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When Culture Means Gender: Issues of Cultural Defence in the English Courts

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The use of cultural defence has been much discussed in the American context and has figured as one of the areas of concern in feminist assessments of multiculturalism. This paper examines two categories of cases from the English courts, those where cultural context has been seen as significant in interpreting the actions of female defendants, and those where ‘culture’ is invoked to explain severe acts of violence against women. It argues that cultural arguments become available to female defendants mainly when they conform to stereotypical images of the subservient non-Western wife. They have not, on the whole, been successfully employed by male defendants to mitigate crimes against women, though there are troubling exceptions. The larger problem is that mainstream culture itself promotes a gendered understanding of agency and responsibility, as when it perceives men as understandably incensed by the sexual behaviour of their women, or women as less responsible for their actions because of the influence of men. The conclusion is that the uses and abuses of cultural defence highlight issues that have wider provenance, for it is when cultural arguments resonate with mainstream conventions that they have proved most effective.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: July 1, 2003


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