The Unspoken War: Breaking the Silence on Violence Against Women

The Unspoken War: Breaking the Silence on Violence Against Women

“Physical force is the means of war and to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless, and that, in theory is the true aim of warfare.”

On War, Carl von Clausewitz

Violence against women is seldom referred to as a war. And yet, the systematic subjection of women to both implicit and explicit forms of violence is nothing short of combat. The expressions of hostility, the magnitude of atrocities and the number of casualties faced by this population depict the same events that occur in the most severest of wars; but because violence against women has been normalized throughout history – and even condoned – by socio-cultural, legal and political structures, it is not perceived as warfare. Though the post 9/11 era has witnessed a restructuring of war-related machinery and operations due to the changing nature of warfare, violence against women continues to be marginalized in the discourse of war and security.

Not fought with conventional weapons or on a conventional battleground, this war relies heavily upon the use of sexual, economic, physical and psychological violence to maintain a hierarchy wherein masculine power and privilege are reinforced through the oppression of women. The preexisting overarching structure of patriarchy provides the context within which the socio-cultural, political, economic and legal landscape are all shaped; and in order to sustain itself, the current order of society continually requires that men derive power through the implicit and explicit control of women and their bodies. Women and their bodies are thus ideological and literal battlegrounds, their empowerment posing a direct threat to the status quo and in its effort to re-order a power hierarchy that benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. In this context, the threat of force and/or the use of force become the primary means through which men maintain the existing power hierarchy and hedge against the threat of power redistribution posed by women’s empowerment.

Most recently, the war against women has become increasingly visible in South Asia, where the brutal gang rape and murder of a young medical intern in India has garnered widespread outrage, and has highlighted the immediate need to address this issue on a regional scale. South Asia is perhaps one of the most severe perpetrators of violence against women, which is defined as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”[1]. Several regional factors intersect to create an environment in which gender discrimination and consequently, gender-based violence (GBV) are exacerbated and encouraged on individual, community and systemic levels. The primary causal factors in the region can be attributed to: historical context, such as the region’s gendered colonial and national history; and the stringent enforcement of patriarchal traditions and gender norms. Not only do these factors normalize violence against women on all levels, but they also reinforce a pervading culture of impunity for the perpetrators of such acts. In order to adequately address the conflict, South Asian governments must first address the regional factors that encourage violence against women.

Body Politik

Historically, the British Empire utilized gender as a means of Othering Indian men. Colonial powers propagandized the lack of martial skills and martial organization of Sub-Continental peoples to assert the supposed femininity and emasculation of Indian men, thereby gaining control by categorizing them as too weak to govern themselves. The status of the Sub-continental subaltern was further reinforced by their history of having been conquered, which allowed for the construction of their identity as based on feminine values. In opposition to such gendered Othering, nationalist movements in South Asia in the early 1900s reinforced masculinist mythologies, ideologies, virtues and practices in an attempt to counter their castration by colonialism. Like most national movements, Sub-continental nationalism utilized the dominant “constructions of masculinity and femininity to shape female and male participation in nation building” wherein women were representations of the nation and men were protectorates of the nation and correspondingly, women. The survival of the state became dependent on women and their ability to reproduce the nation. In the post-Partition period, the protection of women and women’s purity became inextricably linked to each South Asian nation’s purity, thus legitimizing state and family control of women’s social roles and women’s bodies in the development of the South Asian nation-state.

Because of their social and political significance, women’s bodies serve as sites of collective national memory and history, and physical manifestations of the nation. “Women’s bodies and social roles are used to construct ethnic unity, territorial integrity and national security”[2]. The female body is particularly political not only because it is considered a cultural vessel and a gatekeeper of the nation, but also because of its ability to reproduce the socio-cultural and political nation. This is one of the reasons for which the control and manipulation of the female body and female sexuality is an integral part of reinforcing patriarchal norms and institutions. Consequently, the existing social order is reliant upon the explicit and implicit perpetuation of patriarchy and its stringent definitions of masculinity and femininity. “Patriarchal hegemony relies on violence and on confining [women] to the house and interpelating them into predominantly subordinate and familial subject positions such as daughter, sister, wife and mother.”[3]

