Manifestations of domestic violence in different cultural environments

Domestic violence is not about the difference of cultures. Only its manifestations in different cultural environments are perceived differently. This fundamental point should help explain the situation, and throw into doubt general and vague claims such as “Islam degrades women”, “domestic violence is a Muslim matter”, etc.

The dialogue includes two levels of problem – on the one hand, it examines the same situation through different eyes (the status of women in the Islamic world as seen by Jami and Olga), and it also draws attention to the presence of domestic violence in society regardless of cultural background (the conversation between Jami, Pavla and Olga). For this reason, the problem of domestic violence in the following text is examined from these two angles.

  • What is...?

Domestic violence: Conduct on the part of one partner which causes fear in the other. Using the power which this fear provokes, the violent partner controls the behaviour of the other. The concept includes physical, psychological, sexual or economic (e.g. forced isolation) violence, which takes place between close persons. Domestic violence appears amongst people of all social levels regardless of education, economic situation, race, or membership in an ethnic group, etc.

Forms of domestic violence: Domestic violence occurs frequently in several forms at once and has a progressive tendency:
- physical violence: beating, slapping, kicking, choking, punching or other physical attacks, threats with a weapon, etc. aimed against a person, or against people close to the person, or, for instance, against their pets
- psychological violence: invective, accusations, humiliation and vilification, sneering at someone in company, the threat of physical violence, terrorisation, the withdrawal of sleep or food, threats to commit suicide, the damage or destruction of possessions, threatening to kidnap a loved one, e.g. children, making employment impossible, deprivation of legal rights, etc.
- sexual abuse: rape, forced sex, or forced sexual practices which have been refused, either through violence or threats
- social isolation: preventing a person from visiting their family or friends, monitoring telephone calls and SMSes, persecution, unexpected “control” visits or telephone calls
- economic control: restrictions on access to money, refusal to provide money for joint household expenses, as an attempt to prevent access to employment

Forms of domestic violence according to the victim:
- violence within a partnership: most victims of domestic violence are women, and the perpetrator is their current or former partner; a survey carried out in 2003 in the CR showed that 38% of women had experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives; women form up to 95% of victims of domestic violence; homosexual relationships obviously also fall into this category
- violence against children: perpetrated by one or both parents; this is a crossover of several forms of domestic violence
- violence against seniors: perpetrated by persons from the family circle; this is a crossover of several forms of domestic violence

Violence against women: According to the definition of the UN: “each manifestation of family-based violence which results or could result in physical, sexual or psychological detriment or suffering of women, including the threats of such acts, bluffing, and deliberate restriction of freedom, both in public or private life.”

Domestic violence as a legal concept in the CR: Domestic violence is a criminal act, the details of which are enshrined in the Criminal Act 91/2004 Coll., in section 215a – the tyrannising of a person living in a jointly-inhabited apartment or building. Several paragraphs of the Criminal Act relate to this legal theme, specifically: section 221 – injury to health, section 222 – injury to health, section 231 – restriction of personal freedom, section 232 – deprivation of person freedom, section 235 – blackmail, section 237 – persecution, section 197a – violence against a group of people and against individuals, section 241 - rape, section 242 – sexual abuse – abuse of a person younger than 15 years, section 212 – abandonment of a child, and section 213 – failure to provide statutory nourishment.

  • Topic

Olga is addressing the problem of domestic violence in Islamic countries from the point of view of her cultural background. Jami is faced with a difficult task – he comes from Iraq, where the situation is of course different than in Islamic countries, and has to explain to Olga what he regards as being positive about the differing status of men and women in Islam.

The status of women in Islamic countries
It is problematic to view the situation through Western eyes, since this often creates an image of horror and humiliation. This lumping together of disparate groups fails to take into account the different statuses of Muslim women in various Islamic countries and on various social levels. It fails to take into account the influence of local cultural traditions, or the variety of possible means of interpreting the Koran and the hadises (the traditions regarding the acts and pronouncements of the Prophet Mohamed), the message of hadiths (the reports of the actions and statement made by the prophets), and the different applications of the Sharia (Islamic law). This approach does not understand the close links between culture and religion in Islamic countries and the cohesion of certain cultures with religion. Islamic society is very closely linked with its religion, and thus the status of women in this society is determined above all by the Koran.

The picture of woman in the Koran
From the pre-Islamic period, Islamic society inherited a tradition of blood revenge for murder, the possibility of an unlimited number of concubines/slave girls, and a situation in which it was easy to divorce or abandon a wife: in short, a patriarchal structure of the family. The Koran exhorts gentle conduct toward women, to whom it also assigns new rights. The fourth sura, the longest, is devoted to women.

