The myth that gendered violence is cultural

A still from 'India's Daughter', the BBC Documentary about the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus.

A still from 'India's Daughter', the BBC Documentary about the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus.

A few days ago, I had the great privilege of sitting in an audience at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and listening to a panel of Indian journalists discuss how misogyny, gender equality and activism is addressed in a country which boasts over one billion people and just as many complexities. It was a brilliant conversation, a challenging one that managed to be both distressing but also hopeful.

The session was titled "India's Daughters", and the panel (which was made up of journalists Ira Trivedi, Ashwini Devare, Deepika Shetty and Raj Kamal Jha) partly focused on the cultural and community fallout from the rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi. For those who may not remember, in late 2012 a 23-year-old physiotherapy student boarded a bus home with a male friend after the two of them had been to the cinema to watch Life of Pi.

What followed is so incomprehensible in its brutality that it's almost too difficult to even write about. For brevity's sake and at your own discretion, you can revisit the fundamentals of the attack here. (Warning: that link contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and torture.)

The rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey didn't just make global headlines - it delivered a blast to India so thunderous that its echoes are still being heard three years later. Following the attack, women and men marched took to the streets to demand an end to gender violence and inequality. Women especially marched for their right to be treated with respect, to have ownership over the bodies and be spared the sanctimonious, dangerous moralising of people who use it to justify violence against them. These messages take time to sink in, so furious is patriarchy's grip on power - but to listen to young women like Trivedi speak, change is coming. As she told me recently, access to social media is helping to mobilise activism and organisation while connecting women with each other.


But what of change in our own regions? It's easy for outsiders to hear about heavily publicised acts of violence against women in countries like India (while rarely hearing about the success of activism, or even just the normality of life for the middle class that makes up India's majority). And all too often, such acts of brutality are redefined by armchair anthropologists in the west as 'cultural'. The argument that violence against women - real violence, the kind we should really care about - only exists in the mythical Outland is a popular one, particularly among people who want to ignore the prevalence of it in our own societies. I've lost count of the number of men who superciliously tell me that I'm too preoccupied with 'demonising men' in Australia, and that if I really cared about women I'd be doing something to rescue the poor, oppressed souls languishing in the Middle East, India, south east Asia - in short, anywhere where the violence perpetrated against women can't be traced back to white men.

Leaving aside the fact that such views are woefully (and wilfully) ignorant of the work already being undertaken by feminists native to these regions, these assertions are simply not true. Gendered violence is cultural only in the sense that the global culture of humanity is still overwhelmingly patriarchal. Men's violence against women is perpetrated everywhere without exception because women are oppressed everywhere by patriarchy and the elevation of male power. What happened in Delhi in 2012 may have tested at the peak of male brutality against women, but it is just as likely to have occurred in suburban Australia as it is India.

In fact, crimes like that litter our history. Do not allow yourselves to forget the name of Anita Cobby, who was kidnapped by five men in 1986 and who spent her final hours being terrorised, tortured, raped and degraded by them before having her throat slit almost to the point of decapitation and her body dumped in a paddock. Nor should we forget Jill Meagher or Leigh Leigh. These perpetrators were not Muslims or Hindus or men with brown skin. They were white men, raised in a white, western environment and taught that they were entitled to take what they wanted from it, especially if that meant the women.

And then there are the crimes against women which may not be sexual, but are certainly cultural. The death of Julieka Dhu in a Port Hedland prison for example, whose need for medical treatment was ignored prior to her death. If imprisoning Aboriginal women for unpaid fines and then denying them medical treatment until they die isn't a cultural execution of racism, I don't know what is.

One of the conclusions of the panelists speaking at this particular session in Ubud was that you can't create a safer environment for India's daughters without also addressing what's happening with India's sons. But this is also true for all of us, even (perhaps especially) the armchair anthropologists. Men's violence against women exists everywhere. It is not bound by ethnicity or specific culture. It proliferates wherever people refuse to acknowledge its existence. Failing to address this fundamental fact is an act of complicity.

Because we cannot make the world safer for our daughters if we do not also address the ways the world makes criminals of its sons. I don't have all the answers on how to do this - but I know that the success of it depends on people being willing to have the conversation in the first place.