Campus News

Ambiguous Hierarchies and Domestic Violence

Story posted February 07, 2001

When a young woman neglected a task necessary for preparation of a meal, a drunken relative punched her in the eye.

Greeted with that statement, most Americans would assume that a husband or perhaps an abusive father had done the punching, but the young woman was from the Bolivian Andes, and the person who hit her, was her mother-in-law. In a recent faculty seminar presentation, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Krista Van Vleet challenged the notion that domestic abuse is gender-based with her observations of violence among women in the Bolivian Andes.

"Iím always a bit hesitant to talk about this topic, in part because I find it difficult to describe with sufficient complexity the way in which violence plays itself out in the Andes," she began. While domestic violence is familiar topic, it is important to recognize that it manifests itself differently depending on the customs of a particular culture, she said.

Van Vleet didnít travel to Bolivia to study domestic violence, but she began thinking about the issue as Andean women questioned about whether violence occurred in her marriage. Thought it is not spoken of as openly, Van Vleet also began to hear talk of violence between women.

"In the Bolivian Andes, gender takes sort of a secondary role to the in-law relationship," she said. Though spousal abuse also occurs, there is frequently abuse among women ó between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law or between sisters-in-law.

Cultural traditions set the stage for this type of violence. Once they marry, a young couple generally lives with the husbandís family for several years. A relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law is prone to strain because they are expected to spend a good deal of time together ó working, celebrating at fiestas ó but the daughter-in-law is expected to foster their relationship by respectfully obeying her mother-in-law.

Daughters-in-law are not seen as true kin until they have been integrated into the family over a long period of time. Because a body is built up over time, by the food consumed, someone from a different family is seen as being constitutionally different, Van Vleet said. A daughter-in-lawís history of earning wages in the city or being able to speak Spanish can also create an imbalance of power in a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship.

Failure to cook was often the reason given for violence against a woman, Van Vleet said. While control over resources through the preparation and distribution of food is often seen a source of power for a woman, in a case where there are two married women in a household, that power is ambiguous. In the village in which Van Vleet lived, the senior woman demonstrated her power by serving the meal, while the younger woman was made to do the often unpleasant work of preparing the meal.

Another ingredient in episodes of domestic violence Van Vleet encountered was alcohol. Drinking plays an important role in the culture of the people in the Bolivian Andes. They believe that the universe is controlled by supernatural forces that must be "fed" through the use of libations. During fiestas, corn beer is brewed, drunk, and then implicated in instances of domestic violence.

According to Van Vleet, using drunkenness as an excuse is the way people in the Andes have normalized violence.

"Violence is considered customary only when people are drunk," she said.

The people use the same verb tense to speak about a drunken state as they use to speak about a dream state or the distant past; drunk people arenít considered responsible for their actions in the same way sober people are. Violence is considered reprehensible when the perpetrator isnít drunk, yet drinking is an integral part of their culture.

The factors that contributed to violence between mothers- and daughters-in-law ó unequal exchanges of labor, ambiguities in the relationship and hierarchy, even drunkenness ó are often present in relationships between siblings, sisters-in-law, even spouses.

Serious study of domestic violence means seeing it in a broader context. Because of these many contributors to domestic violence, Van Vleet said, it is important to look beyond gender at other inequities, and beyond those inequities to the lives of the people involved. "Neither violence nor kinship can be understood outside of the lives of people."

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