The City of Surrey: “Banding Together Against Domestic Violence” or against Indian culture?

Rakhi: a festival that celebrates the love between a sister and her brother. In the picture above, a sister tying a rakhi (sacred thread) on the wrist of her brother. (Photo: Sandhu Bhamra)

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

Rakhi, also known as Raksha bandhan or Rakhri, is an Indian festival that celebrates the bond between a sister and her brother.

The ceremony is fairly simple: sisters tie rakhi, a sacred thread, on their brothers’ wrists, and pray for their well-being and longevity. The brothers take a vow to love and protect their sisters for life.

The sacred thread is traditionally a simple red string, or it can be a fancy glittering one, or depending on affordability, real gold, silver or diamond bracelet.

Sweets are exchanged and the brothers traditionally give a gift to their sisters: a box of sweets or chocolates, a few dollars, clothes, or even jewellery.

It falls on a full-moon day in the Indian lunisolar calendar and this year it will be celebrated on August 2.

So what has this simple Indian ceremony that celebrates a sister-brother relationship got to do with the issue of domestic violence?

Nothing.

Except the Canadian City of Surrey thinks it can tie violence against women to Indian culture.

The City recently launched its second annual Rakhi project, “a Surrey Crime Reduction Strategy initiative designed to raise awareness about domestic violence”. I just found out about it, thanks to a photo, on my Facebook stream.

Rakhi project to raise awareness about domestic violence? What a gross misrepresentation!

The City of Surrey is basically saying that domestic violence is a problem within the Indian culture. I thought the problem with this depiction was limited to mainstream media, but a government body?

Dear elected and non-elected members of the City of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, let me educate you about domestic violence against women:

  • According to the United Nations, Violence against women is “severe and pervasive throughout the world”.
  • The UN recognizes physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner as “the most common form of violence experienced by women globally”.
  • It recognizes that violence against women is not confined to a specific culture, region or country, or to particular groups of women within a society. The roots of violence against women lie in historically unequal power relations between men and women and persistent discrimination against women.
  • According to UNICEF, domestic violence is the most prevalent yet relatively hidden and ignored form of violence against women and girls.
  • Closer home, a Statistics Canada study calls it “a complex matter that is linked to women’s equality in society”.
  • According to UN data, for women aged 15 to 44, domestic violence and rape account for five per cent of disease burden in developing countries, and 19 per cent in developed countries.
  • According to a United Nations study, between 40 and 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by husbands or boyfriends in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States.

Did I just google these facts?

No. I spent more than a year researching this topic for writing my thesis at The University of British Columbia. My thesis, titled, “Taking back the media: How South Asian diasporic media report on domestic violence against women in their own community” was submitted for the completion of my Master of Journalism degree at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

So much for the facts and stats. What’s my point?

My point is domestic violence is a crime against women, but stop portraying it in a cultural framework. By saying that it is a problem with people of Indian, or broader South Asian heritage, you are saying it doesn’t exist in other communities. You are doing gross injustice to all women – both South Asian and non-South Asian heritage.

How?

By constantly saying it is a South Asian problem, you are neglecting, women from Anglo (White), Asian, Aboriginal and other backgrounds, who are beaten and murdered by their boyfriends and husbands.

By associating the awareness around abuse against women with Indian heritage and festivals, you are saying that it is a problem with “your” community, you are the barbaric ones, you kill your women, and you are uncivilized.

By telling the community to solve the problem within the community, you are absolving your responsibility towards women of South Asian heritage. You are telling the women, who have been beaten by their husbands, their lives devastated, that go talk to your community and religious leaders, we have nothing to do with you, because it is your problem, you are the “Other”, the “Outsider”.

By associating the sacred and warm festival of rakhi with domestic violence awareness, you have wronged the community.

How do I support my argument?

Violence against women is a severe problem, but it is prevalent throughout the world. The main culprit is power imbalance in the society, not culture.

I am not defending a crime; I am defending a culture.

And I am not saying this based on emotions. I am talking facts, and research, data and quoting established studies.

I am not alone.

