Gender and violence: A conversation with Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven
TW: mentioning of violence, rape, murder
We wish to provide more than just informative articles about womxn who have done much for this society. One of our aims is to also inform about themes and issues surrounding womxn in our current society. So we want to pick up something next to the articles we publish: a monthly column. Here we hope to share insights in relevant topics such as the history of feminism, the use of pronouns and even the different positions womxn hold in different disciplines. Our wish is to provide those insights with the help of specialized guest writers. And good news: this month we will share two amazing pieces with you to start this project off with a bang.
For our first column we have the honours to present to you an article written by Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven. She is someone who has shown interest and support for our project since we have started it. So we thought: to have her as our first guest, would be the appropriate way to show her our gratitude. And by this we also kind of add her to our timeline of womxn this month. For those who do not know her already we will provide a short introduction here:
Dr Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven, an educational sociologist and equity practitioner, who has held senior positions in the Ministries of Public Administration and Social Development, Trinidad and Tobago, worked as an independent consultant for ICDI the Netherlands and taught at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. She held the position of Director Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [DEI] at Durham College and then Director Equity, Communications and Community Partnership at Durham Children’s Aid Society, Canada. She is now the DEI Strategist at Radboud University Nijmegen. Rona also writes a column in the Durham Region News and is dedicated to advocating and agitating for change for marginalized communities and vulnerable groups in society.
We hope that you will enjoy the reading of her article as much as we do. It is a very interesting topic, but might be triggering for some, hence the trigger warnings. We added a link to the PDF of the article in its original format for you to access as well
I think I knew I was a girl before I knew anything else about myself and I think this holds true for many of us attesting to the significance of gendered identity and roles and how it shaped, informed and managed the society and social settings which we navigated. I recall growing up in a Hindu household with a father who placed great emphasis on the education of his six girl-children but aware also that my mother by virtue of being born into a Hindu Brahmin family was fated to have higher education overlooked as achievements only attainable by her brothers. So I accepted this dissonance without ever truly understanding it. This gendered reality when it comes to access to education has long been the common theme of many Dutch, Indian, Caribbean and global households and was simply accepted as the norm; until of course when it no longer was. Globally, disparities continue to characterize the gendered landscape of many cultures. An era of upheaval did indeed occur whether it was seen as the toppling of patriarchy, a feminist movement, a time when men were at risk, when women were seemingly out of control in some countries, daring to move in spaces they were not meant to be in. Yet even in these spaces gender parity seems a myth.
When I am asked the question about my identity, I always reflect on when I was a young teenager, having read James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the first time.
“The soul is born, [Stephen] said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets. (5.1.117)
In the novel, the main character Stephen explains Ireland’s plight as a nation whose interesting sense of nationhood puts it at risk of destroying itself, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” (5.1.118). I later wrote about my experience in Diversity Dialogue: An Exercise in Inclusion:-1
It was then that I realized that I was not powerless, that I was not doomed to being constrained by the many societal nets that were being flung at me; that I could escape the “isms”: ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism, sexism, “islandism” if I may, and the host of others that exist. I was the product of what Craig ( would call interplay of diasporas and intertwining roots…. I did not have to be singularly defined by my Hindu Indian ancestry; the Catholicism of my high school education; the bi-racial relationships I would later be embraced in; the parenting of children with very diverse racial, religious and ethnic identities; immersion in a very postmodern predominantly Caucasian atheist dynamic. These trappings were to act as wings for flight, for freedom from the boundaries, categorizations and delineations. Flying by those nets meant forging a very fluid identity.
You see for me, I didn’t consciously articulate the world view that being born a girl meant being entrapped and always accountable to men, whether fraternal, filial, marital or paternal; however, it was one that was internalised nonetheless. It was only through those words I realised that being a girl, didn’t have to define me. It was simply another label, another category that society was seeking to entrap me in and that all I had to do was fly. There are so many things that were going to define us as women, female, cisgender, lesbian, transwomen, queer, two-spirited. The basis of discrimination on the basis of sex and gender has always existed and will honestly continue to exist.
This leads me to be inclined to write about some interesting research that I did on violence – the all-encompassing redefining of violence and its multidimensionality of direct, structural and cultural violence and to explain why gender inequities in this manner translates into cultural, systemic or structural, and direct violence.
Conceptually, for many, ‘violence’ conjures up images of direct or physical force and violence discourse has for a long time been focused on personal violence, looking at violence and its physical and psychological effects, the effects of violence on the individual and society, violence versus the threat of violence, violence and wars, and violence whether intended or unintended. Johan Galtung (1930- ), explored the many faces of violence and created a flurry of discussions and debates on violence and its multifaceted dimensions.
