A Cultural Perspective on Domestic Violence

By Suli Adams Domestic violence is a global issue, its private and very isolating. Most cases are not reported, therefore, those that are, do not reflect the extent of the true reality. Domestic violence is a behaviour pattern used to gain or maintain control and power over one’s partner. This can be verbal, emotional, sexual or physical, used to keep the partner in the relationship. Most often the behaviour starts subtly and gradually and progresses over time. Abusive people believe they have the right to control and restrict their partners lives because they believe their own feelings and needs should be the priority in the relationship, or because they enjoy exerting power.



In the western world, women have access to education, they value their independence and freedom of opinions, thoughts and beliefs. They have the ability to decide their future, family situations, careers and relationships. These rights are taken for granted in western cultures, but for many women this is a luxury that is not available.

In 2012, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Yousafzai Malala, at the age of 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban, for speaking out publicly on behalf of girls for their right to be educated. In 2022, we witness the Taliban taking rights away from the women and girls in Afghanistan. This reality exists in other parts of the world as well, leaving women without education, deprived of independence, careers and their freedom to think, believe and live a life to fulfill their dreams and desires. In parts of the world Women have no choice in who they marry, how they raise their children, where they live, what they eat or what lifestyle or beliefs they may want.

Traditionally, in some countries the birth of a baby girl is no cause for celebration, she is seen as a liability whereas the birth of a baby boy is seen as an asset to be celebrated. In such cultures, when a boy becomes a man, he cares for his aging parents and maybe other family members. Once married, his wife belongs to his family and is expected to care for them, while denied the same right for her own family, sometimes even visitations. In traditional china, the brides family would give her a Jade bangle, so that if she was really distressed in her marriage she could sell the bangle and find a way to live, but she could not go back to her family. Upon the death of her husband, her role in life is to care for her in laws, sometimes suicide was a preferred option. In traditional India, a young Hindu girl was often married to a man much older than her, and she now belonged to his family and expected to care for them. Upon his death, she has to shave her head, wear no makeup, only plain white clothing and have no joy in life. She is now a liability, and often her own children would disown her. Some Indian cultures the husband will rename his wife. In some cultures if the wife or daughter does not behave as expected, honour killing is used to regain or maintain family respect in the community. In some cultures the right of a younger brother supersedes that of his older sister and it is quite acceptable for him to punish her, however he chooses no matter what his age.

Fortunately, these traditional ways are changing for the better, but cultural beliefs permeate deep and are reflected in attitudes and treatment of women even today. In many eastern cultures women are treated as belonging to a man, giving him dominance, power and control over his wife, leaving her to be compliant, passive and fulfill expectations that are traditionally derived. These are considered to be the virtues of a good wife!

In many Asian and African countries, aging parents are the responsibility of the eldest son, financially and otherwise. This creates a lot of pressure on families that leave their birth country out of necessity or for a better future. In my community, one West African mother had her eldest son held back in Africa by the paternal grandmother as assurance that the child’s father would continue to provide for her financially, otherwise his son would not be fed. Another West African mother was denied money for childcare, which she requested of her husband so she could learn English twice a week. Her well paid professional husband said he needed the money to support his mother in Africa. Was this perhaps a way to control his wife? For women where language is a barrier and independence is not attainable, much of the information received comes from the husband and may not be accurate, but rather for the purpose of meeting his desires. Many countries do not have pensions, healthcare or other means to care for aging parents and they rely on their son. Therefore, birth of a boy is highly valued, and his parents ensure that his wife will be someone that they can control and dominate, after all she belongs to them, and her purpose is to serve her husband and his family. An independent, educated woman, may not agree with her in laws and this would be problematic.


In a nearby town, a stay at home woman from North Africa, was proudly living as a good wife, raising her daughter, maintaining a house and meeting her husbands expectations, only to be informed that he had married a second wife while on trip. Yet another North African stay at home woman, was left at home to tend to the kids, while her husband went to visit his birth country, leaving her with no money and no groceries for 2 months. Both these women lived according to cultural expectations, and were faced with uncertainty and a drastic change to their lives, for which they were unprepared.