Apart from my own research, there is excellent academic scholarship that refutes violence against women is a cultural problem. Brilliant academic scholars such as Minelle Mahtani, Yasmin Jiwani, Sherene H. Razack, and Sunera Thobani have done tremendous work establishing how Canadian mainstream media continues to wrongly present violence against women in a cultural framework.

One of these scholars Minelle Mahtani, whose work I read, examined and quote in my study, argues that traditional journalistic understanding of ethics that revolve around balance, objectivity, and impartiality in news and reports do not do justice to the treatment and representations of minority groups.

Ms. Mahtani explains that society’s attitudes and beliefs are shaped by what the media discerns as public knowledge. When domestic violence in the South Asian community is time and again explained on cultural background, it only tends to reinforce the negative stereotype of a culture that is understood to be oppressive to women.

She suggests that negative depictions of minorities, in turn, give the message to the minorities in Canada that “they are threatening, deviant, and irrelevant to nation-building”. She calls these portrayals “damaging to the psyche” as they tend to instill inferiority complexes among minorities.

And that is exactly what is happening in the community. How many times I’ve had discussions with people of South Asian heritage who state it as a fact that the community is stooping to an all-time low by beating and killing its women? The community members themselves have started to believe that their culture is, in a way, responsible – this is exactly what Ms. Mahtani says happens through damaging portrayals of minorities.

My personal story of such damage:

Recently, my toddler accidentally bumped his head into my face. The area swelled and the impact left a huge blue/black mark under my left eye. When my husband saw me later in the day, he asked me to be careful when I step out or people are likely to think since I am of South Asian heritage, my husband must have beaten me. I didn’t think it was funny. Even if he said it as a joke, it was a hurtful joke, to think domestic violence is a cultural problem and is associated with only the South Asian culture.

What needs to be done:

If nothing else, the creators of the “Rakhi Project” should have done their homework well. It’s not too late: read one of the books written by the scholars I mention, or for a quick overview, contact me for a copy of my thesis work. I will be more than happy to provide one.

Yes, South Asian heritage women have been brutally murdered by their husbands, but so have been women of other racial and cultural heritage. Let’s get the dialogue out of the cultural framework and try and address the real issues around domestic violence.

The one body that does it well and in a fair manner is the South Asian diasporic media. I am not speaking out of any bias, but I established this through my research of frame analysis. My study found:

  • South Asian diasporic media are trying to provide a new framework to understand violence against women in their community by eliminating rationalization of domestic violence within a cultural framework.
  • The diasporic media identify alcohol abuse, social breakdowns and breakdown of trust as the top reasons for domestic violence.
  • The news reportage also identify the lack of funding for women’s programs to help deal with these problems, as a major obstacle in situations of domestic abuse.
  • Lack of resources and inadequate state intervention are key elements in addressing the problem of domestic violence against women in racialized communities.
  • At the same time, there is a need for a further discourse to understand the sexism of domestic violence and not accept representations and explanations based on cultural backgrounds.

The State responsibility:

The United Nations outlines responsibility of the States in addressing violence against women, irrespective of the perpetrators, who could be state agents or non-state actors. It says:

“States are accountable to women themselves, to all their citizens and to the international community. States have a duty to prevent acts of violence against women; to investigate such acts when they occur and prosecute and punish perpetrators; and to provide redress and relief to the victims. While differing circumstances and constraints require different types of action to be taken by the State, they do not excuse State inaction. Yet States worldwide are failing to implement in full the international standards on violence against women. When the State fails to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable, this not only encourages further abuses, it also gives the message that male violence against women is acceptable or normal. The result of such impunity is not only denial of justice to the individual victims/survivors, but also reinforcement of prevailing inequalities that affect other women and girls as well.”

The State, in this case the City of Surrey, unfortunately, lived up to the fact-finding study of the United Nations.

So my dear elected and non-elected members of the City of Surrey, act on domestic violence in the correct framework. Free the festival of rakhi from this gross negative misrepresentation. People of South Asian heritage may be loud, because we love to celebrate, embrace and speak our hearts but we are not uncivilized. Stop depicting us as one.

