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WOMEN, LAW AND CULTURE Conformity, Contradiction and Conflict

Part 3 of the excerpt from Jocelynne A. Scutt’s Women, Law and Culture covers parts 2 and 3 of the contributions to the book. WHN Admin


Karen Buczynski-Lee addresses this question in culture and law, in relation to women’s identity and representation in film – as filmmakers. Taking an historical perspective she looks at newly developing technologies at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, when women struggled for the vote and to stand for parliament or congress, whilst being classed by the law as non-persons, so disentitled to work in professions where they might influence law and culture, and make their mark as ‘identities’ . She looks at the work of Alice Guy-Blache (Crow, 2014) in the film industry and Vida Goldstein ([1908], (2008)) who employed filmic-technology in her political campaigns, then reflects upon the influence film and television have on women’s position today. Fiction (as in Borgen, the Danish television production centred on a woman prime minister) can be followed by fact (as in a woman prime minister – Helle Thorning-Schmidt being elected to the Danish parliament. Buczynski-Lee contends, however, that such changes require laws and quotas, not soft targets and imprecations that those holding power media, particularly film and television, should simply be encouraged to hire and promote women into all behind the scenes roles – as writers, directors, producers, sound or lighting technicians. Once, the industry saw women in prominent roles. Yet once the industry was seen as a place of power, women took second place. Men became prominent. This culture will not change, Buczynski-Lee says, without legislative intervention. The laws to which Robin Joyce referred in her analysis of Australia’s BB and TA UK must be deployed to change the industry at its heart, and the culture that has generated the masculinisation of the industry must be change by the law.


Gisele Yasmeen looks at space and place in the context of the market and public streets and venues in South and Southeast Asia. She reveals similarities and differences in Thailand, the Philippines and India. Colonisation again intrudes, for these countries at various times were subjected to British or US colonisation, with both cultural and legal implications. As in Anna Morcam’s chapter on woman and dance in India, British culture enters into the marketplace influencing women’s lives and livelihoods, just as it imposes itself on women who move from other countries, other cultures, into the UK, reflected upon by Susan SM Edwards for women migrating from the Middle East. The US influence follows on from British imperialism, in turn affecting countries’ culture and women’s lives: women can become caught between two cultures, the foreign and the local, both generated along patriarchal lines. Yasmeen makes the telling point that women’s lives and freedoms vary between cultures and countries: some countries (Thailand and the Philippines) denote some public space as ‘okay’ for women to occupy, whilst others (India) have no tradition of women’s right to (some part of) public space. These differences affect how women engage with public space and how and whether they campaign for more access, and access ‘as of right’ or by law.


Greta Bird and Jo Bird look at women, aging and the right to space and place within the confines of aged-care. Women being likely to live longer than men means that social and cultural influences in aged-care homes are highly likely to be gendered. As women are a more vulnerable group during their adulthood, this carries across into aging. This vulnerability can be exacerbated by ethnic/race ‘difference’ from the dominant culture. The Birds describe moves to support the aged in care through ‘rights guidelines’, ‘Bills of Rights’ or care contracts between individual and institution. They look at various cultural openings for aged-care, accommodating Indigenous Australians, and Australians of varying faiths – Christian, Jewish and Muslim. They observe that multiculturalism must be acknowledged within the aged-care sector, if those in aged-care are to be regarded with respect and have the care and consideration to which they are entitled. Ultimately, the question of resources and funding is inevitable: as resources and funding are differentially distributed during women’s and  men’s lifetime, (un)equal pay remaining a global problem (Scutt, 2007), can it be expected that with women occupying the major space in aging and aged care, differential distribution will ‘correct’ at this later stage of life?


Amy Gaudion’s chapter on space and place for women in the US military is a good counterpart to Shadia Edwards-Dashti’s chapter addressing identity and representation of women in conflict, engaged (as the Kurdish women) in guerrilla warfare, and women operating under the imposition of military intervention. Gaudion addresses women’s role in the formal military and the impact on structures and traditional occupiers of military structures – male military. Her insights into the way laws have had to change to accommodate women in these still untraditional roles, and the way this has made women vulnerable in their (now) rightful (by law) workplaces generates echo of Buczynski-Lee’s similar reflections on the law and culture in the context of women’s efforts to gain identity and representation through equality in the media industry. Gaudion explores age-old efforts to keep women out of frontline positions, and the changes coming about by the new policy – women in all positions within all levels of the US military (Pellerin, 2015). Women gain respect on the one hand for their abilities, yet on the other suffer harassment and sexual assault as intruders, a cultural phenomenon that is global, arising in other professions, other industries (Scutt, 1996).