These are the realities for many who leave their birth countries in the hopes of building a better future. The traditional cultural ways continue to have demands and expectations on the men and the women. There is the pressure of leaving culture, family, language, work and starting over in a foreign country where skills are not recognized, language is a barrier, finances are a worry, but yet family in both countries have to be cared for. Many of the men are well educated such as doctors or engineers, but now drive taxis or work in restaurants. It is no surprise that there is much stress, insecurity and disappointments that could lead to domestic violence as a way to release pressure. Where women are raised to be passive would they come forward ? What would be the consequence? What information has been provided? Is the information reliable? What concerns would she have? Might he loose his job? Would they be deported ? Would his family disown her? How would she survive without him? What role does culture play? These are situations that are not likely to be reported. In fact women in such situations deny or accept their reality as fate or karma. It is well known that women in the west find it very challenging to report domestic violence, and many go unreported, can we expect newcomers to report? How can we help them?


One solution is to help the men with career options, transfer skills to a related career, transfer credentials, assist with better job opportunities. Currently there is a shortage of professional staff such as physicians, yet qualified physicians from other countries are driving taxis and trying hard to make ends meet. These physicians are capable of assisting in the medical field while waiting to requalify. This would relieve some of the pressure and therefore the need to vent on the wife.


Women ruled by traditional cultures have little control over their personal freedom, independence, needs and desires. Their lives are ruled by attending to the needs of their family. How do they relieve their frustrations and stress? Women support one another relieving stress and tensions. In the privacy of other women in similar situations they eat, laugh, dance, talk and heal. In the absence of men and families they are free to express themselves, be creative, have freedom and control over their bodies, thoughts, imagination and reveal their innermost desires and fears, often through dance, they might even enter into a trance like state.


In the book Grandmother’s secrets, Rosina-Fawzia Al Ravi states:


“Through dancing, people understand their feelings. They are moved by feelings of lightness and happiness that enable them to take life easier to overcome its ups and downs with a lighter foot……”

And,

“When we dance, we rise above the little self into the world of mythology and have the chance to become one with the human longing to understand life. Our pain and suffering thus become part of a long story, the human story; this comforts individuals and gives them heart. The heart can then soften and give space for love and understanding. People learn to forgive and grow from a state of isolation into the world of unity.”


And,

“When I look at women in the two cultures known to me, Arab and Western, in one of them I see a woman, fully aware of her femininity, yet only allowed to experience it within a pre-defined frame and with no possibility to live her masculine side. In the other, I see an active woman who stands on her own two feet and plays down her femininity in an honest attempt to be taken seriously”

We as women can change things by first in how we treat, encourage, support and develop the women in our lives, our daughters, granddaughters, daughters-in-law, sisters, friends, women in our communities. I leave you with hope for change. In 1991 in Toronto, Canada, the White Ribbon campaign was launched. It is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equality, healthy relationships, and a new vision for masculinity. White Ribbon campaign initiatives have been organized in over 60 countries around the world. Men wear white ribbons as a sign of their pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about all forms of gender based violence. In our dance community, Shimmymob raises awareness and funds, provides resources and helps build a community and confidence for women worldwide.

Like a sword in a sheath, her brilliance stays dormant

Like a bow in a quiver, her power stays invisible

Like a pea in a pod, her worth stays small

Like a trapped animal in a cage,

She awaits permission to be freed

Like a butterfly in formation,

She will only emerge when her old skin dies.

-From A Radical Awakening by Dr Shefali

Suli Adams lives in Pembroke, Canada and loves bellydance. She is on the Pembroke Diversity Advisory Commitee. She studies with Aziza of Montreal, writes and dances as much as she can. Most notably she has been recently published in I Will Dance 'til a Hundred and One!: Communal Wisdom on Dancing as We Age: Turner LCSW, Janine: 9781977583574: Amazon.com:

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