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Cross-cultural questions on gender-based violence: factors in defining abuse

In the last post I suggested that Tanzanians do not necessarily view hierarchy as inherently abusive, in contrast to how I and many westerners think. So if hierarchy is not abusive, what is? How do you define abuse? Here I try to process some of the factors involved in this question. Most of these questions make me deeply uncomfortable, but they’re ones that keep popping up for me as I live in this context.

Our western assumptions around hierarchy may not be shared by others; what other assumptions do we make that need to be interrogated?

Violence in cultural context

I feel like when you respond violently to someone, you cross a line, but what if the line is drawn somewhere else? Here in Tanzania, a video recently emerged of three student teachers beating up a high school student. It was roundly condemned, but largely for the excessive force used rather than the use of corporal punishment itself. The attitude seems to be, ‘you can hurt them if it’s justified, but it’s never justified to actually damage them.’ If that sounds callous, let me rephrase in in a more familiar way – how often have you heard ‘a little tap on the bum never hurt a child’? To me, any physical violence is unacceptable no matter who it’s directed towards (one reason we don’t smack), but historically at least that’s a fairly new idea.

Ruth Tucker recounts in Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife (review on Fixing Her Eyes) that her seminary students in Kenya all thought beating your wife was permissible. Tucker notes how the family networks and kinship system meant that a man whose wife ended up black and blue would be similarly disciplined, unlike her own case, in which her husband’s violence against her was hidden, shameful, and he was not held accountable for his actions. We westerners too easily see the nuclear family as the essential unit, so we are inclined to read the husband as a law unto himself but for the grace of God. Yet other cultures might see the husband as also accountable to someone, and subject to discipline himself. Hierarchy can be at least somewhat protective here, because the harshness with which a husband treats his wife is something he must also expect to receive. At least in theory there is justice for her, and its physical meting might act as a deterrent for the husband. My instinct is to see any violence as unwarranted, but what if it is the currency of a society, and not only directed at women? (Tucker makes no comment on how or whether this worked in practice by the way.)

Worldview is at play here.

You may be familiar with the cultural paradigms of honor/shame, guilt/innocence, and fear/power. These three categories are the conventional ones, but during our intercultural training, the question was raised of whether there are others, such as comfort/pain. This pertains to the west in particular. Is a driving force for us no longer what is right (guilt/innocence), but what is comfortable?

It’s a compelling question, as we think about continuing to use up the Earth’s resources even though we know it harms our neighbours, or buying clothes that are cheap and convenient even though we’re aware they’re made in unsafe and exploitative sweatshops. Air conditioning is almost a given in Australian homes these days, and we have become soft, unable to tolerate heat as we used to. Eating out has become a weekly rather than occasional thing. (I know, I know, we do it because we can’t afford houses!) In these and a thousand other ways, we have become accustomed to comfort, perhaps to the point of presumption.

I’m not criticising these luxuries; I avail myself of them too when I have the opportunity! I’m asking that we westerners note that our tolerance for discomfort, pain or boredom is reduced, and our single-minded pursuit of comfort may produce other issues – rising rates of obesity and mental health issues spring to mind, but our allergy to anything distasteful also prevents us from building mature men who are practiced at not being in control. Our pursuit of comfort is largely unchecked; that gives us few resources to discuss self-discipline.

My point is this: our aversion to discomfort may both skew our definition of abuse and rob us of some resources to deal with it.

To return to the anecdote with which I opened the last post then, this means that when it comes to discussing gender, if western biblical scholarship is what is needed at all, it needs to be appropriated by Tanzanians not delivered or even contextualised by westerners. But more to the point, and this is where it hits home for me, western biblical scholarship may need to allow itself to be influenced by Tanzanian Christians, acknowledging that they have crucial resources that may help us to re-think and enrich our theology. Whether in Australia or Tanzania, we cannot begin to define, let alone combat gender-based violence without them.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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