The resurge of feminist academia
How gender analysis can explain violence against women and provide effective strategies for prevention
‘We live in the most peaceful era of humanity’ Steven Pinker states in his work ‘The better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined’ (2011). The author has backed this famous and very contested theory with a wide range of statistical evidence and reached the conclusion that contemporary societies are characterised by an important decrease in the use of violence. The latter being possible thanks to a civilization process favoured by the states’ monopolisation of violence, the rise of media, improved gender equality, and the influence of the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment. Yet, the kind of optimism that may arise from such an argument should not be limited to these first results but should represent an additional motivation to challenge the status of many issues that still negatively affect societies.
In other terms, it is the kind of optimism that should encourage people to critically analyse and put into discussion relevant inequalities inherent in the way we live and, whose effects have negative consequences at the individual and the state levels. This article, in particular, focuses on the phenomenon of violence against women and introduces an analysis that draws from different schools of feminism. Therefore, with the introduction of gender as a socially constructed characteristic, feminist academia broadened the sphere of what was generally considered as ‘the political’ and gave importance to the analysis of the relationship between men and women as a significant variable to explain various issue relating to international peace and security and human rights. It is in the interaction between genders that the phenomenon of violence against women can find an accurate explanation.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) and approaches to gender
At the UN level, the Bejing Platform for Action uses the term “violence against women” to include any act of gender- based violence that may occur in armed conflict settings (murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and pregnancy) and within the household and the general community, such as intimate partner violence (IPV). And it is precisely the latter that represents the most common form of violence against women both in the Global North and South. The World Health Organization (2012:1) defines intimate partner violence as “any behavior with an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship”. In high- income countries men and women commit roughly the equivalent rate of IPV (Dutton 2006). However, such studies only take into account data that simply examine incidents of physical violence without assessing the context in which these episodes of violence occur.
On the other hand, scholars that distinguish this form of symmetrical violence from what Scarduzio et al. (2017) define as intimate terrorism have found out that men are the main perpetrators of IPV in terms of not only using physical violence, but also “economic subordination, threats, isolation, and other control tactics to secure ongoing, continuous power over a partner” (Scarduzio et al., 2017, p. 23). Finally, research also shows that women’s use of force is different from men’s one and that it is often an act of self-defense resulting from histories of victimization and subjugation to their partners (Miller 2001; WHO, 2012). To understand the relevance of gender when it comes to analyse violence against women, it is important to start from the differentiation between sex and gender. On the one hand, constructivist approaches argue that gender- differently from the biological sex- is a social construction.
Such a definition implies that both men and women can be subject to a gender hierarchy that, accordingly, will have an impact on their behavior and, at the same time, will establish social gender norms as a matter of inequality between the (valorized) masculine and the (subordinate) feminine. On the other hand, newer feminist works have argued against the tendency of separating ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ because they do not simply see sex as a dichotomy (male/ female) but also as a “cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies” (Butler 1993: 2). In her theory, Butler (1993) emphasizes the idea that gender and sexed bodies are constantly performed, meaning the subject’s identity is constantly constructed by self and others. This allows people to perform in a specific way within specific historical, cultural and social contexts.
A case study: Bangladesh
An interesting example, in this regard, comes from Anwary’ s (2015) analysis of IPV in Bangladesh. This country has been deeply examined by different academic fields because of the high levels of violence against women with nearly two out of three women having experienced gender-based violence during their lifetime. Domestic violence, in particular, is the most common practice whose occurrence goes largely underreported (SDGF, 2017). Furthermore, according to the UNPF (2011), 65% of men in Bangladesh recognize violence against wives as justifiable. Butler’s gender performativity theory is employed by Anwary (2015) to explain this phenomenon as a mechanism through which men establish “their heterosexual male privilege as father and husband through denigrations of any alternative identity” (Ibid. 2015: 37) that would not be in line with Bangladeshi patriarchal cultural norms.
‘Honour killing’: a narrative of power?
A gender analysis to violence against women, however, should not only be limited to low and middle- income countries but also include the Global North. Feminist research ethics have recently started raising awareness on the white Western bias that is inherently present in feminist research but also in the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) which reinforce the narrative that women peace and security concerns are abroad. Grewal (2013) refers to this tradition as ‘outsourcing patriarchy’. In the US and Europe, in particular, corporate and transnational media participated in the construction of this discourse which contributed to an increase in their fiscal profits.
The gender-based discrimination and human rights violation of ‘honour killing’, for instance, has been constructed in popular culture as a concept that can only be confined to some particular societies that are consequently non-western, non-modern and characterized by backwardness. Such a narrative has been mostly employed to describe violence within the family in Muslim communities. This has led to the tendency, in the West, to describe events of IPV as random or along the line of individual criminality rather than as a result of patriarchal violence which, on the other hand, would be immediately labelled as ‘honour killing’ in a Muslim context (Grewal, 2013).
To give a more specific example, we can consider the case of Italy where the concept of ‘honour killing’ has recently attracted mediatic attention after the decisions of two appeal judges to grant lighter court judgments to two men convicted of femicide. In 2018, the murder of Coello Reyes at the hands of her partner was defined by the court as motivated by anger, desperation, and other strong emotions caused by the woman’s behavior towards him. Similarly, in Bologna, in 2019, the sentence of Michele Castaldo was reduced from 30 years to 16 after the judge ruled that such an act was the result of “unhappy life experiences” and “an emotional storm” (The Guardian, 2019).
