Enough is Enough: Cultural Defense of Domestic Abuse

By Rabiyatou Valian

Gargi Padki and Rabiyatou Valian attend a New York Asian Women Center event

Gargi Padki and Rabiyatou Valian attend an event with the Korean American Family Service Center at Queensboro Hall.

My close friend is in an abusive marriage, but she refuses to speak out against her husband’s violence. I always wonder why she doesn’t do anything to end it.

When I voice my concerns, she tells me “I am African and we don’t do things like that. Europeans take their husbands to the police; a real born African woman will never do such thing.”

There you have it. “We are Africans” has repeatedly been used as an excuse not to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. It is a disturbing reality that culture takes precedence over basic human rights. The value of human life is priceless, and it should not be undermined by the pervasive rhetoric of culture, religion and tradition. Whether we are African, Asian, American or European, we deserve to be treated with honor and respect by our significant others.

For a long time, silence has been used as a weapon to perpetrate domestic and sexual violence in traditional communities. Batterers and families of domestic violence survivors use the cultural defense to perpetuate violence against women in their communities. They insist that in their native lands, beating women was commonplace and didn’t require law enforcement or any intervention outside of the home. Women in these communities expect that their daughters, sisters, sisters-in-law, and all other women will not speak up about the violence because it is common. Domestic violence is viewed as a part and parcel of marriage.

Himani Bannerji, a Bengali-Canadian writer and philosopher, explains the cultural defense of domestic abuse in her introduction of Returning the Gaze. She argues that the change has to start at the roots of a community and diffuse outward until society is totally reformed. Equality can’t simply be instated from an outside force.

“Our struggle is for a fundamental change in social relationships rather than for a per community quota of representations in the parliament of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicities’. We are engaged in politics, linking theories with practices, examining ideologies through our lives, and our lives through revolutionary ideas. We are not shopping in the market of cultural differences,” she writes.

In the case of my friend, she has been forced to believe that she has no voice because she is her husband’s property. In other words, he can do whatever he wants to her, including battering her.

I used to believe this too, until I started volunteering for Project Speak Up, Speak Out (SUSO). The program focuses on breaking the silence that allows domestic violence to continue within all communities. From the trainings, I learned that because I have been silent about my friend’s violent relationship, I too am complacent to the violence. I now believe that that we all have a moral responsibility to speak up on behalf of battered loved ones who feel trapped. They need to know that their voices can be heard.

Finding a voice can be difficult for immigrant women in the United States. For many battered immigrant African women, like my friend, their husbands physically, emotionally, and economically abuse them. These men often intimidate their wives by using citizenship and residency privilege to stop them from revealing their abuse to anyone. These women are often isolated by the language barrier, causing them to feel trapped in their abusive marriages. Women who are experiencing abuse and are concerned about their abusive partners threatening their immigration statuses should know about Visa options, such as the Battered Spouse Waiver, the U-Visa, and other protections covered in the Violence Against Women Act. These options have been put into place to protect undocumented women.

There are many non-profit organizations like SUSO that are actively involved in raising awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault against immigrant women. The Korean American Family Service Center and the Sauti Yetu Center for African Woman and Families are community-based organizations that work to create a violence-free society. These organizations believe in a world where people hold human life over social constructions like religion and tradition. They provide these services through counseling, education, and advocacy programs for both individuals and families.

At SUSO, we do not accept the cultural defense. We expect that women will advocate for their families and loved ones who are in violent relationships. All of us are common at our core, and no one deserves to live in fear of an abusive partner.

My friend may not know how to use her voice now, but I have found mine. I intend to use my voice to inspire my friend, and to make sure every survivor of domestic violence knows that she is not alone.

If you need immediate shelter support or other immigration services, check out the New York Asian Women Center here.

References:

Bannerji, Himani. 1993. “Returning the Gaze: An Introduction,” in Returning the Gaze. Toronto: Sister Vision, p.xxix

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One Response to Enough is Enough: Cultural Defense of Domestic Abuse

  1. gil says:

    thank you for writing this

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