Please Take My Hand: Stepping into the Reality of Victims of Non-State Actor Torture

This post is by Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and

Webster’s dictionary may define culture as “the behaviours and beliefs characteristic to a particular group” however, our position is that there exists one dominant culture—a patriarchal misogynistic one. How the patriarchal misogynistic beliefs and behaviours are uniquely moulded, these can be defined as specific to the culture of a particular group. When stepping into the reality of women and girls who suffer many forms of non-state torture (NST) the destruction patriarchal misogyny has on them becomes apparent.

To render visible the destruction employs the following three perspectives: (a) classic tortures is the term used to express acts of torture thought to occur only in the public sphere perpetrated by State actors, however, these same acts of torture are perpetrated in the private sphere including electric shocking, severe beatings, being hanged, cut, burnt, whipped, caged, suffocated, starved, sleep deprived, forcibly drugged, water tortured, degraded with body waste, multi-perpetrator, object/weapon and/or animal rapes and forced impregnations and abortions and much more. Torturers often combine their violent acts, for example, sexualized torture also involves spiritual and physical torture, as do tortures that use rituals (i.e., ritual abuse-torture); (b) commercial based tortures exposes the financial interest of the non-state torturer, the organized crime activities include human trafficking and exploitation, torture-porn, and snuff films/photos; and, (c) tortures embedded in socio-cultural and religious violations, for instance, United Nations Special Rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment have already identified FGM, acid burning, and widow burning as examples of torture perpetrated by non-state actors.

A Culture of Violence?

This post is by Miriam Vaswan as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and  

When I started working in social services in Glasgow, a colleague who had grown up on a notoriously deprived and violent council estate explained the cultural fact of birth control in her neighbourhood.

“Nobody uses it, she said. Boys won’t sleep with girls who use it, because they want to get girls pregnant. Girls won’t use it because boys don’t want them to, their father’s won’t let them.”

Nobody, she went on to explain, had abortions. Not that she knew of, anyway. Fathers wouldn’t allow their daughters to have one. She’d only known of one girl who had an abortion, and in that case her father had allowed it because the father of the baby was not white.

“Look,” she said. “It’s just the culture around here.”

Female Circumcision: Comparing Muslim and Non-Muslim African Communities

This post is by AJ Morgen as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and

What is commonly referred to in the West as “female genital mutilation” (FGM) and in practicing parts of Africa as “female circumcision” or “female cutting” is a tradition widely applied to females in an estimated 28 countries in Africa to various surgical degrees and for differing reasons.  While estimates vary, approximately 100 to 140 million females living in the world today have been circumcised, of which between 90 and 100 million live in Africa.  Until very recently, however, researchers were largely unaware of the variations in the custom as it applied to geographical, religious, cultural and ethnic differences.  Discussing these cultural differences, particularly between Muslim and Non-Muslim communities in North Africa is essential for determining the efficacy of outreach, advocacy, and preventative initiatives.  Since anti-FGM efforts have tended to view these different traditions as a singular custom, they have often applied a uniformed plan of action across all practicing communities.  This monolithic approach has been ineffectual.

The tradition of female circumcision is as varied between Muslim and non-Muslim African communities as it is similar.  While Muslim communities in countries like Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan primarily continue circumcising young girls because of a belief that the practice is mandated by Islam, non-Muslim communities most often continue the procedure for the sake of honoring tradition and because of biological misconceptions concerning fertility and the perception of the “un-cleanliness” of the vagina.  While both groups of people have different cultural reasons for perpetuating the procedure of female circumcision and methods for carrying out the practice, girls and women experience the same psychological and physical pain regardless of location and belief. 

Breaking the Chain of 'Culture' in the Minds of Women and Girls

This post is by Reem Mahmoud as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and

Today, I could be sitting with a group of people listening to a story about a successful intervention to rectify a gender bias in a community. Tomorrow, I could be sitting with another group of people listening to a story of the trials and tribulations and ultimate failure to eliminate harmful practices against girls and women in another community. What determines the success of eradicating violent acts directed towards women and girls? Culture is usually used as a justification for harmful practices against women and girls, but could culture also be the answer?