In concluding Part 2 – ‘Space & Place’, Pragna Patel looks at culture and religion, focusing on the role of Islam and its place culturally in gender-based harms. Her chapter complements that of Edwards in illustrating the way a ‘new’ country may impose its culture on women in the name of extending them freedom (just as Edwards-Dashti looked at the ‘liberation’ of women through invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan). Yet Patel raises another dimension: that of a ‘new’ country giving imprimatur to the culture and laws of the ‘old’ country – the country from which women have come. She raises the concern that there should be ‘one law for all’, simply as of right and because allowing male voices within minority ethnic communities to speak ‘for’ the community ignores the totality of community – that both women and men are a part, and both women and men count or should count equally. Allowing men to speak for communities is antithetical to women’s rights. Women do not speak from positions of power within minority ethnic communities, when the dominant culture hears only the voices of male leaders within those communities. Women are denied space in the power groupings within their original culture, and are now denied space in the ‘new’ country. Patel is firm in her resolve that religion or romanticism about ‘culture’ cannot – must not – be used as an excuse for actions denying women rights and women’s rights. UK laws should not preserve or support this denial, by supporting fundamentalist notions of religion dressed up as legitimate ‘law’. She refers to forced marriage (FM) and (dis)’honour’ crimes (Gill, Strange and Roberts, 2014) as requiring a proper focus by the British legal system, not a fuzzy approach based in notions of ‘faith’ and supporting communities in retaining ‘their’ culture. That culture is not women’s culture. It locks women into a lack of freedom, denied space and place. Her chapter leads into Part 3 – ‘Bodily & Psychic Integrity’ – to which all women are entitled, whatever their faith, ethnicity, race or community standing.




Patmalar Ambikapathy Thuraisingham addresses the law’s religious underpinnings. She looks at Christianity and its ‘hold’ on English common law, continuing to influence cultural attitudes and behaviours, particularly for some family men and within the legal system. Her chapter draws upon her experience as a practicing lawyer, first as a solicitor (in the UK, Malaysia and Australia) then as a barrister in Melbourne and Ballarat (a Victorian country town) and more recently living between Bahrain and Australia. It prompts comparison with Shehada’s chapter exploring Sharia law and the denial of equality under that law, and Patel’s chapter on violence suffered by women and girls in family settings, in consequence of cultural and religious precepts imposed by fundamentalism. Ambikapathy Thuraisingham explores questions of ‘entitlement’ in respect to physical and psychological abuse and their broader implications in other aspects of matrimonial and family law, including custody/residency and visitation/access. Asking how the crime of spouse (wife) assault has become so firmly embedded in English common law, so as still influencing Australian culture and law she cites Roman law’s influence as a source. She reflects on why legal, political, religious and public order systems do not adhere to their stated role of supporting and promoting cultural values that deplore violence against women. Words are not enough, she observes. For Ambikapathy Thuraisingham (like Buczynski Lee) the law must take a firm and active stand in ensuring that women’s rights and women’s right to freely participate at all levels of society are clear and affirmed.


Kathryn Goodchild writes from experience, too – this time, direct experience of domestic abuse within a boyfriend-girlfriend and male-female relationship. She sets this against her exploration of sociological and cultural ‘justifications’ for violence inflicted on wives, female partners and girlfriends by partners who have learned, from boyhood, that their wants, desires and social position take precedence over those of women and girls. She focuses on media projections of women and girls which can be seen and understood against the backdrop of earlier chapters by Joyce and Buczynski-Lee. She reflects upon religion and its manifestations through culture and control, which mirror the control exercised by men who inflict physical, psychological, emotional or economic abuse on their partners. She is adamant that this can be changed through education at all levels and the inculcation of the notion that women and girls are human beings equally entitled to respect – and to their lives.


Lynette Dumble addresses the situation in India, where violence against women in and on public transport has fuelled campaigns for women’s safety and security, and against traditional notions that, being disentitled to appear in or occupy public places, women are responsible for violence enacted against them. She reflects on violence against women generated in the many places and spaces women occupy – yet are denied to do so, safely. In domestic settings, women and girls are at risk, as they are when playing or going about their everyday business in their neighbourhoods, just as on public transport and in public streets women are at risk. Like Yasmeen’s reflections on  women’s advocacy for space in the marketplace so that they can earn a living, and Buczynski-Lee’s reflections on women’s campaigns in Australia for equal access to and equal opportunity in media, Dumble describes women’s advocacy in India for the right to be in public and to ‘be’ at home – and be safe.


Writing on their work undertaken in Canada into ‘non-state torture’, Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald recognise the extremes of violence against women reflected in organised institutionalised familial violence, exploitation and abuse. The need for recognition in criminal law of this extreme end of criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence is discussed together with the political actions they have taken in highlighting this issue and its cultural, social and legal impact on women and girls. They conclude with reference to their work in bringing the matter to the attention of the UN and the need for a treaty recognising non-state actor torture as torture. This chapter, then, reflects the problem identified in the introduction to Part 3 – ‘Bodily & Psychic Integrity’ and throughout this volume: law and culture and intertwined and the law must recognise this if it seeks to take positive action to ensure women and girls are able to dwell in a world of freedom.

Barrister and human rights lawyer, Jocelynne A. Scutt is Visiting Professor and Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Buckingham and a Labour County Councillor.  Her Women and The Magna Carta was published in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan and is available at good bookshops, Amazon  and as an eBook. Women, Law and Culture Conformity, Contradiction and Conflict was published in 2016 by Palgrave MacMillan and is available through good bookstores,  Amazon and as an eBook.





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