Fighting “Barbaric Cultural Practices” as Public Policy

Saad Omar Khan

Sometime in his tenure as Britain’s Commander-in-Chief in India during a period of British rule in the nineteenth century, General Sir Charles Napier was approached by several Hindu priests regarding his aggressive crackdown on the practice of sati—the ritual burning of widows upon the death of their husbands. The priests’ objection to the colonial government’s proscription of the practice was based on cultural norms: as this was a “religious rite,” no policy measure should be enacted to interfere with it. Napier’s response to the priests was direct and unequivocal:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property … Let us all act according to national customs.”

This anecdote may not seem relevant in a modern, Canadian context; a historical vignette from a very different time and place. Yet there is something in Napier’s aggressive response and Britain’s civilizing mission in India that rings true today in Canadian policy circles, especially if one considers the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.” The Act, tabled in November 2014 as Bill S-7 to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Civil Marriage Act, and the Criminal Code, is designed to protect women and children from early and forced marriages and polygamy. According to the federal government, it will also demonstrate Canada’s intolerance of spousal abuse, violence in the name of so-called “honour”, or other, mostly gender-based violence through changes in Canadian criminal law.

These amendments make the practice of polygamy by permanent residents and foreign nationals grounds for removal from Canada. The Act also sets a minimum age for marriage at 16 nation-wide, and makes the participation in either an underage marriage or a marriage arranged without the consent of all parties a prosecutable offence. The Criminal Code will also be amended to eliminate insults to familial “honour” as grounds for provocation in cases of “honour killings.” Only actions by victims amounting to a “serious criminal offence” will be deemed acceptable grounds for defence in murder cases.

While ostensibly well intentioned, the Act has been met with criticism, some of which is aimed at the need for such legislation in the first place. Some commentators have noted that polygamy is already illegal in Canada, and that “honour killings”, one of the cultural practices explicitly mentioned in the Act, have already been demonstrably fought against through existing homicide legislation. The use of familial “honour” as a form of defence for murder has rarely arisen in criminal proceedings. In the rare instances where it has been brought up, it has rarely, if never been accepted by the court. With this criticism in mind, one could reasonably argue that Bill S-7 exists as a policy solution in need of an actual policy problem.

Much of the criticism against the Act has also focused on its title. The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) has openly accused the federal government of using strong language as “an attempt at fear-mongering” that “will further marginalize and harm member of communities that this Act purports to serve.” SALCO has also accused the government of not supporting the Act through proper research or expert consultations. During a hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Human Rights in December 2014, Senator Art Eggleton openly questioned Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on the Act’s title, suggesting that the use of such terminology was effectively painting certain cultural communities as inherently barbaric.

The argument over the name of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act is more than a matter of semantics. To employ the rhetoric that Canada needs to fight “barbaric cultural practices” appears, somewhat ironically, to be a throwback to an earlier day and age – the time of General Napier and the British Empire’s commitment to stamp out customs repellent to “civilized” sensibilities. The language used in the Act does little in the battle to uphold the rights of women and children, and seems to pander to a xenophobic view of gender-based violence as a phenomenon alien to Canadian shores, the purview of immigrants and foreigners. Fighting barbarism in General Napier’s time was one of many ostensible justifications for imperialism. It is striking that contemporary policy-makers would use terminology harkening back to an age where colonialists were adamant that peoples, nations, and communities were divided along the boundaries of the savage and the civilized.

Gender-based violence and the denial of basic rights to women—including the fundamental right to freely choose one’s partner—are undeniably abhorrent practices. It would be too easy to maintain that such practices can only be attributed to certain cultures, and are not part of mainstream Canadian society. This argument ignores the troubling statistics on the rate of physical and sexual violence against women in Canada. That the United Nations has recommended the Canadian government act quickly to address the high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women serves as another indication that Canada still has much to do in combating gender-based violence.

Any policy that helps to protect women from violence, and that promotes their agency and empowerment should be lauded. No policy, however, should be enacted without an actual need for it. Regardless of whether certain practices (such as underage and forced marriage) are more prevalent in some communities than in others, it does not benefit policy-makers to employ rhetoric that could alienate the very people they are trying to serve. Sanctimonious and alarmist language embedded in legislation such as Bill S-7 only further marginalizes certain communities as being more intrinsically violent and misogynistic than others. Ultimately, the policy-making community needs to be reminded that all acts of violence against women are acts of barbarism—regardless of who perpetrates them or within which culture they occur.

Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy. 

[IMAGE]: Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander. Credit: Michael Swan.

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