The Koran sees women in three roles:
- as important figures of biblical tradition, a figure in the retelling of the biblical salvation – one of the most important women in the Bible is the Virgin Mary, whose name is the only one which is mentioned directly (otherwise women in the Koran are designated as “the woman of her respective husband”, or “And you Adam, inhabit your paradise with your wife!” (7:19)
- as biological and social beings, where the social status of women is a degree lower than men (“Man has a status above woman because God gave priority to one over the other, since men make over some of their possessions to women …”(4:34); there is also emphasis on the difference in roles: the woman is worth less than the man (“And when she brought it into the world she cried: “My God, I have brought a daughter into the world” – and God knew well what she had brought into the world, since the male is not like the female.” (3:36) )
- as believers, in relation to God both sexes are equal. The role of woman as believer designates her legislative and social position, specifies her basic rights and duties, and forms her status in marriage, during divorce, inheritance, and as a concubine. Theme no. 1 is devotion to men; women are recommended to be modest and chaste in their conduct (“Man has a status above woman because God gave priority to one over the other, since men make over some of their possessions to women … And virtuous women are meekly devoted and keep those secrets hidden which God has instructed them to. And warn those whose disobedience you fear, find them a place to sleep and beat them! If they are obedient to you, do not look for things to hold against them! And God is great, noble.”) (4:34)

Although there is a duty specified in the Koran to cover oneself, it does not ensue from the verses which parts of the body this instruction relate to (“Prophet, tell your wives, daughters and believing women to wrap their veils around them! And this will be the most suitable way that they are recognised and not insulted.”) (33:59)
According to the Koran, daughters and sisters have inheritance rights, but there is no mention of the rights of a widow. However, a woman’s share of an inheritance is significantly less (“And God stipulates regarding your children thus: to the son a share equal to that of two daughters … If there is no descendant, then his parents shall inherit, though his mother shall receive one third …”)(4:12) )
Zina (adultery): according to the Koran, this is one of the most serious sins, and was therefore punished while the perpetrator was still on earth (otherwise, God decides on the punishment for a transgression of the moral code upon the Day of Judgement). The Koran does not speak of punishment of this crime by being stoned to death – instead, it states “Whip the adulterer and adulteress one hundred times!”

At present, there are 46 countries in which Islam is the state religion. These countries are federated in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The position of women within the framework of the Islamic concept of life is particularly difficult for emancipated women who long for personal freedom, respect and social recognition. The countries where the rights of women are most infringed and restricted are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The antithesis of these countries is Iraq, where men and women appear freely together in public, eat in restaurants, and bathe together. Employed Iraqi women have the right to six month’s fully paid holiday and another six months on half pay (information from 2002).

However, Jami perceives the problem differently – Islam protects women. It protects their dignity – he would undoubtedly see even special women’s carriages on trains or buses this way, which are supposed to protect women from unsuitable contact in crowded spaces. He bases his position on this concept of protection when he speaks of divorce. In the Islamic world (we must not overlook the differences between individual countries!), if a man divorces a woman, he must provide for his ex-wife and must look after their children. In the case of polygamy, the husband must divide up his assets fairly between his wives (both material and emotional) – if the first wife feels deprived, if she does not receive enough spending money or does not have as many jewels as a newer woman, she may complain before an Islamic court.

Pavla does not view the issue of the status of women as clearly as Olga. Her attitude is influenced by her experience from her own family. Pavla’s mother had to divorce because she was tyrannised by her husband. This example demonstrates the fact that domestic violence is by no means linked to cultural background – it is no coincidence that in democratic countries, this fact has formed the subject of discussions only over the last few years. After all, in the Czech Republic the very combination of the words was for many years taboo. (The Czech government only expressed the unacceptability of domestic violence and other forms of violence perpetrated on women in its resolution of 7 June 2000 and 9 May 2001, in such a way that it instructed the appropriate ministry to launch an information campaign.)

However, even these days the phrase “domestic violence” does not appear in legislation, but “ the tyranny of person living in a jointly inhabited apartment or house” -- and this has been punishable since 1 June 2004. The consequences of this perception are still with us in society today. How many times have you heard, for instance, that domestic violence relates only to the socially weaker levels of society; that it isn’t a common thing, it relates to only a few families; that it is basically just about arguments and “Italian marriages”; that the cause of domestic violence is usually one partner’s alcoholism; that women themselves are responsible for it, by provoking their men; that women appreciate violence in a relationship; that the situation is not that bad, otherwise the women would leave the violent partner; that you can easily recognise the victim and perpetrator of domestic violence, etc. etc.

The problem seen in this light leads us to view domestic violence as a problem of all cultures – or to put it another way – a problem of individuals. It is more a question of how society reflects this problem, whether it protects the victim, enshrines the problem in criminal law, subjects it to public debate, etc.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
A woman from Asia: “I live in a town far away from my family. I have five children, three from him. My husband tyrannised me physically and mentally for six years. A person gets used to it and is able to put up with beatings, being choked and raped, the cruelty … One time, I was sitting in a bathtub full of water, he was just a small distance away from me and waved the extension lead, and when he saw how my urine coloured the water yellow, he laughed. I don’t know how many times he humiliated me. I believed that I was fat, ugly and that I didn’t deserve the love of anyone, not even the love of my children.”