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Categories: Canadian Identity

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22 replies

  1. Well written!

    I’m Pakistani, and even I wasn’t totally sure what Rakhi was (aside from some ideas about it from Bollywood movies). So had I heard about the “Rakhi Project” outside of your piece, I may have come to other conclusions.

    And yes, we have to take culture out of domestic violence. Your stats are spot on. I hope they do something to fix this misrepresentation!

  2. Good points, Sandhu. Domestic violence happens in every culture I’ve ever heard of. You lost me with this line though: “domestic violence is a crime against women”

    No it’s not. Domestic violence is a crime against women and men. In my courtroom I’ve seen male and female victims with male and female perpetrators. I’ve also seen male-on-male domestic violence and female-on-female domestic violence. So, to paraphrase your words, by saying that it is a problem with women victims, you are saying it doesn’t exist for men as victims. You are doing gross injustice to all people – both men and women.

    This is not to say that women are not in the majority as domestic violence victims; they are, at times fatally so. But the number of men victims is staggering, and the suffering a man can experience at the hands of a woman is also at times fatal.

    Thanks for pursuing this conversation here, and I hope you are able to enlighten many who might try to culturally limit the discussion on this plague we call domestic violence.

    Blessings,
    Tim

    • Tim – excellent observation and I 100% agree. I should have added “men” as well, but just to clarify: my thesis research specifically examined cases of violence against women and the news peg that prompted me to write this post was the festival of Rakhi where the City of Surrey is asking “brothers” to stand against domestic violence.
      But your point, in fact, clearly illustrates the reasons for violence against spouses is not cultural, or gender specific, but bigger reasons of alcohol abuse, depression, lack of trust and so on. So, the States need to focus on “REAL” issues and not do ceremonial work in the comfort of cultural representations. Thanks for bringing up this point.

  3. is it the government or media to be blamed for the bigger part, or both? maybe policy makers don’t do enough research before they plan on leading our society to a conclusion, or media is just making a story, a news out of it by targeting one culture, perhaps trying to make “the other culture(s)” feel better and proud of themselves to a point to make them believe they are perfect by just a comparison?
    a good point by Tim here, i have observed both genders getting effected by domestic abuse, at least women get to be heard if they are the victims(again not saying women are not the victims way more than men).
    my mind can’t stop wondering who is to be blamed for this whole “cultural representation”, how and where did it start from that now peoples minds are so polluted that the minute they hear something the first thing they think and wonder is if that was an south asian male.

    • Waqas – representations are very powerful. They work more than actual facts, so the need for all of us to be aware of and engage everyone in the dialogue. Thanks for reading and posting your comments.

  4. I would like to say I appreciate the attention you’ve brought to this issue and wanted to clear up a misconception.
     
    I would like to clarify that the City of Surrey has taken a multi pronged approach to the issue of Domestic Violence and is in no way saying that Domestic Violence is a lone South Asian issue.  The Rakhri Project is one avenue to engage and highlight that men are an integral part of any reducing the domestic violence problem across our entire communities. The Surrey Coalition Against Domestic Abuse has spearheaded bringing together professionals in the field to enhance education and understanding of the issue in it’s entirety.  This is a not a simple problem and it does not have a simple answer.  In moving forward with this project we wanted to highlight the symbolism of men standing up with women and visually displaying their support to the fight to eradicate domestic violence.
    The Rakhi project also highlights that love and respect towards women is valued in the South Asian culture. In such a divese community it is important promote different traditions especially ones with such an empowering message. 
     

    • Dear Councillor Rasode, thank you for taking the time to read my argument and posting your comments on it.

      I do appreciate your efforts as the designer of the campaign. Domestic Violence is an important issue and we all need to talk about it. And I do state the importance of a dialogue around it. In fact, I stress the real reasons – alcohol abuse, lack of trust and the most important – lack of state funding.

      I do understand from your comments and our telephone conversation a little while ago that your intent was to highlight how the South Asian culture is, in fact, very respectful and loving towards its women. Point taken.