It is important to note that honour killings defence was officially abolished in 1981 after two other important laws advancing women’s rights: the divorce law (1974) and the reform of the family law (1975). As a result, the problem here seems to concern more the Italian cultural context where, as we see, it is still allowed to describe IPV as motivated by emotional reasons. This suggests that, also in Italy, we can find the construction of hypermasculine gender roles to which men have to abide in order to be recognized as such. When they feel these are challenged by their female partners, episodes of violence are likely to occur as a defence mechanism to their identity.
Decolonise gender: a postcolonial feminist approach
As Jackie True (2012) argues, violence against women is a problem affecting all countries. Evidence to such a claim is, for instance, fig.1 measuring the physical security of women worldwide. As we can see, the levels are quite low everywhere. Violence is a multidimensional force which can take several forms within society. It extends from domestic violence to the violence of war, to the structural form of violence as poverty (Tickner, 1992). A gender perspective on violence offers explanatory insights into the reason why episodes of violence against women also occur in developed countries. In 2018, the US has been ranked by the Thomas Reuters Foundation as the 10th most dangerous nation for a woman to live in. If the term patriarchy has been so stigmatized over the last two decades this has to do with the essentialist reading that has been conveyed to such a concept.
The presence of other forms of structural violence plays a role in increasing the vulnerability of women in different contexts, meaning that the interplay of other factors, such as poverty, a weak legal system, exposure to violence in childhood, and binge drinking elevates the risk of IPV (Heise, 2011). True (2012) also points out in her research, to the negative effects of a political economy- characterized by an increasingly globalized economic power- on making women more vulnerable to violence. However, nowhere in the world women share equal access to resources as men, meaning that patriarchy reproduces itself everywhere. In the US it has consolidated and exists under a form that allows- for the American society- to define itself as modern and liberal. This has occurred, for instance, in religious communities, homophobic and racist groups, and corporate capital (Grewal, 2013).
Human rights for who?
A gender analysis of violence against women is also important for developing effective strategies to prevent this human rights violation. Because this type of violence has its roots in social and cultural norms that are constantly performed at the state, community, and family levels- eliminating violence against women would mean challenging the status quo of society. Women’s rights activism challenges the traditional human rights approach which holds states accountable for human rights violations. Yet, because also the state can be considered responsible for perpetuating a culture of patriarchal norms, the work of NGOs and the UN remains of fundamental importance in establishing international regimes and treaties to promote rights for women. Despite widespread reservations, many states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
This brings together civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in the context of a framework that recognizes the complex meanings of discrimination and offers strategies to overcome it. The main force of this women’s right regime lies in the articulation of principles in formal and public settings. It works with states by shaping their identities in the regime. In interacts with civil society by distributing resources, sharing information, and coordinating political activity. Finally, it also collaborates with other NGOs and the UN.
However, the complexity in translating these norms at the local level remains. In this regard, the communitarian approach developed by Michau (2007) in collaboration with the Uganda- based NGO Raising Voices stresses the importance of engaging with non-state actors at the community level in a dialogue that raises awareness on the benefits of women enjoying human rights for both women and men. On the other hand, if norms are not translated and the conventional language of human rights is applied universally along conventional liberal assumptions, local communities will be less likely to accept new norms (Michau, 2007). Only by building on national and local cultural practices and religious beliefs it will be possible to promote transformations of marriage, family and gender stereotypes.
Anwary, A. (2015) ‘Construction of hegemonic masculinity: Violence against wives in Bangladesh’, Women’s Studies International Forum. Elsevier Ltd, 50, pp. 37–46. doi: 10.1016/j.wsif.2015.02.011.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”, UK: Psychology Press.
Dutton, D. G. (2006). Rethinking domestic violence. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.
Giuffrida, A. (2019). Italy accused of restoring honour killing defence after lenient femicide rulings. The Guardian, 18 March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/18/italy-jail-terms-reduced-men-killed-wives-femicide
Grewal, I. (2013) ‘Outsourcing patriarchy: Feminist encounters, transnational mediations and the crime of honour killings’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 15(1), pp. 1–19. doi: 10.1080/14616742.2012.755352.
Heise, L. (2011) ‘What Works to Prevent Partner Violence? An Evidence Overview’, (December). Available at: http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/21062/1/Heise_Partner_Violence_evidence_overview.pdf.
Michau, L. (2007) ‘Approaching old problems in new ways: Community mobilisation as a primary prevention strategy to combat violence against women’, Gender and Development, 15(1), pp. 95–109. doi: 10.1080/13552070601179144.
Miller, S. L. (2001). The paradox of women arrested for domestic violence: Criminal justice professionals and service providers respond. Violence Against Women, 7, 1339-1376. doi:10.1177/10778010122183900
Scarduzio, J. A. et al. (2017) ‘“Maybe She Was Provoked”: Exploring Gender Stereotypes About Male and Female Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence’, Violence Against Women, 23(1), pp. 89–113. doi: 10.1177/1077801216636240.
Shepherd, L. J. (2014) Gender matters in global politics: a feminist introduction to international relations. Routledge.
Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDGF) (2020). Addressing Violence Against Women in Bangladesh. Available from: https://www.sdgfund.org/case-study/addressing-violence-against-women-bangladesh
Tickner, J. (1992). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (New Directions in World Politics). Columbia University Press.
True, J. (2012). The Political Economy of Violence against Women. Oxford Univertsity Press.
UNFPA (2011). https://www.unfpa.org/data/transparency-portal/unfpa-bangladesh
Autore dell’articolo* lo Young Thinktanker Ginevra Canessa, studente in Politics and International Relations presso la University of Kent. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.
* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.