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Why is violence against women so widespread? Because it “polices” gender norms and upholds the patriarchy

By Nora Khalaf-Elledge

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

You likely have encountered “gender policing” in one way or another. You may have observed everyday examples, like girls being called “bossy”, “easy”, or “not ladylike” when they do not conform to some ideal of modesty. Yet, not everyone realizes that violence against women is also a form of gender policing. It is arguably one of the most widespread ways of putting women back into “their place” and preserving patriarchal power structures. This blog post explains the connection between violence against women, gender policing, and patriarchy, and what can be done about it. 

In feminist theory “gender policing” refers to the enforcement of the gender norms that a given society deems as appropriate or most desirable i . By punishing all those who do not conform to traditional gender norms, gender policing helps maintain the status quo. Most societies in the world today are still patriarchal in practice ii. This means that most gender policing serves to maintain the hierarchy of men - or at least the type of men that society deems most “real”- over women. 

In some cases, gender policing is verbal, subtle and normalized, in which the “policed” are punished through name-calling, public shaming, or social alienation. Telling men to “man up” or punishing boys for crying is a form of gender policing in any society that considers real men to be emotionless. Verbal gender policing is perpetuated by families, friends, colleagues, school curricula, workplaces and the media. 

But gender policing is not only verbal. In many cases, gender policing consists of violent acts. Consider the following three types of violence against women iii , which are prominent in patriarchal settings and serve to “police” women who deviate from traditional gender norms:

  • Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are used to teach women and girls that public spaces are not for them. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s place is at home.

  • Intimate partner violence, on the other hand, serves to reinforce roles inside the home. It is the most widespread form of violence against women and can consist of physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence. Intimate partner violence as a form of gender policing is most common in settings where it is believed that men and women are naturally suited to different tasks and responsibilities: men are considered the primary breadwinner and women the primary home keeper. When these roles are broken violence may ensue. Societies, and often governments too, turn a blind eye to such violence, especially where men are considered to be “naturally” more violent or driven by uncontrollable sexual urges. 

  • Economic violence can include the damage of property and/or the restriction of access to alimony, financial resources or labor markets. It is a way of enforcing the economic dependence of women on men. 

Rights activists explain that violence against women in patriarchal settings is always connected to “male privilege and women’s oppression” iv . Such violence can be incredibly powerful in ensuring adherence to a given set of gender roles. Feminist theory, therefore, also calls such violence “normative violence”. It is the type of violence that “regulates bodies according to normative notions of sex, gender, and sexuality” and serves to maintain power systems v. Patriarchy is one of the biggest power systems in the world, and therefore it takes a lot of normative violence to preserve it. This might explain why violence against women and girls continues to be so widespread in the world today. It is rightfully considered a “global health problem of epidemic proportions” by rights activists and the World Health Organization (WHO)vi

So what can be done? 

Creating gender-equal environments that are more livable for both women and men is a long-term struggle. A short-term objective is to simply recognize and call out violence against women as a crucial part of upholding larger power structures. Only then can we “de-normalize” such violence and challenge the elements of educational curricula, laws, popular language, or media outlets that protect perpetrators. 

Some violence against women is sanctioned by institutions that are cultural or religious in nature, posing an additional challenge since lawmakers often struggle to challenge so-called cultural or religious practices. Labelling violence against women “cultural” or “religious” gives fundamentalists around the globe an easy trump-card to justify violent behavior. Religious arguments in particular have been widely used to legitimize violent gender policing that is patriarchal vii. To remove the power of such claims, religious feminists have attempted to separate the religion from the interpreter viii . They call out history-long use of religious texts to condone patriarchal worldviews, that disproportionately disadvantage women and deprive them of basic rights.  

To thrive, patriarchy depends on widespread gender policing, from verbal shaming to violent punches. We have all observed it at some point and many have engaged in it. Let’s call it out wherever we see it. 

This blog post is partly based on sections of “The religion-gender nexus in development: practice and policy considerations” by Nora Khalaf-Elledge, 2022. New York: Routledge. 

Footnotes: i. See for example Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge. 

ii. Lockard, C. 2015. Societies, Networks, and Transitions: A Global History. Stamford: Cengage Learning, Page 8. 
iii. There are many forms of violence against women. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) defines several types based on the Istanbul Convention that came into force in 2014, 
iv. COFEM, 2017. Reframing language of ‘gender-based violence’ away from feminist underpinnings. Feminist Perspectives on Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls Series, Paper No. 2, Coalition of Feminists for Social Change, Page 2. 
v. Lloyd, M. 2013. Heteronormativity and/as Violence: The “Sexing” of Gwen Araujo. Hypatia, 28: 818-834. 
vi. WHO 2013. 
vii. Monagan, S. 2010. Patriarchy: Perpetuating the Practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 2 (1), 160-181. 
viii. Among many others, see for example Mohrmann, M. 2015. Feminist Ethics and Religious Ethics. Journal of Religious Ethics, 43 (2): 185–192 AND Badran, M. 2011. From Islamic Feminism to a Muslim Holistic Feminism. IDS Bulletin 42 (1): 78–87. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, AND Mernissi, F. 1991. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. New York: Basic.


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