'It's our culture.'
How many times have I heard that statement in reference to excusing violence against women. Domestic violence being dismissed as 'part of the culture.' Describing women as second class citizens, is 'just the way it is.' Sexual harassment, 'it's our culture,' they say. Culture. Always used as an excuse to abuse.
As I have travelled around the world on behalf of my women's rights organization Project Monma investigating violence against women, I have noticed that violence and discrimination against women is almost always justified under the name of culture. It's a way of dismissing critics and allowing men to continue with their regimes of domination and control over women, unquestioned and unchallenged.
Rarely, when the same types of violence are perpetrated against men, are they justified as culture.
Instead it's called murder, abuse, discrimination, genocide.
Yet the most horrific forms of violence and discrimination could occur against women and girls and it is dismissed with a casual shrug of the shoulders. 'That's the way things are,' they will say.
And everyone will accept it.
On my first trip to the northern Iraq I went to investigate honour killings with Project Monma. It was explained to us how women and girls can be killed for any perceived sexual transgression. One Kurdish man for example, explained how a young girl in his village was shot by her father, simply because she was seen talking to a man in the street. Women should not have any sexual relation with a man outside of her husband. Should she go against this cultural rule, then culturally, her family would need to kill her to restore the family honour.
This is their culture.
In Lebanon I sat with a group of young men, all originally from Lebanon but had grown up in various parts of the Gulf. I was in Beirut investigating violence against Syrian women and we were discussing sexual harassment. I had been recounting the many stories I had heard of Syrian women being sexually harassed by Lebanese men, however the men in the room seemed unconcerned. I then recounted one of my own stories of being surrounded and threatened by a group of men in Kuwait and all of the men burst into laughter.
'This is our culture,' declared one of the Lebanese men with a smile on his face.
In Mauritania I went with Project Monma to look into the phenomenon of slavery. Up until 2007, Mauritania's descent based slavery system was legal. If you're a Harratin woman in Mauritania and you give birth to a child, that child will then too become a slave. The white Moors, as they call them, are traditionally the slavery owners. For female slaves, rape, discrimination and the possibility of being jailed for sex outside of marriage, even in the case of rape, are all realities. It was explained to be me by one ex slave that it is considered an honor, for the white Moors to have a slave.
This is their culture.
In Gabon a woman explained how it is hard for women to work in Gabon because the sexual harassment is so bad. This is how things are in Gabon, she said. A friend in South Africa explained how there wasn't much point in girls becoming educated because even if you have an education, you will still be sexually harassed at work. That's how it is in South Africa, she said.
In Morocco a man explained how he chose not to sexually harass women, but was criticised by all of his friends for not doing so. Men are expected to sexually harass women in Morocco, he explained. In Senegal, a man laughed when I brought up sexual harassment, 'well that's everywhere,' he said. His laughter and lack of concern did indeed indicate that sexual harassment was everywhere, another aspect of Senegalese culture, no doubt.
Throughout the world men dismiss women as being capable to work in certain jobs, which is often argued to be related to culture. Throughout the world men justify hitting their wives as it is the 'way they do things.' And throughout the world women are expected to dress in a certain way or face the consequences, harassment and rape. How women should be dressed is of course directly related to 'culture.'
Violence can never and should never, be justified under the banner of culture. Men do not allow violence to be perpetrated against them, or to be justified or excused as culture, and neither should women. Any act that causes physical or psychological harm and creates an environment where one does not have access to the same rights and opportunities as others, must be condemned. It must be condemned because everyone wants to live in a world where we are treated fairly and justly, and that includes women.