Cross-Cultural Connections, Border-Crossings, and “Death by Culture”

Cross-Cultural Connections,
Border-Crossings, and “Death
by Culture”
Uma Narayan
What does Narayan mean by the phrase:
“Death by Culture”?
What is wrong with the phrase: “They are
burning women in India”?
Why is death by culture a problematic way of
thinking about violence against women in
“developing” countries?
Death by culture
 The tendency to construct a practice such as
dowry murder as a feature of culture rather than
as a deviant practice.
 Different practices that involve fire are conflated
(i.e., Sati and Dowry Murder)
 Dowry murder is viewed as a function of
religious culture (i.e., Hindu religion).
Problems w/ Death by Culture View
 Generates inaccurate information
• Dowry murders are negatively sanctioned
• Dowry murder and sati are different practices with
different histories.
 Obscures cultural/religious variation
• Depicts India/Indians as monolithic
• Not all dowry murders are committed by Hindu’s
 Obscures a broad range of women’s issues that
Indian feminists focus on: Dowry murder
becomes THE issue.
 Reproduces negative stereotypes
• Invokes the “barbarian” other
Why “Death by Culture” dominates western
thinking of women in developing countries:
 Border crossings— the practice of dowry
murder is de-contextualized when it crosses
 Historical context and social forces are
• As dowry murder is uprooted from its context—
important information gets edited out.
Dowry Murder & Death by
Domestic Violence
Why is dowry murder in India hyper visible,
while death by domestic violence in the U.S. is
Narayan is framing each as a form of domestic
She argues that we need to understand social
Domestic Violence in the U.S. Context
 Focus on a broad range of issues—widen the scope of
domestic violence.
 Political structure shapes focus.
• Existence of social programs and acceptance of divorce
generates a focus on shelters.
• Women are helped to: find a shelter, secure Protection
Against Abuse orders, apply for aid.
 Goal is to get women out of a violent marriage.
 Centering on death by domestic violence is not a good strategy.
Dowry Murder: The Indian Context
Sexual violence was not part of the original feminist agenda
(pg. 91)
Revised agenda focused on sexual violence:
 Focus on dowry murder and police rape
 Dowry murder received sustained media attention for 2
1. Middle class phenomenon (police rape was a poor
woman’s issue)
2. General awareness of violence against women, especially
poor women.
Dowry murder was a surprise; feminist were reframing
kitchen accidents as murder.
The Indian Context Continued
 Negative view of divorce.
 Lack of state provided social, legal, and educational
services for women.
 Greater levels of female unemployment
Together these factors made shelters less feasible
 Thus, Indian feminists focused on dowry murder.
 They could enact legislation and cultural sanctions
against this practice.
Dowry Murder Social Context
 A form of domestic violence
 Emerged in the 1970s (not a long standing tradition)
 Traditional dowry linked to spirituality (material wealth
converted to spiritual wealth) and/or inheritance of
movable goods.
 Contemporary dowry is not linked to tradition of
spirituality, but is linked to inheritance.
 Dowry murder linked to changes in political economic
structure of middle class.
 Emphasis on commercial goods as a form of status.
To avoid Death by Culture depictions
feminist need to:
 Contextualize issues
 Recognize that feminist agendas are
shaped by different conditions within
different national contexts.