Story 2
Jane, Uganda: “I got married in 1981. My husband beat me awfully. He was polygamous, so he had other woman at home. When I cooked something for him, he would kick the plate from the table. Then he would return at midnight with another woman and say that I had to cook for his wife. I tried to escape from him to my parents, but they told me that I had to return, and that he had bought me and that I no longer belonged to the family, that I was now apparently the property of the family of my husband. They deserted me in my hour of need, and I remember how I wanted to commit suicide.”

Story 3
Lesley, Great Britain: “I don’t know how it happened. It was probably something minor, but suddenly he started to beat me and kick me. I fell to the floor and he continued to kick me in the back. As soon as he began to behave violently I lost the ability to think independently and logically. I was more concerned about how he felt than about how I felt. I was really convinced that I would never escape alive. I felt an obligation to him, I loved him, and I also thought I could overcome everything. He never said, “Yes, I behaved badly,” or “Yes, I’m a wife-beater.” I began to understand women whose hatred built up to such an extent over time that they killed their partner. I thought that if he weren’t here I could escape, and I began to plan how I could kill him.

Story 4
Mrs. J., CR: Mrs. J. is from a medium-sized town in North Moravia. For the duration of their relationship, her husband behaved very violently towards Mrs. J. He often attacked her verbally and physically, abused her in front of the children, forced sex through violence, checked her telephone calls and tried to get her to stop working. After each attack, there was always a very short period in which he behaved contritely, attempting to apologise for his behaviour and actions. Especially in the final period, Mr. J. behaved very authoritative and tough, and his wife had to do what he wanted, otherwise she’d be punished. She preferred to back down out of fear. The situation reached a new low after he raped Mrs. J. in 2000, while choking her with a lead wrapped around her head and punching her in the jaw. Mrs. J. was forced to escape from her home.

At the subsequent criminal hearing for the act of rape, blackmail, and violence against a group of persons and individuals (a case which is still continuing), Mrs. J´s husband reacted with threats: that he would knife her or that he would kill her first and then himself, which caused Mrs. J. to fear for her life, as a result of which she had to be hospitalised for three months in a psychiatric facility. . There is a specialist assessment from the department of psychology that all the psychological problems of Mrs. J. are caused by the influence of long-term, intensive, domestic violence in a relationship. Mrs. J. states that there is a very high probability that her husband will carry out what he has threatened to do.

As well as violent attacks, Mr. J. is at present using their three children as a means of blackmailing and punishing his wife. He is directing their anger against their mother, blaming her for the current family situation. Under his influence, the children have started to adopt his method of behaviour towards their mother, and there is a real risk that they will behave in this way towards their future partners. Mr. J. has been called by part of her family “an unnatural mother, who not only abandoned her three children, but even submitted a criminal complaint against their father, as a consequence of which there is the threat that he will have to go to prison, will not be able to look after the children, who will suffer the shame of this all their lives.” As a result of the hatred shown towards her, Mrs. J. cannot return home without someone accompanying her – she is in a very poor psychological state.

The investigation into the criminal acts in the case of Mrs. J. has itself brought many fundamental doubts in respect of the approach taken by the official bodies. Mrs. J is being secondarily victimised, i.e. she is becoming a victim for the second time.

Story 5
Russia: “A woman called the police fifteen times in one night, saying that her husband was beating her. But nobody came. The police station was only five hundred metres away. Another woman rang the police saying that her husband was beating her. But the police told her: “Visit us only when there’s a dead body.”

Story 6
Aza, Chechnya: Petra Procházková in her story Execution – A Public Affair, describes the last two days prior to the execution of Aza, convicted for the murder of her husband Alek. For several years, Alek beat Aza up and raped her. He was found with his head chopped off and, as well as Aza, her sister Mariam and young Adam was found guilty. Mariam dreamt up the murder and Adam carried it out. This is the conversation between Petra Procházková and Aza as she awaits her punishment: “Apparently the firing squad will include my relatives…” “No Aza. I asked. There will only be the relatives of your husband. The law allows for this. They carry out blood revenge this way. Your relatives can only look on, that is, if they want to.” “Mariam lived for another 12 minutes after hundreds of bullets entered her.” “Did you cry as you watched?” “No. Nobody here cried. They brought a television to our cell and said that I had to watch. They broadcast it on primetime from the square. Apparently they did the same thing to my parents. They didn’t want to attend the execution and they won’t come to mine.” “And the children?” “My sister’s children watched. That’s what I heard. My children… I don’t know. I don’t care. Do you think that Mariam was in pain?” “No, definitely not. She didn’t know what was going on, she was in a state of shock.” “But I won’t be in shock. They have left me to prepare for it for a couple of months. They executed her a few days after all the threats we received. She didn’t have time to think about it. I imagine standing on that square a hundred times every day.” “So don’t imagine it.” “I can’t not imagine it.” “You can Aza, but maybe it’s not right.” (Petra Procházková/Jaromír Štětina: Sponge away the physical fluids, Praha, 2001)

  • Sources


Procházková, P. & Štětina, J. (2001). Utřete tělesné šťávy. Praha: GG.


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