A Cultural Approach to Domestic Violence


The following piece does not reflect the views of the Yale Global Health Review.

In March 2016, the New York Times released an article titled “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.” The article discussed the ways in which a corrupt interpretation of Islamic law, coupled with the various contraceptives supplied by modern medicine, allows for the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to perpetuate the systematic rape of captive women and girls.1 The author explains how leaders and fighters of the Islamic State utilize modern birth control to imitate the sexual slavery that they believe flourished during the Prophet Muhammad’s time: contraceptives ensure that they do not break the Islamic law and engage in intercourse with an enslaved pregnant woman. Although practices of the Islamic State are in no way representative of the general practices of Muslims, the New York Times article provides an entryway into a discussion of the complicated overlap between belief systems, modern advances, and sexual violence that exists in many Muslim communities. In addition to the radical approach to Islam taken by ISIS, we must acknowledge and address sexual abuse in communities that practice modern interpretations of the faith. Sexual abuse is not representative of or encouraged in Islam, and I do not in any way wish to denigrate Islam or its practice in the modern world. That said, many Islamic practices do complicate the understanding of sex and sexual abuse in Muslim communities. As many Western groups seek to scrutinize practices and beliefs of Muslim individuals, I encourage them to, instead, seek to better understand the effects of culture in a given community on international and intercultural issues, such as in the case of domestic violence.

Members of Alif Laam Meem, a Muslim fraternity at UT Dallas protest against domestic violence (2013). Source: Wikimedia

Sexual abuse, especially domestic violence, crosses borders and cultures, so any approach to the issue must appreciate the diversity of the communities in which they arise. As of January 2016, about 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.2 The most common acts of sexual abuse are perpetrated by a person that the survivor knows, often a partner. Risk factors of sexual violence include “low education, child maltreatment or exposure to violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality.”2 The consequences of violence transcend its direct physical effects, increasing the likelihood of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping difficulties, drinking problems, eating disorders, emotional distress, and suicide attempts.2 Furthermore, in addition to individual trauma, sexual violence has negative social impacts as well. Studies have found that survivors of partner and sexual violence may suffer “isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children.”2

While the seeds of domestic violence vary for each individual, social causes of domestic violence represent a crucial area of research. To create better interventions, we must better understand violence itself. Using the prevalence of domestic violence in Muslim communities as an example, the predicted percentage of women who have experienced domestic violence has risen to 37.7% in Southeast Asia (the region with the greatest population of Muslim citizens), the highest rate in the world.3 Specifically, in Pakistan, it is estimated that 70 to 90% of women suffer some form of abuse.4 Pakistan is 96.4% Muslim,4 suggesting that the Pakistani culture is deeply associated with Islam culture. As noted above, there is no relationship between domestic violence and Islam, but it is important to understand gender- and family-based beliefs and their manifestation through honor killings. Honor killings occur when survivors of sexual abuse are murdered by family members because they represent taint to their families’ honor.5 Honor killings have received increasing publicity over recent years, from numerous Washington Post articles to the 2016 Oscar-award winning film Girl in the River. The governments of Pakistan and other countries in which honor killings are prevalent have passed laws to address the practice, but illegalization alone cannot change the importance of honor and pride for the family unit. The majority of reported cases occur in Muslim or migrant Muslim communities.5 Honor killings are not religious, but cultural. Islamic teachings are not the cause of honor killings, but leaders in Pakistan have historically used religious justifications in order to wrongly sanction honor killings.

In an attempt to better understand the impact of culture on sexual health, studies have analyzed the impact of the culture surrounding women’s sexuality in Muslim communities. According to a study conducted by Elbedour et al., honor killings mostly result from two potential situations. In one situation, honor may protect women from violence, but the perpetrator of the dishonor will pay in blood as a result of violating the “family honor” code. Conversely, honor, or rather the onset of dishonor, may further victimize female survivors of violence. Out of fear of blame, survivors may repress their pain and hide the crime.6 The latter is the more common outcome. Regardless of these two options, there is a theme of blaming the survivor, leaving no good or right reaction. What features of Pakistani society lend themselves to the victimization of survivors of violence?

