In early June, 33-year-old University of British Columbia graduate student Rumana Manzur was brutally attacked by her husband while visiting family in Bangladesh. He gouged out her eyes, permanently blinding her, and bit off most of her nose. This was done in front of their young daughter.
Stories like this can paralyze us, but they can also mobilize us to speak out. When the mainstream press covers this issue, they are, in effect, starting a public conversation. In responding to this coverage, we tell other parts of the story and create a larger conversation, advocating for unheard voices and voices that are discounted in the “official” discussions at our institutions.
Three of our writers have added their stories to this conversation in the essays below. Afshan Jafar talks back to mainstream media depictions of violence against women, particularly women in “non-Western” countries. Melonie Fullick asks us to think about the ethical obligations involved in internationalizing our institutions and the enduring need for feminism. Lee Skallerup Bessette writes that while she can only speak for herself, she is, nonetheless, obligated to speak on behalf of others.
Death by Culture?*
By Afshan Jafar
Rumana Manzur’s case is heart-wrenching, and terrifying. It makes this post a very difficult one to write. I believe that all forms of violence against women are reprehensible and criminal and should be exposed and punished. But when I see the media coverage of Manzur’s case and its reception by the readers/viewers, I am reminded of why the coverage of violence against women in Other, “non-Western” countries needs to be approached differently.
As a “third-world feminist” living and teaching in the U.S., I am constantly navigating various identities simultaneously in and out of the classroom. Every time I cover this topic in my courses, I am torn. Am I simply perpetuating the myth of other cultures as inherently violent, sexist, and backward? Or did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish? That is, instead of approaching these incidents as something “barbaric,” I encourage my students to analyze them as practices that are embedded in particular economic, political, cultural and global contexts. I am haunted by the thought that instead, some of my students may still come away thinking that life in other parts of the world is simply savage and brutal. It doesn’t help to read comments posted by readers of news stories such as those about Manzur. References to a barbaric or backward religion, or culture, the Middle East, “honor killings,” and the Stone Age are some of the first ones to show up. There seems to be no separation in so many people’s minds between the Middle East, South Asia, Islam, or the Arab world. One category easily replaces the other, which only speaks to how foreign and far removed from “our” reality these incidents seem.
This exoticization of violence goes hand-in-hand with various media putting a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the “extreme” cases of violence against women in other cultures. This has some profound and damaging consequences. First, we hear of the honor killings, stoning, etc., but not of the many other forms of abuse and violence — trafficking, bonded labor, rape, domestic violence — even though they impact larger numbers of women. Second, it makes it much easier for people to latch on to a horrific incident such as Manzur’s, which happened in a “third-world country” and breathe a sigh of relief that this didn’t happen here — and come away thinking that only those “barbaric” people over there do such things.
Uma Narayan, in Dislocating Cultures, describes the common explanations of violence suffered by women in the non-Western world as a “death by culture,” where culture becomes an explanation that needs no further examination by the reader/audience, while at the same time it doesn’t actually tell the reader/audience anything specific. But it is always only women in Other cultures that suffer a “death by culture,” and we don’t employ that kind of reasoning to violence that we see in the Western world. The fact is, domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is a serious issue in Western countries as well, but these issues rarely receive the attention they deserve. People are fascinated with the story of Manzur in the same way that they are sickened by a story of an 11-year old girl being gang raped by severalmen. How could somebody do that?, we ask.
But though we don’t see the second case of the Texas girl as an example of American culture as barbaric (and thus we come up with no answer to our question), we do come to this conclusion in Manzur’s case (and answer our question with vague notions of tradition, custom, or culture). The popularity of “death by culture” type of explanations of violence (and by extension what these imply about the unenlightened state of these cultures) is part of the reason why Manzur’s incident has translated into a call to bring more South Asian women for an education to Canada. While giving more women an opportunity to be highly educated is certainly something that should be pursued as a worthy goal in and of itself, this line of thought implies that education will work to “enlighten” these cultures and somehow prevent domestic abuse from happening in the future.
This post is not meant to imply that women’s oppression is the same everywhere. There are various degrees of oppression, and some practices are more horrific than others; some cause more suffering than others. Nor is it meant to imply that coverage of violence against women is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I am happy to see the support that Manzur’s case has generated in Vancouver. But sometimes artificial dissimilarities blind us to the underlying and significant similarities between practices around the world. Is it really any less barbaric when a woman is shot or stabbed rather than blinded or whipped?
When I see pictures and videos of Manzur, it brings me to tears. I wish we could all see in her face the anguish and despair of the millions of women across the globe, including in our own countries, who are victims of systemic forms of violence and abuse. Perhaps, then, more stories would inspire action than a mere “Tsk, tsk. How cruel.”
*I have taken this phrase from Uma Narayan’s chapter “Cross-cultural connections, Border-Crossings, and “Death by Culture”: Thinking about Dowry Murders in India and Domestic Violence in the United States” from her book Dislocating Cultures.
Originally from Pakistan, Afshan Jafar is an assistant professor of sociology at Connecticut College. Her recent book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs.
Untold Stories of Internationalization
By Melonie Fullick (Canada)
When UBC Fulbright scholar Rumana Manzur travelled to Bangladesh to see her family in May 2011, her husband refused her permission to return to Canada to complete her master’s degree. He accused her of cheating; when she argued back, he attacked her viciously, gouging out her eyes in front of their young child — a daughter who will now bear her own emotional scars for a lifetime.
This shocking assault on a promising female student highlights an aspect of the internationalization of universities that is rarely trumpeted in policy discussions and news coverage of higher education.