      But as I said to you over the phone as well, if there are 25 cases of domestic violence and out of which five are South Asian, it is very important that we discuss those five cases (as you did through the Rakhi project) but it is absolutely imperative that you also discuss the other 20 – make the names of those other 20 available to the media and do mention their racial and cultural backgrounds, especially at the launch of projects that are traditionally associated with one culture, like the Rakhi project.

      And also, associate festivals and celebrations from other cultures with awareness around domestic violence.

  5. Hello Anu,
    Thanks for being the voice of my words as this campaign was bugging me but could not find ways to express it. You have projected this issue in an excellent manner. I totally agree with you that basically Rakhi is festival of brother and sister and could find any logic to connect it with Domestic Violence. Why City of surrey experts did not find any connection of Domestic Violence with Christmas, Hanukah, Ramadan or any other cultural festival? It is very much true that violence is associated with men and women and not with only South Asian men& women. We Indians welcome everyone into our house, festival, and let them enjoy with us. But some people take us granted and use our cultural festival for their public campaign which does not make any sense

    • Thanks for reading and for your comments Beena. It’s important that domestic violence is addressed but again, not in a cultural framework. Stay engaged.

      • Not in a cultural framework? Actually, I think there are appropriate cultural issues to take into account with domestic violence cases in my courtroom. But if you mean that cultural frameworks should not be exploited in a misguided effort to address domestic violence, I see what you mean.

        Tim.

      • Tim – yes, that’s what I mean. My reply to Beena above is in continuation of my dialogue. Cultural framework is required to give services, as interpreters, counsellors, but the need is not to misjudge this framework as the reason. And focus on the real reasons and find solutions for that. Thanks for being so engaged in this dialogue.

  6. I stand against stereotyping of South Asians. Here, I am not denying the stereotyping of this community in Media which can be quite offensive. However, I restrict my observations in this response to only the topic at hand – Rakhi Festival Message by Surrey.

    While I agree there could be a risk of promoting a prejudiced association of Domestic Violence with South Asian Culture in their minds, we need not be so paranoid and hypersensitive about it. If Surrey City says- brothers stand up for your sisters to prevent and against DV, what’s wrong with that? It is using a significance of brother-sister relationship in the Indian context of Rakhi festival to reach out and encourage some males to come to the rescue of their sisters if and when they are subjected to DV. Aren’t brothers supposed to do exactly that in any case morally speaking?

    What’s the problem if Rakhi for its popularity & fervor is used a context / a medium to give good message to brothers who are men – that form a section of the society that share the responsibility too? You are disproportionately worried about a fringe interpretation of a message by a few so much so that you lost the larger meaning of the core message itself – brothers protect your sisters against DV. Simple, straight and uncomplicated. Unless I think with a distorted mind and already carry an innate disapproval of South Asian Culture I would not associate DV with South Asians automatically upon a such a good message rendered on a South Asian Festival Day.

    Sandhu, don’t complicate and please don’t sensationalize. By not saying something good just because some shortsighted, prejudiced people might interpret it wrongly you are exactly playing into the hands of those few eccentrics. I think you are just overreacting against something said in right earnest and with a good motive.

    • Sanjay – many thanks for reading the article and commenting. We all have a right to our opinions and I welcome that. After all, we are living in an open, democratic society. But I beg to differ on one aspect: I am not complicating or sensationalizing. If you read my article again (it’s a long post) and evaluate my argument, you will notice yourself that no where do I say, the problem shouldn’t be addressed in our community. All I am saying is: change the framework and make it what it really is – from culture to patriarchal. And I am asking the governments to own up their responsibility and not put the onus on the shoulders of brothers. This is a social problem, where States have to take active part by proving services and education, not a cultural, where families and community leaders struggle for a solution. What are you suggesting when you say a brother should protect a sister when her husband or boyfriend is beating her up? Not call the police but take the law in his hand? How do you propose he “protects” his sister? By doing what the brother-in-law did? We need to look at this as a social problem, not a family dispute. And I am not saying it, UN, UNICEF and countless academic scholars have said it before me. Do you think all these responsible bodies are sensationalizing?
      Many thanks for your comments. Stay engaged. Warm regards – Anu

