throwing, public executions and stonings are all unfortunately true and the cultural relativism argument cannot obfuscate the reality, irrespective of what one chooses/wishes to read in the Western media or not.

The author dismisses the Western media portrayal of Pakistani girl Malala Yousufzai’s shooting by the Taliban and of the brutal murder of a young Afghani girl who refused to be coerced into sex work as cases of ‘spectacular’ violence. As someone associated with a Centre for Women’s Rights, she should know better. These cases are neither spectacular nor exceptional. Many girls and women in conflict zones in Pakistan and Afghanistan are subjected to violence of this kind at a daily level. Reporting on these events does not imply that there should be a disclaimer published everytime that “violence happens in Western societies too!’. Recognising violence among ethnic communities does not mean denying the violence against women in Western societies. These cases got the media attention they deserved because of the resistance these girls put up against the diktats of their own culture, tradition. The author, instead, could have worried more about why a ridiculous film on the Prophet Mohammed (not even seen by many people) made by an racist bigot, caused so much protest world-wide that also spiralled into violence, while not much was heard when a teenage girl (guilty of wanting education!) was shot by the Taliban all in the name of religion. If the shooting of one girl, the brutal murder of another is not worthy enough for people to galvanise a protest against their own societies and cultures, it is a more worrying trend surely?

Yes, certainly migrant women are entitled to citizenship, residency rights and protection against violence under the Australian law. But adopting the ostrich approach and having the head buried in the sand is not going to help the situation. What is so fundamentally radical about claiming that cultures, traditions and religions can be violent towards women? My appeal to the author and others who may think like her: let us decide who we want to protect and defend….women or cultures?

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