“I understand violence as the unavoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or,…the impairment of human life, which lowers the actual degree to which someone is able to meet their needs below that which would otherwise be possible. The threat of violence is also violence.” (Quoted by Müller n.d, 1).
A consideration of the theoretical dimensions of violence extends the definition further than the previously held narrow concept to include the notion of violence as being a disparity between an individual’s actual somatic and mental realizations and their potential realizations. Accordingly, violence is “defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual” (Ibid). In today’s society, according to this definition, violence is when someone dies from malnutrition because the resources exist to prevent such a situation; the situation is avoidable. Violence is when young girls are denied education simply because it is deemed as a right entitlement of the boy child; violence is the exploitation of boys and girls for labour by factory owners depriving them of their right to education and play. Violence is forcing young girls into early marriages; statistics show that “girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and that pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19”.
“In other words, when the potential is higher than the actual is by definition avoidable and when it is avoidable, then violence is present.” (Galtung 1969, 169). A parallel logic can be drawn to the phenomena such as the glass ceiling and the underrepresentation of young women in STEM research or in positions of leadership or holding the titles of professors in universities.
Structural violence is a term introduced by Galtung (1969). He refers to a form of violence where the social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. He cites also elitism, ethnocentrism, classism, racism, sexism, adultism, nationalism, heterosexism and ageism as examples of structural violence. Galtung (1969) claims that structural violence and direct violence are interdependent and include such direct outcomes as domestic violence, racial violence, hate crimes, terrorism, genocide and war. He argues that,
cultural violence is connected to the cultural paradigms and guidelines which rule socially accepted behaviour, whether consciously (explicitly) or unconsciously (implicitly). Thus he argues, cultural violence supports and perpetuates violence through cultural guidelines materialized through religion, language, art, and the different manifestations of culture. Structural violence meanwhile pertains to the injustice within society that allows negative situations to persist. “Symbolic violence built into a culture does not kill or maim like direct violence or the violence built into the structure. However, it is used to legitimize either or both, as for instance in the theory of a Herrenvolk, or a superior race.” (Galtung 1990, 292)
In this context then, I will elaborate a bit about gender violence. At its most basic and obvious level, violence is an act that is carried out with the intention or perceived intention of physically hurting another person (Gelles and Straus 1979). The gender dimension amplifies the definition to include violent acts perpetrated on women because they are women. For example, being female subjects a woman to rape, female circumcision/genital mutilation, female infanticide, and sex-related crimes. Dunkle et al. (2004) and Russo and Pirlott (2006), drawing on international data, come to the same view: women, of whatever nation, bear most of the burden when there are risks around and they point out how strongly factors such as gender, sexuality, power, and intimate violence are interwoven. One point of irony though is that in spite of the almost universal discrimination of women, wherever, women outlive men.3 The life expectance rates at birth for the Netherlands are: females: 82.4 years, men: 77.1 years. 4
In some Asian societies, because of a woman’s dependence on a man, she is vulnerable to specific domestic violence, such as dowry murder and sati, and the reason relates to society’s concept of woman as property of the man (Jilani 1992). Gendered violence also relates a great deal to society’s construction of both female and male sexuality. Jilani (1992) writes of Pakistan that the argument that violence is cultural or personal is erroneous, since in Pakistan she claims, the issue is more political and results from the structural pattern of control and dominance of the social institutions that exist. She argues that perpetual fear of violence in the home, at work, and in the streets is an obstacle to social participation and a hindrance to women’s development but, at the same time, she acknowledges that the issue of violence against women is becoming a global human rights concern.
For many of us the news of an eight-year old Yemeni child bride dying on her wedding night from internal haemorrhaging seems fiction and something out of a movie because it is a violence that is beyond comprehension so therefore we compartmentalize it in a section of our mind that does not allow it to be transformed into a real issue: “many poor families in Yemen marry off young daughters to save on the costs of bringing up a child and earn extra money from the dowry given to a girl” (Ghobari and Davenport 2013). It becomes simply news.
Similarly, news that the Maldivian government will appeal against a court decision to publicly flog a 15-year-old rape victim convicted of having premarital sex. It is clear that what is considered ‘violence’ is highly debatable under cultural norms and practices. Interestingly many traditions are translated into legal and state-sanctioned systems, such as marriages, education acts, societal laws or accepted medical practice. This cultural and structural violence is also manifested in the form of indirect violence against women that plagues many societies daily, for example, the fact that the HIV/AIDS infection rate is going up in Uganda mainly because more Ugandans (mostly men) are having multiple sex partners (Heuler 2013).
