Blog, Politics, Women's History

Women, Law and Culture Conformity, Contradiction and Conflict

Part 2

This excerpt repeats a small section of the introductory  comments, before concentrating on the detailed information about the contributions in Women, Law and Culture edited by Jocelynne A. Scutt. The linking paragraphs and explanatory material introducing the sections appeared in Part 1. The remainder of the details about the contributions will be posted in Part 3. WHN Admin.


Jocelynne A. Scutt


Through time, women have struggled to establish themselves as human – as ‘equal’ to men – in law and culture. Today, does women’s sense of identity receive support and affirmation through law and culture, or are women represented in ways that challenge women’s rights and subvert women’s right to be human? How does the law in various cultures and countries impact on women and women’s rights not only within the formal legal system but in the world outside it, and what of the imposition of law from another culture on a country and particularly on women? These questions are explored from the perspective of popular television culture; women’s dance culture – developing, and then subjected to surveillance and control through colonisation; women’s lives as sites of conflict and struggle in a ‘new’ country where ‘cover’ (the scarf, niqab, burqah) is dictated by culture and country of origin, reacted against by the ‘new’ country’s culture (and sometimes laws), potentially changing character to be a protest adopted by women fighting back against ‘foreign’ diktats;  asymmetry in law imposed through Sharia or Islamic law denying women independent representation and equal rights in home and family;  and what agency means for women, when those women and their rights are employed in support of imperialism by foreign governments claiming they must be liberated.


Robin Joyce reviews popular culture expressed in Australia’s version of ‘Big Brother’ (BB) and ‘The Apprentice’ (TA) UK. Australia and the UK reflect cultural similarities, the dominant culture in both coming from the same source. BB and TA are classified as ‘reality’ television. Each has ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, each features women and men as contestants. BB is the more populist, with personality and performance in ‘celebrity’ terms (‘I can perform better than you’, ‘I can stir things up’, ‘I can out-do you in grabbing the spotlight’ or ‘I can be “good”, the moderator, the calm collected soothsayer …’), whilst TA runs on capacity to perform in a business sense. Both programmes exist in countries and cultures where laws exist to promote equal opportunity and non-discrimination on race/ethnicity and sex/gender grounds. Yet they exist within an entertainment medium which often relies upon exaggeration of female characteristics, in particular. Hence, this chapter explores at the most basic level the impact of culture on women’s place – in the ‘ordinary’ (although highly artificial) world of BB and the ‘business’ (although again artificial) world of TA, the influence of cultural constraints, and influence or lack of influence of laws directed toward challenging and changing traditional society’s allocation of women to defined spheres of life and work. Joyce reveals that performing to a stereotypical female representation (as in BB) operates to undermine women’s winning potential, whilst adopting business practices (as in TA) may advantage women not only in being more likely to be taken seriously, but in achieving wins.


Moving to popular culture in India, Anna Morcom reflects on women and dance culture impacted by foreign culture implanted when imperialism strikes. She explores the way a traditional form of expression developed by women as a women’s cultural ‘event’ encounters laws introduced by a foreign culture and legal system dominated by masculine values. She introduces another element – males as part-time dancers living ‘ordinary’ ‘male’ lives with wives and families, yet performing female roles in dance. An important comparison and contrast here lies with the notion that although taught dance by males, dance passes through the female line, woman to woman. Women being dominant in performance and scope of dance, male performers both aped women’s dance and influenced it. Ultimately the dance as performance became qualified by laws and cultural interference of an invading or colonising culture which in South India in the 1950s labelled women’s dance as unlawful. Was it these laws that ‘made’ the women’s performance ‘exploitative of women’ (women classed as prostitutes rather than seen as expressing their freedom and creativity through dance), or did the male gaze – for which the dance was at least in part developed – operate to exploit women in any event?


Susan SM Edwards shifts the debate to the covering-up of women’s bodies. As the Egyptian feminist writer and philosopher Nawal El Saadawi says of Western culture: ‘No one criticises a woman who is half-naked. This is so-called freedom … The problem is our conception of freedom. Men are encouraged neither to be half-naked, nor veiled. Why?’ (Cooke, 2015)  Saadawi adds:

Liberate yourself before you liberate me! This is the problem. I had to quarrel with many American feminists – Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan – because I noticed that many of them were oppressed by their husbands, and then they came here to liberate me! (Cooke, 2015)

This encapsulates both Edwards’ reflection on women and the veil, and the thrust of this book – the recognition that no woman, whatever race/ethnicity, culture or country can position herself as ‘superior’ to another or others, in that all are impacted by a dominant (male) culture and (male) laws. Edwards illustrates, too, the way in which women can, or may, fight back against external oppression (oppression from another culture applied when women migrate or come as refugees or asylum seekers to a ‘new’ land) by adopting or retaining a symbol of repression or oppression from ‘their own’ culture.


Nahda Shehada addresses Islamic family law and the dominance of male rights and male right in custody and other aspects of male-female marriage and family dynamics. This enables the reader to ‘see’ the parallels with Western law, culture and family. British law – providing the foundation for law in Canada, the US, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand (and introduced into colonies as in Morcam’s India) – set father right above any ‘rights’ a mother might believe she possessed. Taking as her template the case of Al-Jazeera journalist Rula Amin who was forced to struggle for custody of her child within a legal system privileging ‘father right’, too, Shehada explores representation and identity under the prism of a strict legal system that limits women’s independence and seeks to deny representation in the legal sense: the right to have one’s rights recognised and fought for by advocates acknowledging women as equal – and equals. This reflects English common law, where women were obliged to fight, too. Hence, women in countries under British law campaigned for rights in marriage and family which similarly to the description and analysis provided by Shehada denied women custody/residency or access/visitation rights, and in other respects (property ownership and division, bodily integrity, indeed, the right to be ‘persons’) placed women in a subordination position.


Part 1 – ‘Identity & Representation’ concludes with a chapter by Shadia Edwards-Dashti looking at the Middle East and the war on terror (WOT) – advancing a perspective through war and conflict, facilitating reflection on the elements of colonialism and imposition of ‘foreign’ law on women in their own countries, and how women fight back against control and notions of women’s identity and representation of women as ‘women’. She observes that Orientalism continues to influence the West’s view of Middle Eastern women: ‘difference’ is stereotyped, Middle Eastern women being exoticised and sexualised by the Western male gaze which simultaneously robs them of identity and the right to their own ways of representing themselves, by regarding them as lacking agency and requiring ‘liberation’. Edwards-Dashti addresses women’s changing or changed role during war and occupation and whether in these circumstances women are able to assert an identity otherwise smothered by their ‘own’ culture and laws. Does outside imposition and control give rise to women’s development of a ‘new’ identity or enable underlying characteristics and features possessed by women to become dominant? Ironically, not only does ‘liberation’ bring war, conflict and Western violence on an everyday level, it results in women being more confined and less free, less able to move without fear of attack. When women resist by fighting, as in the case of Kurdish women, they in turn are romanticised by the West as ‘Amazonian warriors’. Meanwhile, their struggle for the right to live in peace and as free and equal human beings is truncated by the rise of ISIS or Daesh which the Western war of ‘liberation’ has generated.


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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