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Culture and Patriarchy


Many factors shape understanding about gender, gender roles and families and their make-up including social, political, economic, environmental and personal. A person’s culture and belief is not the only factor. Norms and understandings are shaped and re-shaped and developed over time.


From a historical perspective, gender is not transfixed and beliefs about gender roles have changed dramatically, challenging our perception about acceptance and tolerance of what is thought to be conventions and norms. Within many cultures and belief systems there are multiple references to gender which form many different ideas about gender.


Many cultures challenge patriarchal views especially when violence occurs in the name of culture. Forced Marriage has existed throughout history. For example, propertied classes used forced marriage to ensure hereditary rights. While some of these marriages may have been arranged, some were also forced. Regardless of race, faith and culture there are examples of young people being forced to marry by families if the young woman is pregnant. In the south of the USA for example, this was called the ‘shotgun marriage’.


When challenging patriarchy, we inevitably link the notion to masculinity. It is important to consider that there are many conceptions and meanings associated with masculinity around the world. Masculinity as a causal factor in violence against women has these features:


  • Male dominated systems, institutions and cultures mostly promoting ‘Western’ economic thought.

  • Competition driven and power and control dynamics inherent to such systems.

  • Control on the participation of women within such systems through income and policies and practices covering socio-economic mobility.

  • Conception of ‘masculinity as hegemony’ which serves to exclude diverse identities from access to resources, distribution of resources and the benefits associated with them.

  • Through hegemony, promotion of identity and what it means to be male in society above other aspects of masculine identity.

  • Aggression and violence defining social relationships and supporting the creation of institutions and systems on the basis of such interactions.

  • Socially constructed masculine identities justified in political, economic and social systems which reproduce tension in social relationships.


Safeguarding and Harmful Practices


Arranged marriages happen more frequently in South Asian culture than forced marriage.  It is important to respect a women and girls’ choices. At the same time culture and belief systems cannot be used to minimise harm to women and girls in any way.


Where there are safeguarding concerns those need to be explored using the tools and methods available to you. Safeguarding women and girls should not conflict with or contradict practice defined by culture and belief systems. Most cultures and belief systems challenge abuse and violence. There is no absolute that some cultures and belief systems justify violence and abuse.  


Culture and belief systems may present additional challenges however safeguarding practices offer a series of questions that can be asked to understand the concerns of women and girls and to agree appropriate action. Many women and girls use their cultures to empower themselves when they are in abusive situations. This can be used to strengthen empowerment-based approaches.


When practitioners and professionals start with the position of culture and belief systems justifying abuse, then they may fail to frame the safeguarding issue correctly meaning they might interpret and do things differently that they would not have done where culture and belief systems were not prominent issues thus delivering a different kind of service and missing issues around violence and abuse.


No society is devoid of culture or belief. The dominant culture throughout the world is patriarchy and culture can be intertwined in creating justification for abuse. Examples include: male/female division of labour, reliance of female as caregiver of children, maintenance of women in home, control/influence over the way women dress and their reproductive systems, man is ‘king of castle’ mentality, unequal pay for work done by women / the glass ceiling and male dominated political and economic systems.


Patriarchal culture inevitably validates violence as an acceptable, even desirable, attribute of masculinity while it simultaneously de-values women and all attributes considered feminine, such as nurturing - not just of persons but also of relationships. If violence is considered legitimate, specific acts of violence against individuals who are socially devalued by the dominant culture (including but not only women) automatically become even more acceptable.


What are Harmful Practices?


Harmful traditional practices are forms of violence which have been committed primarily against women and girls in certain communities and societies for so long that they are considered, or presented by perpetrators, as part of accepted cultural practice.


What is Forced Marriage (FM)?


A forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses do not (or, in the case of some vulnerable adults, cannot give consent if for example, they have a learning disability) consent to the marriage and some element of duress is involved. Duress includes both physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure. Forced marriage is primarily an issue of violence against women but research has shown that young men can also be victims.


According to the Forced Marriage Act (2007) a person is forced into marriage if ‘another person forces them to enter into marriage (whether with them or with another person) without their free and full consent’. The Act goes on to explain that ‘force’ includes coercion by threats or other psychological means. Under the Act forcing a person into marriage including by aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring, encouraging or assisting another person to force, or to attempt to force a person to enter into a marriage are all behaviours which are unacceptable in the law. A forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage but the choice whether or not to accept the arrangement remains with the potential spouses. In forced marriages, one or both parties do not consent. Arranged marriages are not unlawful. Forced marriage was criminalised in 2014.