Newsworthy also, Italy’s lower chamber of parliament has ratified a European treaty to protect women and girls from gender violence, as the latest victim — a 15-year-old girl stabbed 20 times and burnt alive. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, said 78 per cent of all cases of violence against women in Italy are domestic in nature, with gender stereotypes “deeply rooted”. A 23-year-old Indian student was fatally gang-raped inside a bus in the capital, Delhi, in December 2012. Her father says:
“That is what poverty does to you…think about money all the time. Think about whether you have enough money in your pocket to take your daughter’s body home…We just want to keep her memory alive as long as it’s possible. I know one day people will forget her. But they will remember her death led to changes – changes in the anti-rape laws, change in consciousness.”
It must be acknowledged that great strides are being made in society by our women and young girls despite many of the obstacles faced. A case in point: “A Saudi woman has made history by reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain: Raha Moharrak 25 years, not only became the first Saudi woman to attempt the climb but also the youngest Arab to make it to the top of Everest.” And there are many more such acts of girls and women that challenge the traditional views on what they can and should do. In a similar vein, the decision by the House of Representatives to give final approval to a renewal of the ‘Violence Against Women Act’, should be seen as yet another expression of a worldwide emerging wish to combat this form of violence. The Act also holds for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse, as well as gives the right to American Indian women who are violated on reservations by non-Indians to take their cases to tribal courts; until now courts did not have jurisdiction over assailants who did not live on tribal land (Parker 2013).
One of the greatest injustice done to mankind is the imposition of the social constructs of race and gendered narratives. The harm, pain and trauma that these have spiralled can hardly be articulated but the struggle is an endless one that will survive. This month we celebrate some great women who made some landmark strides navigating their lived spaces. These include:
o Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916 – 2000)→ first female prime minister in the world. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was three times prime minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka. She advocated for women’s rights and during her political career she fought for women and girls;
o Laverne Cox (1972 -) → actress, LGBTQ+ advocate. The 48 year old woman, who was raised only by her mother and grandmother, does not only play an important role in the representation of the trans community in the film industry, she also helps to raise awareness and gives a voice to members of the trans community;
o Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020) → mathematician, critical at NASA for first space flight. Katherine was a black research mathematician who started working at NASA in 1953 in the West Area Computing group in Langley and had significant influence on crucial missions for NASA such as the GEMINI mission and MERCURY mission;
o Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) → first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan social, environmental and political activist. She was the first African Woman and first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize for all of her achievements in 2004;
o Hadewijch → 13th Century Dutch writer and poet. Hadewijch was a Dutch poet who lived in the 13th century. Most of her writings are written in Brabantian which is a form of Middle Dutch;
o Sarah Breedlove (1867 – 1919) → first female self-made millionaire, philanthropist, activist. Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madame C.J. Walker, was an Afro-American woman and the first of her family to be born free. She was able to create a line of cosmetic and hair products designed for black women – allowing her to become an affluent activist for black women;
o Anna Pavlova (1881 -1931)→ Russian prima ballerina (known as the most popular ballet dancer in history). Anna worked at the Imperial Russian Ballet and was also part of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Dying Swan is one of her most known performances;
o Miep Gies (1909-2010) → Dutch resistance fighter in World War 2. Miep was one of the Dutch citizens who hid Anne Frank and her family, as well as four other Dutch Jews from the Nazis during World War 2;
o Aretha Franklin (1942 – 2018) → Singer, songwriter and civil rights activist. Aretha was an American singer, songwriter, actress and civil rights activist. By the end of the 1960s she had come to be known as the “Queen of Soul”;
o Hypatia (circa 350/70 – 415 AD) → Philosopher and Astronomer. Hypatia grew up learning from her father and assisting him in his work. She corrected and prepared Theon’s texts Almagest and a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables;
o Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938 – ) → Former President of Liberia (First female head of state); Ellen is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. This made her the first elected female head of state in Africa. In 2011 she won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process;
o Boudicca (30 – 61A) → celtic warrior, queen of tribe. Boudicca was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the conquering forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60/61. She is considered a British folk hero;
o Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850)→ journalist, editor, critic, women’s right activist. Margaret was an American journalist, editor, critic, translator and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first American female war correspondent. Her book Women in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States;
o Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven – First Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategist at Radnboud Univeristy in Nijmegen. Her pronouns are she, her, hers. She is an author, researcher, a first-generation Canadian immigrant, and has now lived in three countries and has published widely. She has navigated a gendered, racialized and disidentified identity all her life. She is an advocate for change and social justice.
Author: Rona Jualla van Ouderhoven
Image: Marjolein van Diejen