Keynote Address – Sujata Warrier- “Who Owns Culture?”: Engaging Cultural Differences in Gender Based Violence Cases

14 Nov 2019
9:00 am - 10:00 am

Keynote Address – Sujata Warrier- “Who Owns Culture?”: Engaging Cultural Differences in Gender Based Violence Cases

In working with diverse populations we often struggle with practices that are either unfamiliar to us or that challenge us culturally. How then do we understand the meaning of the practice in its particular context but also within the larger context of Canada? How do we work with individuals and families? How do we develop standardized protocols and practices but also build in flexibility when working with diversity. Within the realm of international human rights standards, where do oppressive cultural practices fit in? How can we translate these international standards to daily thinking and practice? This keynote will answer these questions by critically challenging the prevailing idea of culture and provide a more nuanced understanding of the meaning and content of the term using intersectional analysis. Cultural context is often complicated by long standing practices that get in the way of developing common interests worldwide.

The term culture is challenging and cultures have been studied for several centuries. Much of what we understand of the term comes from the formulations of Western colonialists and the participation of colonized people in accepting these formulations. As a result, we have come to understand cultures to be very stable patterns of beliefs, thoughts, traditions, values, and the things that are handed down from one generation to the next to ensure the continuity of these systems. This understanding of culture has served the very purpose of the colonizers to ―civilize the ―natives. Colonial empires relied on distinctions about ―the other as did local cultures to justify the processes of marginalization and inclusion, in order to maintain political and social power. An example of colluding with colonial claims of the differences between the East and West is one of spirituality. The British claimed that Indians were too spiritual and the Indian response – “Yes we are different, we are spiritual. The East is more spiritual than the West; therefore we are better than you”.

Such reasoning does not get at what actually transpires in particular cultures, and permeates the ways in which we talk about culture. Often when we are invited to talk about who we are and what cultures we represent, the same collusion can be found behind the ways in which we understand who we are. We fail to look at the fact that cultures are not just stable patterns that are handed down from one generation to the other. When we critically engage ourselves as we observe and “study” different groups of people, we are able to observe ways in which these traditions actually shift and change under changing social and political landscapes. So culture is not stable. Our experience(s) shape our commonalities. These commonalities may cut across many different aspects of our identities and is not limited to our racial or ethnic experiences only but includes gender, age, class, immigrant status, disabilities to name a few.

There are no clear-cut boundaries between all the different aspects of cultural identity. Most boundaries are permeable and as Uma Narayan states there is no such thing as a ―”packaged picture of culture”.

Most of us have been asked to present what sexual or domestic violence looks like in a particular community. We get up and give a nice list of what it looks like. We give people lists of what they can do if they have encountered a Chinese woman, or Bosnian woman, or a Cambodian woman; and we go away feeling pleased. These are the rainbow-colored panels that we have all been a part of. That is not to say that these lists do not have some value. But we must critique our presentations, examine our assumptions, and not connect back into a totalizing notion of culture. These totalizing notions of culture are in fact idealized pictures of our traditions; and as we know, traditions have both nurturing as well as oppressive elements.

It is important to shift our understanding away from totalizing culture to illustrating its diversity, contradictions, contrasts, ambiguities, and the interconnections between various internal systems that structure power.

Culture is not a series of homogeneous, unchanging practices that have gone on for millennia. We are all familiar with the ideas that Asian culture is “X”, even though we when one speaks of Asia, we are not talking about a single nation but a huge region with fifty percent of the world’s population. Asian culture is “X”, Pacific Islander culture is “Y”. These massive generalizations do not even begin to deal with internal contradictions, nor with the different ways people are located within communities, and how this shapes their experiences. What falls out when we use these certain very limited notions of culture are the power systems that are involved.

The notion of culture becomes de-politicized when stripped of its economic and political implications. It is necessary to assert the economic and political realities of racial and gendered power when talking about culture.

We have to ask ourselves:
What narratives or descriptions about culture work? What do people believe? What has traction? We also have to critically challenge how we think and talk about within our own communities? We need language to describe cultural specificity.

Intersectional cultural analysis shifts us away from the dichotomous, binary thinking about structures, power, organization and privilege that have been far too common in the ways we have conceptualized differences and the resulting challenges in working with “different” people. Intersectional cultural analysis focuses attention on specific contexts, distinct experiences and the qualitative aspects of equality and discrimination. It makes room for understanding complexity including the structural and dynamic dimensions of the interplay of different policies and institutions so that interventions for victims of family violence can meet the needs of the survivor(s) and the perpetrator(s). Without a complex understanding of the social and cultural factors, interventions and programs cannot achieve their full potential.