Saturday, October 2, 2010

Culture and violence against women

Doug Chen murders his unfaithful wife. In his legal defense, he claims that Chinese culture drove him to murder her. Kong Moua kidnaps and rapes Seng Xiong. In his defense, he argues that the Hmong custom of marriage by capture teaches men to ignore women’s refusals.

Should these defenses work? Is it more disrespectful to minorities to refuse these defenses or more disrespectful to women to accept them? How can the law reconcile feminism and multiculturalism?

Or at least that’s what we tend to ask. It’s what we don’t ask that’s more revealing.

For example, we don’t ask if Western culture permits men to murder their unfaithful wives. (Yes.) We don’t ask if Western culture teaches men to ignore women’s refusal to have sex. ( Again, yes.) We don’t ask if we can reconcile feminism and Western culture.

Why not?

This double standard reflects a broader tendency to attribute Westerner’s actions to individual factors, while attributing non-Westerner’s actions to non-Western cultures. (Leti Volpp, Feminism versus Multiculturalism, 101 Colum. L. Rev. 1181, 1189 (2001) [hereinafter Volpp, Feminism]). Volpp gives the example of Andrea Yates and Khoua Her, two women who murdered their children. The media blamed Yate’s acts primarily on individual psychological factors but blamed Her’s acts primarily on Hmong failure to assimilate to American society. (Leti Volpp, On Culture, Difference, and Domestic Violence, 11 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 393, 395-96 (2003)).

The reality, however, is that all of us are affected by both individual and cultural factors. Yates certainly had serious mental health problems, but they might have played out differently in a culture that did not place the full responsibility of raising children on women or stigmatize and fail to provide adequate support for the mentally ill. Likewise, culture clash might have exacerbated Her’s problems but given that the vast majority of Hmong-Americans do not murder their children, there were clearly significant individual factors at play.

Thus, Chen and Moua successfully pin the blame for their crimes on Chinese and Hmong cultures, while it doesn't even occur to white criminals to pin the blame for their crimes on Western culture. (Of course, plenty of white men get off with similar slaps on the wrist- they just don't have to demonize their culture to do so.) This tendency ignores both the fact that most non-Western men do not hurt women (meaning that non-Western men’s violence against women involves individual factors) and that Western culture often justifies or excuses men who hurt women (meaning that Western men’s violence against women involves cultural factors)

Note that it is not simply that non-Westerners’ actions are attributed to culture; it is that they are attributed to non-Western culture. Chen, Moua , and Her are all Asian-Americans but American culture is not blamed for their acts any more than it is blamed for Yates’. The Asian portions of their identities are blamed; the American portions of their identities are absolved.

Again, this represents a broader trend in which non-Western cultures’ sexism is emphasized and Western culture’s sexism is erased. Sexism in non-Western countries is treated as the fault of the non-Western cultures, not the Western colonizers who left a legacy of misogynistic legal codes, Western missionaries who spread sexist interpretations of Christianity, and Western politicians who threw their support behind fundamentalist leaders. (Volpp, Feminism, at 1206-07).

My point is not that non-Western cultures would be feminist paradises without Western culture’s influence. Rather, my point is that both Western and non-Western cultures have serious problems with sexism, but Western culture is nevertheless often curiously absent from the debate on feminism and multiculturalism.

We are quick to make the leap from an individual non-Westerner’s sexism to the sexism of non-Western cultures as a whole, but slow to make the leap from a non-Western culture’s sexism to similar forms of sexism in Western culture.

Thus, Chen’s murder of his wife is put in the context of Chinese attitudes toward adultery, but Chinese attitudes towards adultery are not put in the context of the Western provocation defense, which frequently excuses men who murder their wives. Moua’s rape is put in the context of Hmong marriage by capture, but Hmong marriage by capture is not put in the context of Western rape culture. Mathew Varughese’s murder of his wife is put in the context of Indian dowry deaths, but Indian dowry deaths are not put in the context of Western domestic violence. (Volpp, Feminism, at 1188).

By leaving Western culture out of the debate over feminism and multiculturalism, the millions of non-Westerners who oppose violence against women are put on the hook for it anyway, and the millions of Westerners who excuse violence against women are let off the hook for doing so.


Rebecca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Betty said...

Really thoughtful post. This makes me think - it's an even more pressing issue (culture and violence against women) in non-Western cultures, and more specifically non-American cultures because of the fact that there's that extra layer to combat and tackle when pondering issues of feminism abroad - because American culture is fairly new, modern, and not rooted in as much tradition culturally as the rest of the world, we have less of a cultural barrier to knock down when attempting to ease tensions or begin the recovery process re: feminism.

Yazzyjazzy said...

I just read a case decided by the California Court of Appeal, Third District called People v. Ramirez, where a similar question was posed. There, an unlawful search of Ramirez's car produced an unlawful seizure of his marijuana. The twist was that this search and seizure happened on an Indian reservation where our laws don't necessarily apply. When the evidence was presented in court outside of the Indian land, it was excluded due to the Fourth Amendment. The question was whether this evidence could be excluded since Indian laws did not adopt the exclusionary rule.

The court ruled that the Constitution is the superior law of the land and trumped the laws of the Indian reservation. I realized the same analysis is applied with religion - if there is a conflict between two laws, the Constitution prevails.

Similarly, maybe we should ignore culture in this instance and not allow it as a defense. Of course, our law is not perfect, but to allow men to be violent and use their cultures as a defense rubs me the wrong way. Excluding a defense based on culture in this instance will send a message to all people that we don't condone domestic violence in this country under any circumstance.