“Internationalization” is not simply a neutral exchange of ideas and people, a seamless movement of “excellent” ideas and scholars from one nation to another. And the less examined, negative and contradictory side of internationalization seems to flare up in conflicts that we don’t know how to resolve, conflicts of “culture” that inevitably affect lives and raise serious ethical concerns.
A recent example is that of Australia, where Indian students have suffered racially motivated attacks and consequently the number of Indian applications to Australian universities has dropped. This has a direct effect on the economic sphere, since Australia can no longer expect to generate revenue from Indian enrollments. Canadian universities are now courting students in India with an eye to stealing Australia’s dwindling share of the market.
Offshoring higher education creates a different set of ethical dilemmas. Issues of socioeconomic class, gender, politics, and sexuality arise when we look at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Recruited from only the most elite high schools worldwide, students from privileged circumstances receive better aid packages than regular NYU students, but they are not allowed political protest, or to engage in “homosexual acts” on campus. In a country where activists can be arrested for criticizing the government, what are the implications for this elitist outpost? What kind of “world citizens” will be educated there?
These examples highlight problems with the predominant idea of university education, one still based on a Western, liberal model where the university is an “island” of tolerance and reason, a bastion of democratic values. What happens when the walls are breached by racism, sexism, and homophobia; when the island must stay afloat amid authoritarian politics?
There is no reason behind the violence inflicted on Rumana Manzur, and such actions can’t be tolerated.
And though gendered violence is more prevalent in countries where women’s rights are restricted, it’s not merely a “foreign” phenomenon. The attack also reminds us in a very discomforting way of the violence against women that persists in this country (Canada), particularly for indigenous women. This is abuse that happens in “our own backyard” and even in our homes, much of it still unreported.
Recently in a lecture for a class on gender and society, I heard several young women voice the opinion that feminism is no longer necessary. I’d argue that it’s still necessary everywhere and that Rumana Manzur’s case provides another grievous example of why that’s the case. Perhaps this is one of the less pleasant — though most vital — lessons we can learn from internationalization.
Melonie Fullick is a Ph.D. student at York University, in Toronto, Ontario in Canada who writes about postsecondary education, policy, and governance. She can be found at speculative-diction.blogspot.com.
I can only speak for myself
By Lee Skallerup Bessette (U.S.)
Why do so many of us fail at being good women? What are the consequences for failing to achieve the stereotypes of a given time, place, and culture?
I have recently started a new weekly feature on my blog for the summer: Bad Female Academic. In it, I try to confront the gender stereotypes that female academics face. The post that thus far has generated the most amount of traffic was my post about being a wife. I wondered on Twitter why that may be; the answer lies in the negative connotations associated with the word “wife,” particularly in parts of academia and feminist circles. For many of my readers, to be wife is to be less than, subservient and submissive, possessed.
When I read about Rumana Manzur, graduate student at UBC, I was struck by the many things we have in common: we are exactly the same age; we are both wives, mothers, and academics. She now lies in a hospital bed, on the other side of the world, permanently blinded, unable to ever see her daughter again. Her career may also be over, depending on the rehabilitation resources that are available to her. I sit at my kitchen table, in my house (which I co-own), trying to find the words to express what I am feeling right now.
I feel deeply saddened that a woman who is described as “happy, brilliant, studious, and devout” was tortured because she sought to better herself (and, one would imagine, her family’s economic situation) through education. My heart breaks for the young daughter who apparently witnessed the maiming, at the hands of her own father, Manzur’s husband. Her husband even tried to blame it on her, saying that she had been unfaithful. As if that justified blinding and disfiguring his wife, the woman who is the mother of his child, the person he supposedly loves. I feel impotent rage that this could, that this does still happen to women who are like me.
But she, obviously, isn’t like me; nor I, like her. I feel fortunate that I was able to choose my husband, that he respects me and my career, and that we are to a large extent equal partners in our relationship. We agreed when we were going to have children, how we are going to raise them, and that I should return to work. Our house and our car are in both of our names, but I also have assets that are exclusively mine. How can I, in my privileged position, write about what Manzur has endured?
In fact, how can I even write about the “oppression” or, more accurately, inequality that I face? There is a viral video going around, First WorldProblems. It is a funny rap done by an upper-middle-class white teen aged boy, exposing the ridiculousness of the complaints uttered by (one would imagine) his peers. There is, of course, a danger in calling these complaints “first world” as they can negate the very real inequalities that exist in the West, but I can’t help but think that my “complaints” are indeed, first world and from a place of privilege.
I have the freedom and the ability to blog and write about the inequalities that I experience in higher education. Indeed, we tend to hide behind the veil of privilege and class, behind the assumption that inequalities don’t, can’t exist in such enlightened spaces. We are made to feel guilt or shame because, really, we should feel fortunate, if not grateful, that we do not face the kind of oppression that Manzur and her daughter have just been subjected to.
We need to do more to allow women to speak out and speak up for themselves, encouraging education, equality, and real protections. Although I feel compelled to speak on her behalf, I refuse to try to speak for her.
I can only speak for myself.
Think global, act local. I will continue to work to expose the inequality here, with the aim of making everyone more sensitive to the equalities that exist everywhere. One thing that I can do today is write this post at University of Venus and share the issue with our readers at Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere. I can remember that when I write, I am but one voice in a larger family of women, many of whom cannot speak for themselves. But I can write, speak, teach, and fight. I have the privilege of refusing silence. So I will.
University of Venus is read by graduate students and college presidents, faculty and provosts, staff and administration. In reaching this broad readership, we feel an urgency to respond to issues, knowing that what we say matters and that it often informs decisions that are being made at the highest levels.
One thing that each of us can do right now is notice those who are not speaking and work to create spaces and situations where they will feel empowered to speak. If we don’t hear their stories, we can’t advocate for meaningful change.
Executive Director, University of Venus