The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 makes it a criminal offence to force someone to marry this includes: taking someone overseas to force them to marry (whether or not the forced marriage takes place), marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage (whether they’re pressured to or not), and breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order is also a criminal offence.  The civil remedy of obtaining a Forced Marriage Protection Order through the family courts will continue to exist alongside the new criminal offence, so victims can choose how they wish to be assisted. Forcing someone to marry contains a sentence of up to 7 years. Breaching a FMPO can carry 5 years in prison.


The Difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage is that in arranged marriages the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage but the couple have the choice as to whether to proceed. The tradition of arranged marriage has operated successfully within many communities and many countries for a long time.

What is Honour Based Violence?


The terms ‘honour crime’ or ‘honour-based violence’ or ‘izzat’ embrace a variety of crimes of violence (mainly but not exclusively against women), including assault, imprisonment and murder, where the person is being punished by their family or their community. They are being punished for actually or allegedly undermining what the family or community believes to be the correct code of behaviour. In transgressing this correct code of behaviour, the person shows that they have not been properly controlled to conform by their family and this is to the ‘shame’ or ‘dishonour’ of the family. Honour is an unwritten code of conduct that involves loss of face. It is women who bear the burden of honour and follow the rules set at the discretion of men. Offences are predominantly committed against women for actual or perceived immoral behaviour which is deemed to have breached the honour code of a household or community.


There is no standard definition of so-called honour crimes, which are also called honour-based violence. The use of the word ‘honour’ refers to the motivation for the violence rather than a specific type or form of violence and can include collusion in the act of violence from the community. The definition of domestic violence states that so-called honour crimes are included within domestic violence. Therefore the abuse involved in so-called honour crimes can involve psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional violence. The ‘honour’ can refer to family honour (both the birth family and that of in-laws), of the spouse, and/or of the community.


So-called honour crimes cut across all cultures, nationalities, faith groups and communities despite popular beliefs, it is not solely a ‘Muslim problem’. The term honour is used by the perpetrator to justify the violence. However, the Government, statutory agencies (including the police), voluntary organisations and faith communities, have made it clear that ‘there is no honour in honour crimes’. Using the term so-called honour crimes can be important to understand the barriers that survivors face in accessing help and services, for example, they may feel that by doing so they will bring dishonour or shame to their family or community and it is these feelings that should be explored with the survivor.


What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?


It is sometimes called cutting or erroneously referred to as female circumcision and comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or other injury to the female genital organs. FGM may be justified for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. Under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 (and before that the Female Genital Mutilation Act 1985) FGM is a crime in the UK, including where a girl or woman is taken outside of the UK for FGM.


The origin of FGM has not yet been established, but records show that the practice predates Christianity and Islam in practising communities of today. In ancient Rome, metal rings were passed through the labia minora of slaves to prevent procreation. In medieval England, metal chastity belts were worn by women to prevent promiscuity during their husbands' absence. Evidence from mummified bodies reveals that, in ancient Egypt, both excision and infibulation were performed, hence Pharaonic circumcision. In Tsarist Russia, as well as nineteenth-century England, France and America, records indicate the practice of clitoridectomy. In England and America, FGM was performed on women as a "cure" for numerous psychological ailments.


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision as it is sometimes erroneously referred to, forms an important part of the rites of passage ceremony for some communities, marking the coming of age of the female child. It is believed that, by mutilating the female's genital organs, her sexuality will be controlled; but above all it is to ensure a woman's virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter. FGM imposes on women and the girl child a catalogue of health complications and untold psychological problems. The practice of FGM violates, among other international human rights laws, the right of the child to the "enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health", as laid down in article 24 (paras. 1 and 3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


The age at which mutilation is carried out varies from area to area. FGM is performed on infants as young as a few days old, on children from 7 to 10 years old, and on adolescents.  Adult women also undergo the operation at the time of marriage. Since FGM is performed on infants as well as adults, it can no longer be seen as marking the rites of passage into adulthood, or as ensuring virginity.


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