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4.3: Traditional and Contemporary Violence against Women

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    Female Genital Mutilation

    Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the traditional cutting, circumcision, and removal of most or all external genitalia from women with the end result of closing off some or part of the vagina until such time as the woman is married and cut open. Female genital mutilation is often performed in order to preserve the purity of females before marriage—a cultural ideal in some societies. In some traditions, there are religious underpinnings. In others, there are customs and rituals that have been passed down. In no way does the main body of any world religion condone or mandate this practice. Many countries where this takes place are predominantly Muslim; yet local traditions have corrupted the purer form of the religion and its beliefs. Female genital mutilation predates Islam.47

    There are no medical or therapeutic benefits from female genital mutilation. Quite the contrary, there are many adverse medical consequences that result from it, ranging from pain, difficulty in childbirth, illness, and even death. Many human rights groups, the United Nations, scientists, advocates, the United States, the World Health Organization, and others have made aggressive efforts to effect the cessation of this practice worldwide, but progress has come very slowly. Part of the problem is that women often perform the ritual and carry on the tradition as it was perpetrated upon them.

    Foot Binding

    A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, once represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility. Tiny feet were a symbol of wealth, as women whose feet were bound were unable to work in the fields or on their feet for a long period of time. This economic symbol eventually translated into a sexually desirable symbol for possible suitors. The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four- inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were seen as too large and named “iron lotuses.” The marriage prospects for a girl with feet five inches or larger were slim.

    Do you have an iPhone? If so, hold it up. Your iPhone (doesn’t matter the model) is close to five inches long. So feet the size of your iPhone were seen as unattractive, minimizing a women’s opportunity for marriage to someone with high social worth. In fact, women with feet one inch shorter than that iPhone were still not allotted the same worth as women whose feet were two inches shorter than that phone.

    How does foot binding work?

    First, beginning at the age of two or three, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toe, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were forced to walk long distances in order to hasten the breaking of their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After two years the process was complete, creating a deep cleft that could hold a coin in place. Once a foot had been crushed and bound, the shape could not be reversed without a woman undergoing the same pain all over again.48

    The truth, no matter how unbelievable, is foot-binding was experienced and enforced by women. Though the practice is rejected in China today—the last shoe factory making lotus shoes did not close until 1999—it survived for a thousand years in part because of women’s social investment in the practice.

    Child Marriage

    Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately affected. Today, about a third of women aged 20-24 years old in the developing world are married as children. Children who are married before the age of 18 are more at risk for domestic violence, rape from their husbands, and even murder. Some 10 million girls a year are married off before the age of 18 across the world, according to a UNICEF report released this year. While the majority of child marriages in any singular region are performed in Sub-Sarah Africa, India is responsible for a disproportionate amount of these underage unions, as well.


    Figure \(4.3.1\) Chart of “The Highest Rates of Child Marriage are Found in sub-Saharan Africa” graph depicting the highest rates of child marriage are found in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Child marriages are illegal in India, and are punishable with a fine and two years in prison for anyone who performs, conducts, or negligently fails to prevent a child marriage. But this tradition is so ingrained in Indian culture that, especially in remote villages, child marriage is usually fully supported by the entire community, and it is rare for someone to inform the police so these marriages can be stopped.

    In many communities girls are seen as an economic burden, and marriage transfers the responsibility to a girl’s new husband. Poverty and marriage expenses such as the dowry may lead a family to marry off a daughter at a young age to reduce these expenses.

    Patriarchy, class, and caste also influence the norms and expectations around the role of women and girls in India. In many communities restrictive norms limit girls to the roles of daughter, wife, and mother. Girls are seen as the property of their father and then of their husband. Poor educational opportunities for girls, especially in rural areas, also increase girls’ vulnerability to child marriage.


    Rape is another violent act of oppression disproportionately geared toward women. Rape is not the same as sex. Rape is violence, motivated primarily by men and primarily for power. Rape is dangerous and destructive and more likely to happen in the United States than in most other countries of the world. There are 195 countries in the world today. The U.S. typically is among the top five percent in terms of rape. Consecutive studies performed by the United Nations Surveys on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems confirm that South Africa is the most dangerous, crime-ridden nation on the planet in all crimes including rape.49

    The United Nations reported, according to World Bank data, women aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war, or malaria.50

    A 1997 study on the non-institutionalized, non-military population by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which defines rape as forced penetration by the offender,51 found that 91% of reported rape victims are female and 9% are male.52

    The majority of rapes in the United States go unreported.53 According to the American Medical Association (1995), sexual violence, and rape in particular, is considered the most under- reported violent crime.54 Some of the most common reasons given by victims for not reporting rape are fear of retaliation, shame, and blaming themselves for the occurrence of the act itself. Under-reporting affects the accuracy of this data.

    Other Forms of Oppressions


    The mandatory covering of females’ bodies from head to toe has been opposed by some and applauded by others. Christians, Hindus, and many other religious groups have the practice of covering or veiling in their histories. Yet, over the last 30 years, fundamentalist Muslim nations and cultures have returned to their much more traditional way of life. Hijab is the Arabic word that means to cover or veil and has become more common in recent years (ħijāb or حجاب .(,Often Hijab means modest and private in the day-to-day interpretations of the practice. For some countries it is a personal choice, while for others it becomes a crime not to comply. The former Taliban punished such a crime with death (they also punished formal schooling of females and the use of makeup by death). Many women’s rights groups have brought public attention to this trend, not so much because the mandated covering of females is that oppressive, but because the veiling and covering is symbolic of the religious, traditional, and labor- forced patterns of oppression that have caused so many problems for women and continue to do so today.

    Misogynistic Language

    The public demeaning of women has been acceptable throughout various cultures because publicly demeaning members of society who are privately devalued and or considered flawed, fits the reality of most day-to-day interactions. Misogyny is the hatred of women often manifested as physical or verbal abuse and oppressive mistreatment of women. Verbal misogyny is unacceptable in public in most Western Nations today. With the ever-present technology found in cell phones, video cameras, and security devices, a person’s private and public misogynistic language can be easily recorded and shared. Can you think of any examples of public figures privately demeaning women, only to be shared in a public forum later?

    Perhaps this fear of being found out as a woman-hater is not the ideal motivation for creating cultural values of respect and even admiration of women and men. As was mentioned above, most of the world historical leaders assumed that women were not as valuable as men. Women were treated as the totality of their reproductive role, as breeders of the species, rather than the valued human beings they are throughout the world today.

    47 See Obermeyer, C.M. March 1999, Female Genital Surgeries: The Known and the Unknowable. Medical Anthropology Quaterly13, pages 79-106;p retrieved 5 December from
    48 Read more:
    49 See the-
    50 Retrieved 5 December, 2008 from, Unite To End Violence Against Women, Feb. 2008
    51 Retrieved 2016-11-19 from
    52 Retrieved 2016-11-19 from Pages 5 and 8.
    53 "Reporting of Sexual Violence Incidents". National Institute of Justice. Retrieved June 7, 2016.
    54 American Medical Association (1995) Sexual Assault in America. AMA.

    This page titled 4.3: Traditional and Contemporary Violence against Women is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Katie Coleman via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.