Using “culture” as an explanation for gender inequalities and as a rectifier of gender inequalities is inherently problematic. It assumes that ‘international norms’, which are a manifestation of ‘European’ values, are the standard. However, women being raped, abused, killed by their families or partners, paid less than men, harassed and discriminated against based on their sex are global harmful practices, taking place in all ‘cultures.’ The nature and extent of inequalities may vary in different communities, but regardless, ‘culture’ should not be the main culprit of gender inequalities anywhere.

Redefining Ourselves, Our Bodies, and Our Futures through Culture

This post is by Donna Yang as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and    

Are we defined by culture or do we define culture? It seems an inconsequential the chicken-or-the-egg kind of question, but it is imperative to pose given that we live in a culture that condones and glorifies male violence against women. The fate of our very survival as women depends on it.

To answer this question, we must first understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and violence and why it exists. We need to gain an understanding of what these terms mean and how they fit within a larger framework of power dynamics in a patriarchal society. There is a fundamental struggle for power and legitimacy between men and women.

Culture influences how society defines masculinity and femininity. It delineates gender roles and expectations and reinforces them through the power of socialization. Socialization normalizes and traditionalizes dichotomization along these gender boundaries. As a result, both men and women are socialized to implicitly and explicitly accept male violence as normal. Gender-based violence becomes an expression of love, a religious tradition, or a common practice.

The Space Between Culture and Women’s Rights

This post is by Afaf Bataineh as part of the series 'Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence' hosted by and

As a woman who grew up in Arab culture, studied and worked in societies governed by Arab values and customs, and later lived, studied and worked in Western culture, before returning to an Arab country, I’ve been left with two fundamental questions: what is Arab culture? And why are women oppressed in this culture?

A number of sources helped me understand, but never helped me answer these questions. I traveled to almost all Arab countries and in each one interacted with people who came from different backgrounds, ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and beliefs. I observed how people live. I listened to women. I talked to people, young and old, males and females, religious and agnostics. I conducted research and ran focus groups. I read. And at the end of the day, I realized that "culture" is nothing but a tool through which social slavery is promoted.

No Excuse: Cultural Makeover Time

This post is by Claire Varley as part of the series 'Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence' hosted by and  

There is one in every workshop.

A male, usually, worryingly young, who crosses his arms, raises an eyebrow and speaks up.

“What you call family violence, this is part of our culture. This is something we’ve always done.”

Normally, after, there is a deafening silence as all eyes look to the front, awaiting an answer. Every workshop has this moment, at every stop around the island. The whole workshop – men, women, chiefs, community leaders - wait to see how we respond to this.

Complete Silence Is Not Absence

This post is by Mitzi Smith as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by and   

Silence is relative. Silence is never the absence of all sound.  Silence is not the nonexistence of the sounds of life, but it, as we tend to define it, is relief from ordinary, unpleasant, bothersome, unwelcome, or uncomfortable sounds.

People from my mother and her mother’s generation believed that to survive many abuses and traumas, they had to silence them or not talk about them.  They believed that if we didn’t talk about certain things, if we insisted upon silence, that those things would be forgotten, that they would exercise no power over us. They believed (and have convinced some of us) that if we don’t talk about certain things, if we act as if they never were, those things would not consume us.  But silence has a sound of its own.  Self-imposed, forced, delusional, artificial silence cannot mask the sounds of the human heartbeat, the sounds of whimpers, the unending DVD that our mind is playing, stopping, and replaying of our abuse(s).

The Culture That Is

This post is by Roshiko Deo as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by Read more

Cultural Relativism and Universal Women’s Rights Doctrine

This post by Elizabeth Crane is part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’  hosted by and

Culture is not a “reason” or a “justification” for doing anything.  It is a way of being and a way of understanding what it is to be human in this world.  As a general rule, people do not do things simply “because it is a part of their culture.”  Social behaviors have context and meaning and usually serve some sort of purpose.  The only time “culture” in and of itself can be used as a justification for doing something is when this action actually signifies one’s cultural identity.

A prominent metaphor for culture is language—they are both systems of symbols and meanings.  Language is the way we express ourselves with words.  But it also comes with a set of parameters for expression, and even shapes the way we think.  Culture includes spoken and written language, but is even broader.  Types of dress, what constitutes food and what doesn’t, ways of singing, planting, delivering babies, standing in line, marking the passage of time—these are all part of the fabric of culture.  Like a foreign language, another culture cannot be understood in the terms of an outside culture.