  7. Like I said in my opening lines, my comments are restricted to Surrey’s Rakhi campaign NOT about the DV or merits of Cultural Versus Patriarchial angles of this serious problem. Just don’t know how you get the idea that I am not for ownership of responsibility and proper response by Governments. I just fail to understand your de facto assumptions. For instance, how does reminding brothers their responsibility towards sisters automatically imply that entities like Governments & UN etc are absolved of the same? How does Surrey City’s festival campaign automatically mean that nothing else needs to be done? There is simply no logic in such assumptions. And how does – brothers should come to the rescue of sisters during violence – automatically imply that they should take law into their own hands and keep the police out? If your sister is getting beaten up by her boyfriend/ husband, as a man with definitely more physical strength, wont you try and step in between as a mitigating factor? Will you only call police and be a silent spectator even if you can preempt a more serious/irreversible physical damage? You are surely aware of the concept of Self Defense. When you are under physical attack isn’t there nothing like primary defense if you are capable of the same until law enforcement arrives? When did I mention taking law into own hands – which is offense. Protect means Defense, not offense. Every law in the world takes the defense factor into consideration in any crime. If I ask brothers to affirm to protect sisters it is really bizarre to interpret it as asking them to take law into their own hands or not call police. I fully share your anguish of the problem of DV itself but I feel your apprehensions about the Rakhi campaign are unfounded only end up throwing spanner in the works of an innocuous campaign formulated in right earnest.

  8. Somehow you chose not to publish my rejoinder to your bizarre interpretations to my first response to your reply above. If you want to look good by appearing to silence your detractors, that’s is not a healthy way of running a blog. Why should you avoid rational questions that confront and bring out the inherent weakness in your argument? I understand if you censor objectionable language. But deleting valid questions that criticize you just to look good in public is not very intellectual!

    • Dear Sanjay, if you read about me and my opening blog, I don’t blog as a full-time job. I have two little kids and can only monitor my blog as and when time allows. Having said that, I have never restricted even one comment, including people calling me racist instead. I am not writing to sensationalize, to create unfounded dialogue. The mere fact that you are coming back to my blog and interacting with me, speaks of the substance I write with.

      • Your so called “rejoinder” is published above. You are allowed to your opinion and I am happy to give you this platform – my blog. Please go ahead and express it. I only do not let abusive and racist language to go on my blog and that is why I moderate it. But between my other commitments, I sometimes take a full day to reply and moderate. That is who I am and that is what my practical life is. I hope with your strong opinions on brotherly love, you will understand this sister of yours as well 🙂 Warm regards – Anu

