Introductions to Engaged Anthropology is a series of thematic books by individual authors that demonstrate how an anthropological perspective contributes to reframing the public discourse on important and timely social issues. Volumes are thoughtful nuanced treatments on subjects that are publicly, ethically, and politically relevant in a changing world, and are of intellectual importance not only within anthropology, but in other fields such as law, gender, human sexuality, and health and social welfare. An important objective of this new series is not just social critique, but active engagement in the problems of broader global communities. Introductions to Engaged Anthropology books are written primarily for students, educators, and intellectuals to provide a deeper analysis of the social, political, and ethical debates in which anthropological and cross-cultural analyses are vital contributions to the public discourse, and help to redefine public policy.

Published volumes

Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective

Sally Engle Merry



A book is always a collaborative project, building on the work and insights of others and benefiting from their research, activism, and personal experiences. This book has been especially collaborative, since its goal is to bring together the ideas, insights, and experiences of a social movement, of those who have survived violence, and of those who have studied and tried to understand gender violence. For the last 17 years, I have talked to leaders of the movement against gender violence, people working on the problem in local courts and programs, and people who have experienced or perpetrated violence in their families and communities. While my work in the 1990s was based in the USA, since 2000 I have been studying the international movement, looking in particular at efforts in the Asia Pacific region and the work of international organizations such as the United Nations. I have met and talked to inspirational activists and survivors in all these settings, and hope that this book reflects something of their wisdom and commitment. To all who gave their time and insights to me, I am most thankful. I hope that this book will be a contribution to the public’s general understanding of the issue, as it pulls together much of their knowledge, experience, and wisdom.

The scope of the book is very broad, endeavoring to discuss many forms of gender violence. I have drawn on a growing body of published literature, particularly recent work in anthropology that offers an ethnographic portrait of gender violence. An anthropological perspective has been adopted, differing from much of the current literature which takes a more psychological approach. Many wonderful research assistants have contributed in significant ways. My undergraduates at Wellesley College worked on specific sections, providing me with invaluable information and insights: Clare McBee-Wise on transgendered people and violence, Dante Costa on refugee women, Hao Nguyen on immigration laws and practices, and Rebecca Goldberg on female genital cutting as well as her experiences with anorexia and the insight this gave her about genital surgeries. These students took a course I offered at Wellesley with Nan Stein called “Gendered Violations.” Collaborating with Nan in teaching this course and sharing our interests in gender violence and sexual harassment have been of great benefit to my intellectual life and to the shaping of this book. The work in Hawai‘i benefited from the research work of Marilyn Brown and Madelaine Adelman. My graduate students at New York University also contributed: Nur Amali Ibrahim worked on the section on rape and genocide in Rwanda and Jennifer Telesca worked on the discussion of Ciudad Juárez. Jennifer Telesca also prepared the discussion questions and video resources. My undergraduates at NYU did a test drive of the book in the spring of 2007 and learned something from it, which seems a good omen.

The book includes some of my own research on approaches to gender violence in Hawai‘i, India, China, and the United Nations. I have been generously supported by the National Science Foundation Law and Social Sciences and Cultural Anthropology programs, grants SES-9023397, SBR-9320009, SBR-9807208, BCS-9904441, SES0417730, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the Mellon New Directions Fellowship at Wellesley College, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for a related conference. Peggy Levitt, my collaborator in my current research project on the localization of women’s human rights in China, India, Peru, and the USA, has also contributed significantly to this project. My research was supported by my time as a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. Wellesley College and New York University have both provided a supportive working environment for my research and writing.

Finally, I would like to thank Jane Huber of Blackwell for proposing that I write such a book, one that is far broader and more ambitious in scope than others I have written. Her enthusiasm has kept me at a project that seemed daunting at first, and in some ways still does. I have tried to use stories and ethnographic case studies as much as possible, while weaving these together with analytic anthropological arguments. I am particularly indebted to two anonymous reviewers who provided detailed and insightful advice. Any errors, of course, remain mine.

I would like to dedicate this book to my daughter, Sarah, who has provided me with support and encouragement in many of my endeavors, and my sister Patricia, whose work on international child development and nutrition has been an inspiration. My husband and son have also been, as always, steadfast supporters of my penchant for writing books.

Sally Engle Merry

Wellesley, MA

January 2008