Breaking with tradition

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This time of the year our minds often turn to tradition. We start to see the overt trappings of a Western Christian tradition and culture all around us, in the snow-capped Christmas trees, the bright red of Santa’s wintery woollens contrasted by his flash of white beard, along with the tinny carols on a repeat loop in shopping centres across Australia.

We might stop a moment to think how odd these traditions are in the heat of an Australian multicultural summer, but generally we go with the flow, take the opportunity to celebrate the end of the year in our own ways, and wish our neighbours well.

But in this WRAP we’d like to take the opportunity of good cheer to reflect for a moment longer on tradition and culture, and how these terms tend to take on a different meaning when we are talking about migrants and refugees in Australia. We’ve noticed that when the terms culture and migrants are used together, in media representations in particular, they are often used to link immigrant and refugee communities with a negative understanding of tradition and culture, as something  unchanging and fixed, which is contrasted against a more ‘modern’ way of thinking and being.

And this is never more the case than when the topic under discussion is gender and cultural norms about women’s roles or women’s rights. Stereotypes of migrant men as holding more traditionally gendered views, and representations of migrant women as more compliant because of their cultural beliefs, circulate prolifically in the Australian press and elsewhere.

The pairing of traditional migrant culture and the oppression of women becomes even more acute in representations of violence against women. One recent article, quoting a Coroner’s finding relating to a domestic murder, described a violent migrant man as having ‘culturally entrenched, patriarchal’ attitudes, and his victim as having ‘cultural factors against her’. It is rare to see violence perpetrated by non-migrant men attributed to ‘cultural factors’. More commonly, the reasons given for Anglo-Australian men’s violence relate to individual pathology. Culture does not enter into the story.

Equally absent in accounts of violence against immigrant and refugee women is a recognition that systems and structures play an important role in facilitating violence against women. A second case reported this month based its defence on the premise that a migrant woman who reported violence by her husband invented the story so that she could secure a visa to stay in Australia. In this case, the legal system is using the immigration visa system, along with stereotypes of migrant women as duplicitous and tricky, to invalidate a woman’s allegation of domestic violence.

Research has shown that factors such as immigration policy, temporary and dependant visa status, along with social isolation and economic insecurity flowing from the settlement process, all play a role in making women more vulnerable to violence. While some aspects of culture and tradition can be harmful to women, this is not limited to migrant cultures. As we know too well, the culture of men’s violence is alive and well in modern day, Christmas-celebrating Australia. While patriarchal attitudes clearly play an important role in the perpetration of violence against all women, we need to balance that knowledge with an understanding of the role of structural and systemic factors.

That means thinking outside of the tradition versus modernity square, to better understand how ‘modern’ systems and structures can harm women as much as ‘culture’ (traditional or otherwise).

To find out more about the intersections of systems and culture, register for our panel event.