  9. Interesting article but I want to raise some points:
    1. “The City of Surrey is basically saying that domestic violence is a problem within the Indian culture.” Incorrect. Surrey is using an Indian tradition to communicate to one of its communities. You may not like the implications, and disagree with this on other grounds, but this is not the logical same as stating there is a problem with Indian culture. With all due respect, your interpretation is logically incorrect and involves projection.
    2. Violence against women is far more pervasive among many immigrant communities than the Canadian mainstream. In my line of work, I see over 250 clients a year, about 1/3 of whom are south asian and most of whom are from other countries. Patriarchy is far more pronounced among Carribean, South Asian, East Asian, Middle-Eastern, Portugese, Italian, communities, to name a few. These problems are well known among the clinicians of all backgrounds who work with these communities. There is just no denying it to those who see high numbers of diverse clients on a regular basis.
    It may offend the emotional preferences of some, but reality is reality, and MANY women from these very communities — if not the majority — know this is the case. It’s not a coincidence minority women seek Canadian-born husbands. They know where they are most likely to find equality — even if it means giving up many aspects of their very own culture. Quite a sacrifice. You are a member of this community — deep down, I would suspect you know this is true.
    What I find offensive, is the suppression of truth for the sake of political correctness or emotional satisfaction. I have no axe to grind against anyone, except those who seek to do this. Blame men the world over for patriarchies if you wish, but don’t pretend that domestive violence is not higher in South Asian communities than the national average. I challenge you to produce any statstics– from reliable sources — to this effect.
    3. Ironically, on the one hand you claim that the UN recognizes that violence against women is not confined to a specific culture, region, or country, in the name of vindicating the south-Asian community of any implications of having higher levels of violence. Then you follow up with the evidence that suggests a counter to this very premise — stating that certain Western countries (where Asians are small minorities) have high rates of violence against women vis-a-vis murder rates.
    So which is it? Do regions or countries play a role or not? You pick and choose so as to protect your community while blaming the broader Canadian society. At least Surrey had it’s heart in addressing a problem.
    The problem with your posted murder stats, of course, is that 40-70% of murder victims in Canada etc. being women in likely domestic violence situations means nothing to your central argument without comparisons with South-Asian countries, principly, India. But meaningful stats would address domestic Canadian communities compared with the national average and each other.
    4. Calling a spade a spade, recognizing and assessing the differences in certain problems among certain strata of society, does nothing to vindicate anyone. It is, quite logically, NOT “saying it doesn’t exist in other communities.” I’m sorry if you feel picked upon, but we should never suppress reality for the sake of feelings.
    “And I am not saying this based on emotions. I am talking facts, and research, data and quoting established studies.” — Where are you studies comparing incidents of domestic violence within various communities in Canada? Are communities reporting or covering up? What is your basis for assuming all are equal and the same?
    5. I’d be happy to read some of the scholars you mention. I suspect they are merely trying to defend the negative view that violence gives their communities, rather than taking responsibility for a problem. However, if the EVIDENCE is there, you know, SCIENCE, then perhaps they can actually convince. Typical of far-left idealism is a complete lack of rigour or any real attempt to argue through evidence.
    6. As with the general view in the media and scholarship, you emphasize violence against women as though it does not ocurr against men. Fully 35% of domestic violence is AGAINST men, and an UNKNOWN portion of the remaining 65% of cases are MUTUAL not necessarily men against women. If you want sources, I can give them to you. Yet all we hear about is one side. Fair minded people CARE about violence against EVERYONE. Men tend to be larger, but fear of having their children taken away by aggressive partners and a gender biased legal system, keeps many from reporting or fighing back. Others are too ashamed to defend or report. Overall, evidence suggests most violence is against women by men. Reality. But far more men are victims than your piece acknowledges, as with the general national narrative. If you care about being fair, you will investigate this.
    7. Consider the plethora of Western media on the women raped and murdered on a bus in Delhi. Almost no attention made to the fact one of the victims was her male friend. I make this point not to detract from the fact that violence against women, infantacide, and patriarchy are, in fact, particularly widespread in that country. Drawing attention to change in India (and anywhere) is good, but minimizing one victim for another, as has been done in the Western media (but not so much among the feminist Indian protestors), reveals yet again the bias.

    Thank you for the opportunity to post on your blog,

    Jason

    • Dear Jason,
      Thanks for your comments. Let me clarify the most important “fact”: I do not deny violence against women does not exist in people of South Asian heritage. No where do I make this comment, no where do I try and say “we” don’t have a problem.
      Try and understand, this piece is not about saying, which “race” or “culture” has the highest incidences of domestic violence against women. That is not my topic of discussion and opinion.
      Let me try and walk you through my argument again:

      – Violence against women exists, irrespective of nationalities, cultures, races, financial positions.
      – Yes, patriarchy and its evils – power imbalance between a man and a woman – are directly responsible. I am not making an off-hand remark, but have given theory to support it.
      – I am vehemently opposed to “racializing” violence against women.
      – I am saying when you look at violence against women in a framework it doesn’t belong in, you are not going after the real problem.
      – Time and again, positing it in a framework of race and culture, the society is failing to address the real culprit.
      – For a social evil to die, we need to correctly identify the cause and then admit and give the treatment.
      – If violence against women was only limited to a select set of women, as you argue – only South Asian heritage, then we wouldn’t have any domestic abuse cases in other cultures. Just look at your local stats only, and tell me if all cases are those of South Asian heritage. If yes, come back and we’ll take this in a different direction. If not, I rest my case.
      – This argument was only challenging the framework in which politicians frame violence, not against the menace itself.
      Stay connected here and through my FB page: https://www.facebook.com/SandhuBhamra

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