Women’s ability to define their own identity and role within state and society was limited by the South Asian nation-state, which based its definition of female citizenship on woman’s reproductive capacity and her role as mother. It is specifically when women attempt to redefine their roles, claim their space in the public arena and assert their agency in the nation-state that they are met with social, cultural and institutional resistance, often in the form of violence. Whether physical, sexual or psychological, women encounter violent opposition when they transgress the boundaries of traditional femininity as prescribed by their community. Furthermore, a woman’s failure to conform to the strict gender norms and conventions of South Asian culture can also be perceived as deviant behavior and a violation of the community’s moral code, bringing the stigma of ‘shame’ and ‘dishonor’ upon her and her family. Violence and the threat of violence are used as a punitive measure to ensure that women continue to relinquish their agency in order to sustain traditional norms, definitions and hierarchies.

Violence and the threat of violence are also used as a preventive measure, so as to keep women from challenging or threatening the status quo. Women are thus subjected to a wide range of violent and oppressive behaviors that intentionally reinforce their low status, such as isolation, neglect, coercion, humiliation, economic control, nutritional deprivation, harassment and sexual abuse. Women are also constantly intimidated, terrorized and policed by their families and local communities, as well as silenced. Such forms of violence are used as tools to assert masculine power and to propagate a patriarchal regime. “Individual acts are supported overtly or tacitly through social institutions such as the family, the community and the state, either through normative rules or by impunity towards acts of violent domination”[4].

“Statistics from around the world show many women view domestic violence as the woman’s fault, and an acceptable punishment for poor behavior while men see their behavior as an expression of masculinity and the maintenance of male honor.”[5] The structure within which violence against women is normalized is shaped by the stringent patriarchal concepts that permeate South Asian culture and nationhood. South Asian societies are reliant upon the production and reproduction of a very rigid gender binary, wherein masculinity is not only defined in direct opposition to femininity, but is defined as inherently superior. Furthermore, the construction of South Asian masculinity is based on ideologies of dominance and aggression, concepts in which women and their bodies play a central role as the means through which masculinity is reasserted and reaffirmed. Subsequently, women are perceived as objects through which male honor is conferred, as a woman’s ‘modesty’ and ‘respectability’ is a representation of not only her status, but that of her male relatives.

The construction of South Asian masculinities and its strong dependence on the control of women has given rise to region-specific forms of violence against women, such as honor killings, and widow immolation. For instance, the grotesque phenomena of acid attacks depict the extent of which the assertion of men’s power relies on the devaluation of women. When a woman rejects a man’s proposal, she shows that she is an active agent; but because her empowerment is perceived as a threat to the existing social order, she is attacked with acid as a retaliatory means to keep women ‘in check’. Such acts of violence serve as a means for men to reaffirm their masculine privilege and power, as well as to terrorize women into silence and compliance.

The Process for Peace

Though violence against women has garnered widespread global attention in recent times, there has been minimal action on behalf of South Asian governments to actually address this conflict. While international laws, declarations and charters set an international precedent for the treatment of women, South Asian countries have not reformed their own legal codes to conform with international norms and standards. Furthermore, these states do not have adequate or sufficient legal mechanisms to address violence against women, specifically in terms of monitoring and enforcement. There is a lack of punitive measures outlined in such legislation, particularly due to the difficulty of enforcing such laws in the private sphere, where most of these abuses occur. Consequently, states are unable and/or unwilling to persecute violator’s of women’s rights. This creates a culture of impunity wherein violent practices against women continue to be allowed, and even reified. Not only does this reinforce the marginalization of women’s security, but it also reinforces a lack of recognition and prioritization of their issues by the state.

