In a post to mark International Women’s Day, Dr Brenda Bartelink problematizes the selective language of ‘harmful cultural practices’, challenging the development sector to confront its ongoing colonial biases as it seeks to improve the lives of women and girls.
Today, March 8th, the Netherlands’ former Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, will receive the Aletta Jacobs Prize for her work in launching the ‘She Decides’ initiative from my home university, the University of Groningen. This Dutch-initiated international fund is aimed at filling the funding gap left by President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, which not only prohibits US funds to go to abortion services but has a significant impact on access to sexual and reproductive health services worldwide. In her Oscar acceptance speech on March 4th 2018, Frances McDormand pushed for greater diversity in film. Her call for powerful actors to insist on ‘inclusion riders’– contractual clauses that demand the cast and crew of a film be diverse – is one action against gender and racial inequality in the film industry. In January 2018, outgoing President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an Executive Order on the Liberian Domestic Violence Bill.
Recent outcries over sexual harassment and assault suggest an increasing concern with ongoing gender inequality in public and private life, both in terms of its ideological structure and in terms of its violent results. November’s #metoo movement, for example, became for many women an avenue to expose the inequality, sexual harassment and assault they experience on a near daily basis. It is part of a broader and growing movement to expose (once again) that gender inequality, which takes myriad forms around the globe, is yet to be overcome. Yet the champions in the fight against gender inequality and the forms of (political) action they use to fight it also confront us with underlying paradoxes. These paradoxes demand attention, but they are not easy to solve.
The ways in which gender inequality and gender-based violence are made public, normalized, problematized, or ‘solved’ are influenced by the particular context in which they occur. For example, international development and humanitarian organisations have been quite successful in creating broad public concern (and at times outrage) over such practices as female circumcision and early and forced marriage in non-western societies. These gendered practices are framed as ‘harmful cultural practices’, suggesting that (parts) of culture should be changed or removed. The bill signed by Sirleaf, for example, contains a ban on female circumcision, while Ploumen has been very outspoken against early marriage during her time as a minister. These initiatives are difficult to approach dispassionately; female circumcision and early and forced marriage are often seen as the strongest expressions of gender inequality and gender-based violence. However, as the anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu points out, the framing of these practices as harmful can be harmful, too. The terminology used for female circumcision within the humanitarian and development sector is ‘female genital mutilation’. The emphasis on violence and mutilation is harmful, according to Ahmadu, because it frames circumcised women and girls as helpless victims who are ‘mutilated’ and unable to enjoy their sexuality.
Frames such as ‘harmful cultural practices’, which are used to problematize gender-based violence, bring with them implicit notions of how ‘religion’ and ‘traditional culture’ are violent, regressive, and detrimental to women’s empowerment. Recent research shows that where these biases are in play, even initiatives designed to empower women and counter gender-based violence can end up reinforcing structures of inequality. Academic literature supports Ahmadu’s critique, suggesting that colonialist biases play a role in shaping contemporary understandings and discourses on these so-called harmful practices (cf. Bartelink and Le Roux 2017).
In my own research, I have found development practitioners to be critical of the way practices related to gender and sexuality are framed in the sector. The term ‘harmful cultural practices’, for example, tends to be seen as counterproductive, because local communities feel criticized rather than encouraged to challenge violent procedures. Yet these development practitioners also acknowledge that it is difficult to change this terminology, which is deeply embedded in the international development lexicon. Furthermore, the recent exposure of sex scandals at Oxfam and other well-known development agencies and charities suggest that the sector has its own challenges in relation to gender and sexuality.
In order to understand how the international development sector itself fails to be inclusive in its terminology and practices, it is important to consider those voices that tend to be the strongest within the industry. When it comes to promoting women’s rights, secular, liberal, European voices are prominent in the field. The ‘She Decides’ initiative is a case in point. The question is how to understand these voices in the contexts in which they are shaped. Tamsin Bradley and Chia Longman – editors of a volume on ‘harmful cultural practices’ – argue that in Western Europe these practices have become associated with non-Western women, and Muslim women in particular.[i] By contrast to their European sisters, these women are not seen as emancipated or free. As Joan Scott argues in her seminal book Sex and Secularism, the language of unfreedom can be used to exclude people from full citizenship and participation in European societies. In the dominant understanding of secularism that prevails in Western European societies, gender equality and emancipation are ‘traits presumed to inhere in individuals’.[ii] Because those who are ‘religious’ are not seen as either emancipated or egalitarian, they can never be fully accepted as belonging to or in European society. In Western European discourses, and by extension in the international development sector, an understanding of women as the voiceless victims of culture, tradition and religion prevails.
However, as #metoo demonstrates, harmful gender practices occur across the globe, including in ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ contexts, such as the film industry or the development sector. Further, practices that might well be seen as ‘harmful’ to women in western societies are not always framed as such. Janice Boddy, for example, who has previously worked with those who practice female circumcision, has noted similarities between labiaplasty – a form of plastic surgery that is increasingly popular in the west – and pharaonic circumcision. Another example is the pervasiveness of gender inequality and sexual harassment in European student culture(s). For example, when a student fraternity in the university city of Groningen published online the names and phone numbers of female students who were presumed to be willing to have sex with fraternity males, this initially did not lead to a broad concern with gender-based violence. Only when other incidents occurred and it was seen as damaging to the image of the University was action taken. In the media, the incident was normalized by pointing out that it took place in a rather innocent phase of life, characterized by playful experiments. There was limited attention paid to the underlying structures and unequal power relations between male and female students. And there were no calls to blame Dutch culture, tradition or religion, as we so often see when ‘harmful cultural practices’ are discussed in the development sector.
From these reflections some questions emerge. How can we understand the processes by which some practices are problematized while others are normalized? Why are some violent gender practices exposed while others are silenced or deemed innocent? Which power structures undergird these processes? How do gender, race and religion structure the ways in which we see some people as champions in the fight against gender-based violence while we see others as victims? No matter how important the ‘She Decides’ fund may be to sexual and reproductive health organisations as they continue their work, we cannot ignore that it was a Dutch, white and (yes) female minister who made international news with her initiative against Trump during election time in The Netherlands. We also should not ignore that Ploumen is receiving her award from a University that still struggles with the idea of inclusivity, and which has a patchy track record on promoting gender equality within its own walls.
The question for International Women’s Day 2018, then, is how best to break the real and symbolic boundaries between the Global North and Global South/ West and Non-West. It is time to consider patriarchy as a universal phenomenon and understand the underlying structures of exclusion and injustice. This also means taking seriously those strategies of communities – and of women in particular – to increase their well-being and create a better future both on and in their own terms.
Brenda Bartelink convenes the Gender, Sexuality and Multiple Modernities research cluster at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization.
[i] Longman, Chia, and Tamsin Bradley.2015. Interrogating Harmful Cultural Practices: Gender, Culture and Coercion. Farnham: Routledge. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2017).
[ii] Scott, Joan Wallach. 2018. Sex and Secularism. Princeton University Press, p. 169.
Pic: Frances McDormand at Oscar speech. Found through WikiMedia Commons.