Narayan, Uma. “Cross-Cultural Connections, Border-Crossings, and ‘Death by Culture’: Thinking about Dowry-Murders in India and Domestic-Violence Murders in the United States.” Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions and Third World Feminisms. London: Taylor & Francis, 1997. 81-117.

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Summary: In this chapter, Narayan looks at the historical development of US feminist movements against domestic violence and Indian feminist movements against dowry-murders to highlight the ways in which cultural contexts shape the way debates over violence against women develop, as well as the ways in which the particular shape of these debates ultimately effects the language and data available to us for discussing/understanding these issues. Recognizing the way these debates are shaped by the cultural context from which they emerge is a crucial aspect to understanding both what issues cross the national “borders” of feminist concern (that is, what kinds of non-Western issues get taken up by Western feminists) and how important cultural nuances get lost in Western engagements with these issues. In particular, Narayan explores the way sati and dowry-murders in India have been misrepresented in Western contexts by ignorance of the cultural context and a continued exoticization of the Other. The misrepresentation of sati and dowry-murders make it seem as if Indian women suffer “death by culture,” whereas the language of domestic abuse in the US prevents a similar view of domestic abuse-related deaths.

Notes:

  • Narayan tried with the help of others to demonstrate that the number of deaths due to domestic violence in the US was as statistically significant as the number of dowry-murders (an extreme manifestation of domestic violence) in India, but ultimatley found that those kinds of statistics were not available–a representation of what Narayan calls the “asymmetry in focus” in US and Indian discussions of domestic abuse
  • Argues that US feminist movements against domestic abuse were focused on representing a wide spectrum of domestic abuse that resulted in an emphasis on helping living victims leave abusive situations. While domestic abuse related deaths are acknolwedged, they are treated as an extreme that demonstrates the importance of helping victims escape
  • In India, however, focusing on dowry-murders in particular (which are both rare and occur primarily within middle-class families) worked as a better means for Indian feminists to draw attention to issues of domestic violence because dowry-murders caught the public’s attention, unlike other widespread forms of domestic abuse that already well-known within Indian cultures
  • The culturally-dependent differences of these debates makes it difficult for US women to recognize the similarities between Indian dowry-murders and domestic violence in the US. Understanding culturally-dependent differences complicates our notion of what it means to come to a cross-cultural understanding.
  • Problems that “cross borders” into the realm of Western feminist concern are usually those that are represented as alien, Other, and different than the experiences of Western women.
  • The misrepresentation of dowry-murders is compounded by ignoring intra-cultural differences and by mistakenly aligning this contemporary practice with a much older, nearly extinct (and only ever practiced by certain groups within India) practice of sati–an association that some writers have made towards the purpose of misrepresenting dowry-murder as religiously sanctioned, based in tradition, uncontested, and widespread, all of which are untrue.
  • The mundane social factors underlying dowry-murder (such as the commercialization of dowry and the frequent use of burning because it covers up the evidence of the murder) are shirked in favor of a mistaken cultural mythos that makes it seem as though Indian women are victims of ‘death by culture’–subjugated, abused, and ultimately destroyed by fundamentally backward, barbaric cultural practices and beliefs
  • Misrepresentation reinforces dangerous cultural stereotypes, creates backlash against domestic femininst movements, and supports the belief in the moral superiority of the West and their more benevolent treatment of women

Quotable Quotes:

  • “Such differences of data as well as ‘absences of data’ are, by their nature, difficult to see and to make sense of. However, the ability to see them and make sense of them seems to me to be crucial to attempts to better understand ‘similarities and differences’ between problems women confront in different national contexts.” (100)
  • “It is difficult not to conclude that there is a premium on ‘Third-World difference’ that results in greater interest being accorded to those issues that seem strikingly ‘different’ from those affecting mainstream Western women. The issues that ‘cross borders’ then becomes the ‘Third-World gender issues’ that are taught about and studied ‘across the border,’ reinforcing their ‘iconic’ and ‘representative’ status as issues.” (100)
  • “Multicultural education cannot be seen as a simple task of replacing ‘ignorance about Other cultures’ with ‘knowledge,’ since problems of the sort I am talking about are precisely not problems of ‘ignorance’ per se, but problems related to understanding the ‘effects’ of contexts on issues, and of decontextualized, refracted, and reframed ‘knowledge.'” (104)
  • “There seems to be a fairly widespread tendency in discussions of ‘Third-World issues’ to engage in what I increasingly think of as ‘schizophrenic analysis,’ where religious and mythological ‘explanations’ must be woven in willy-nilly, even if they do no real ‘explanatory work.'” (111)
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