In order to effectively combat violence against women in the long term, South Asian states must not only commit to stricter adherence to international norms on women’s rights, but must also enact its own body of laws that comprehensively addresses the conflict. Such legislature must also adequately define and recognize key terms and concepts related to sexual, physical, economic and psychological violence against women, from sexual harassment to forced sterilization. The 1993 UN Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) – though it is non-binding – provides a foundation for the creation of such laws, calling for states to persecute violence on an individual level, such as marital rape, as well as violence on a community level, such as harmful traditions or practices, through structural reforms. The document suggests states undertake specific measures to reduce violence against women, some of which include: repealing reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); enacting “national legislation and sanctions to punish and redress acts of violence against women”; implementing “national plans of action to protect women against violence; developing legal, political, administrative and cultural measures to protect women from violence; creating education programs to foster gender equality; and facilitating and enhancing the work of women’s movements and NGOs dedicated to ending violence against women”[6]. Reform should also encompass increased access to courts and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as punishment for those responsible for misapplication of the law through illegitimate courts. Governments should find a way to increase women’s accessibility to the justice system, as in most South Asian countries, it is very difficult to access due to lack of decentralization and legal infrastructure. States should also find a way to ensure the adequate provision of legal aid and services to women.

In addition to developing long-term structural and institutional machinery, state governments in South Asia must also take immediate action to address violence against women in the short term. Though the establishment and maintenance of women’s security is integral to the development and welfare of a country, it is not a national priority for any South Asian state. South Asian governments

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need to acknowledge the immediate necessity of integrating women’s security into their national agenda. They must also prove that their commitment to ameliorating this conflict is not just rhetorical, as it has been in the past. At the very minimum, governments must follow through with a basic enforcement of laws related to women and fully prosecute crimes related to violence against women. Governments should also lead efforts to integrate gender mainstreaming and gender-related training in state institutions, particularly the police force, to build capacity to combat this conflict. State institutions and apparatuses need to change the current perception of violence against women as normal; they must propagate the perspective that violence against women is a legitimate conflict, and a credible threat to the long-term growth and development of the country.

 

Conclusion

 

Statistics show that societies with most equality function better [and that] the societies that thrive the most are those in which women enjoy full freedoms, and where rates of violence against women are low. Undoubtedly, violence against women has grave effects on the welfare of the state, as well as its entire population; marginalizing this conflict only serves to severely impede the long-term growth of the society, the state and ultimately, the region. Violence is a learned behavior; and though it is not easy to eradicate, it can nonetheless be changed through concerted community and state level steps. South Asian states must implement a number of political, social and legal reforms in order to address this conflict in both the immediate as well as the long term future. But to begin a real process for peace, the South Asian community must come together to break the silence on violence against women, and to recognize it for what it is – a war. It is only by publicly acknowledging the existence of this conflict and by publicly shaming and prosecuting the perpetrators that we can begin to take away their power, and change perceptions and practices that are harmful to society. In order to redistribute power, we must reinvent and promote a new masculinity – one that does not rely on aggression and dominance to prove itself, and one that is not an impediment to the growth of societies and states.

Like most wars, the actual cost of conflict on society is immeasurable – and in the case of violence against women, it is even less perceptible because it occurs mostly in the private sphere. But it is not invisible – on the contrary, it is evidenced by the millions of ‘missing’ women as a result of sex-selective feticide, by the frequency of forced marriages, by the high rates of trafficked women and girls, and by the number of honor killings, stove burnings, acid attacks, rapes, forced impregnations and other such crimes against humanity that occur on a daily basis. It is also evidenced by less explicit forms of violence – by the numbers of women that are: forced by their family to retreat from the work force, coerced into staying in abusive marriages, and threatened from creating dissent or change. Women can never enjoy full security or freedom because of the constant underlying threat of violence, which affects her thoughts, actions and access to basic human rights. It is not the scope and depth of such violence that is the most shocking, but the refusal of the region’s states and societies in acknowledging the extent to which violence against women is detrimental to the country’s development. And until we as a state and society can publicly recognize this and prioritize its resolution, we will continue to suffer the severe casualties from this conflict.


[1] Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. http://www.answers.com/topic/declaration-on-the-elimination-of-violence-against-women

[2] Brzuzy, Stephanie and Amy Lind. Battleground: Women, Gender and Sexuality. Greenwood Press: 2008.

[3] de Alwis, Malathi and Kumari Jayawardena. Embodied Violence: Communalising Female Sexuality in South Asia. Zed Books: 1996.

[4] Oxfam International. “Towards Ending Violence Against Women”. Oxfam International: 1994.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, http://www.answers.com/topic/declaration-on-the-elimination-of-violence-against-women

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