Figure 1: Ali & Gavino. “Violence against women in Pakistan: a framework for analysis. Source: J Pak Med Assoc, 2008

Fikree and Bhatti sought to answer these questions in their study Domestic Violence and Health of Pakistani Women. When asked what the most common perceived causes of marital conflict were, Pakistani women cited “financial constraints (60.0%) and presence of in-laws (15.3%)”; specifically, within their own households, the conflicts were caused by “financial constraints (50%), presence of in-laws (30%) or children (46%).”7 These reasons for conflict, a potential source of violence, are not specific to Pakistani or Muslim cultures. It may be assumed, therefore, that a factor specific to the relationships being analyzed causes the spark to ignite. Ali and Gavino offer a framework for the analysis of sexual and partner violence in Pakistan (see Figure 1).8 Their approach attempts to acknowledge the varying factors of violence against women, and apply their understanding of the causes and effects to create positive solutions.

In her analysis of the relationship between society and violence, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian argues that rape and sexual violence are defined differently across cultures and should, therefore, be treated differently in different communities.9 Specifically, in Muslim communities, Shalhoub-Kevorkian found that the sociocultural determinants, e.g. “the need to silence the occurrence of the rape, preserve female virginity, and privatize the crime in order to safeguard family honor and reputation,”9 are the most important reasons for the recurrence of violence and the personal consequences experienced by the survivors. She urges mental health workers to look not only at the individual response, but also the societal response. Workers must understand (a) the gender variables affecting the status of the victim before the act of rape, (b) the way this status influences and in some cases controls the social reaction to rape, and (c) how this reaction impacts upon the helping process.” Workers must also be cognizant of the individual’s response to trauma. She suggests that the problem with adopting a universal method of addressing rape is that each survivor talks about and reflects on his or her experience in a way that is unique to and defined by him or herself.9 Elbedour proposed that further research be done to examine the association of violence with family honor, urbanization, racism, and oppression.6 Fikree and Bhatti call for the Pakistani government, in particular, to create workshops specifically about the health consequences of domestic violence and provide care, such as shelters and counseling, for women seeking help.

A Girl In the River film. Source: IMDB
A Girl In the River film. Source: IMDB

All of these studies arrive at the same conclusion: the goal should not be to change the preexisting culture. Instead, social activists must understand domestic violence as an issue that, although it transcends cultural boundaries, must be combatted within each individual culture. In the meantime, Pakistani activists are working to bring greater awareness to domestic violence, and have successfully urged the government to try honor killings under the Anti-Terrorism Act.10 Also, following the release of the film Girl in the River, restrictions on honor killings have increased. However, this issue is not specific to Muslim cultures; for the most part, Muslim women have the same practices and beliefs, and face the same hindrances, as women of other religious backgrounds. Domestic violence is neither a Muslim nor a women’s problem, but a sociocultural problem.

Marisa London is a junior in Pierson College, majoring in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Sociology with a concentration in health. Marisa is originally from southern California and she can be contacted at marisa.london@yale.edu.




  1. Calimachi, R. (2016, March 12). To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control. New York Times.
  2. Violence against women [Fact sheet]. (2016, January). World Health Organization. Retrieved  from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
  3. Violence against women: Global picture health response [Infographic]. (n.d.). World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/VAW_infographic.pdf?ua=1
  4. The World Factbook: Pakistan [Fact sheet]. (n.d.). Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/pk.html
  5. Pakistan. (2016). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/place/Pakistan/Daily-life-and-social-customs
  6. Elbedour, S., Abu-Bader, S., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Abu-Rabia, A., & El-Aassam, S. (2006). The scope of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse in a Bedouin-Arab community of female adolescents: The interplay of racism, urbanization, polygamy, family honor, and the social marginalization of women. Child Abuse & Neglect, 30(3), 215-229.
  7. Fikree, F. F., & Bhatti, L. I. (1999). Domestic violence and health of Pakistani women. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 65(2), 195-201.
  8. Ali, P. A., & Bustamente Gavino, M. I. (2008, April). Violence against women in Pakistan: A framework for analysis. J Pak Med Association, 58(4), 198-203.
  9. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (1999). Towards a cultural definition of rape: Dilemmas in dealing with rape victims in palestinian society. Women’s Studies International Forum, 22(2), 157-173.
  10. Legalizing the impermissible: The new anti-terrorism law. (1997). Amnesty International.
  11. Women in Islamic societies: A selected review of social scientific literature (P. Offenhauer, Author). (2005, November). Library of Congress Federal Research Division.

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