Femicide, defined as the misogynous killing of women by men (Russell and Radford, 1992), has its roots in the larger feminist discourse, which emphasises the patriarchal nature of society and the tendency to use violence as tool of repression in the maintenance of male dominance. The term, which – unlike the term genocide, for example - has no legal basis, is elaborated in the work of Jill Radford and Diana E.H Russell in a compilation of works entitled ‘Femicide, the politics of woman killing’, published in 1992. It takes its form from the word ‘cide’, a derivative of the latin word ceadere which means to kill and femina which means woman or female. The term remains relatively specialist and has yet to reach mainstream political discourse, and has tended to be overshadowed by the more gender-neutral and widely applicable term ‘gendercide’ (see Gendercide). For the proponents of the term, this is simply more proof of the taboo nature of femicide and the silencing power of male structures within society which prevent women from actively naming violence against them and resisting its multiple forms.
While the practice is said to be as old as patriarchy itself, the term has probably not been used until 1974, when an American writer, Carol Orlock, prepared an anthology of femicide, which remains unpublished (Russell and Radford, 1992). The emergence of the term can be seen as part of the 1970’s feminist movements, which were witness to women’s attempts to name their own experiences and create a form of resistance to this ultimate form of violence against women. Rather than being a new form of violence, it is indeed seen as being on the extreme end of a continuum of violence exerted against women. More specifically, however, it is proposed as an alternative to the gender-neutral term of ‘homicide’. As such, it seeks to highlight the killing of women for being women, a phenomenon linked closely with sexual violence enacted to punish, blame and control the actions, emotions and behaviour of women.
Examples of Femicide
Instances of femicide have been pervasive throughout history, and range from the relatively wide-spread to the very specific, excluding any qualitative aspects to the term. Indeed, femicide can describe, for example, both a deliberate state/collective action against many women, and the more particular, but the rarely random killing of one woman. Consequently the term is qualitative, its essence being in both the subject and the motivation: the person killed is a woman, killed for the gender specific reason that she is a woman.
In the 16th to 17th century this took the form of killing witches deemed as being inherently evil. In modern day experiences, the term can be used to describe the legal killing of wives suspected of adultery, the burning of women in ‘shame’ killings, and female infanticide such as that sometimes practiced in China and Korea, for example, if there is a embedded preference for male children. The shooting of 14 female engineering students in Montreal in December 1989 by Marc Lepine – whose victims were referred to as ‘fucking feminists’ - is cited by the authors (Russell and Radford, 1992) as archetypal manifestation of prevalent women-hating attitudes. While femicide can be active, as in the examples cited above, it can also be permissive or indirect, such the death of women as the result of badly conducted abortions due to the lack of fertility rights in some countries, or deaths from unnecessary hysterectomies and clitorectomies. Furthermore, femicide describes death of girls or women from simple neglect, through starvation or ill-treatment.
In an attempt to counter mainstream critiques of feminism, which argue that advocates have a tendency to imply the universal nature of female experience, Radford and Russell insist that the nature of femicide varies, depending on the cultural, economic and social character of the society in question. As such, it comes in many forms ranging from serial or mass femicide, to homophobic femicide (otherwise termed ‘lesbicide’), to marital femicide. Furthermore, there is said to be a particularly strong link with racism, resulting in a high level of racist femicide. A more ‘modern’ example of a type of femicide resides in the deliberate transmission of HIV/AIDS virus, although this has yet to be given a specific name. Linked to all of the above, although having a strong link with ‘lesbiscide’ is the perception of homosexuality as a repressive social institution, which seeks to control all women who do not adhere to pre-defined male definitions of female behaviour, especially those who appear to challenge apparent male superiority and dominance.
Paradoxically, where women are thought most to be at risk is at home, conceived of traditionally – especially in non-feminist literature – as being a woman’s rightful place. Husbands are said to pose the biggest threat, especially for those women wishing to leave the home or begin divorce proceedings. However, such violence is certainly not limited to the home, but intrinsic to every aspect of society. Media representation of women, for example, when reporting deaths involving women and in pornography and ‘snuff’ films which depict apparently real violence against women for male sexual gratification, highlight the prominence of ‘male’ perspectives on issues that concern women and objectification of women, portrayed as devoid of any subjective experience. The judicial system also plays a role in perpetuating the structures that permit femicide due to the refusal to focus on the misogynistic nature of crimes, and the tendency to shift responsibility from the male killer to the woman killed. Women-blaming strategies which have even led to the codification of the term “provocation” in many legal systems, is part of the wider phenomenon of “victimology” which deflects blame away from the real culprits, and contributes to the failure of the state to protect women from male sexual violence.
Evolution of the term Femicide
The term femicide has been forced to take into account perceived ‘modern’ ways in which women’s lives are controlled and harmed by patriarchal structures and, as such, research concerning the term has been extended to encapsulate technological revolutions that effect women’s lives. Whereas the nineteen-sixties were marked by a presumed liberation of women’s lives and control of their own bodies with pervasive use of the contraceptive pill, New Reproductive Technologies (NRTs) are said, on the contrary, to reinforce patterns of domination and deepen oppression of women’s lives. Writing as early as 1989 and showing clear foresight in terms of the direction of bio-technology, Susan Farrell in a Review of ‘Man-Made Women: How New Reproductive Technologies Affect Women’ (by Gena Corea, Renate Duelli Klein, Jalna Hanmer, Helen B, Holmes Raymond, Robyn Rowland, Roberta Steinbacher) highlights the way NRTs can be seen as part of an “increased medical colonization of women’s lives” (Farrell, 1989: 127). While on the one hand medical developments can be said to increase women’s empowerment through the offer of maximum choice, on the other hand NRT research seeks predominantly to discover the sex of the unborn child and, consequently, because of the preference for males generally, or at least for first born, sex detection actually increases the omnipresent bias for the masculine, sex choice being therefore a clear “path to femicide” (Farrell, 1989: 128).
Since September 11, 2001, an abundance of literature on Islam and Muslim societies has also led to increased analysis of ‘honor killings’ within these societies. Though very rarely labelled specifically as acts of femicide in mainstream literature or press, some authors have chosen to use this lens of analysis to highlight the femicidal nature of these acts and the ways in which legal systems that deal with such crimes actually work in favor of the perpetrator. In an analysis of the Palestinian legal system, Shalhoub-Kevorkian, for example, analyses six case of femicide and the way in which they were dealt with. She concludes that the legal double standard with respect to sexual morality means that women-victims of male violence are blamed for having brought dishonor on their family, whereas the men that commit these crimes are invariably given reduced sentences or simply asked to pay fines (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2002: 580). Interestingly, whereas the intended meaning of Femicide as defined by Russell and Radford as “the misogynous killing of women by men”, one of the cases used as an illustration in this article actually describes the honor killing of a woman by another woman in the family. While this could be ascribed to the patriarchal structure of the society which dictates that honor killings are even necessary, it is questionable whether such an evolution stays true to the initial intended meaning of the term, or whether it veers closer to simply being ‘homocide’.
Debates about Femicide
According to Russell and Radford, the term itself goes beyond the desire to name a crime, and aims to actually inspire resistance to the multiple faces of femicide. As a political, philosophical or potential legal term, however, it lacks the rigueur of some of the other concepts in the field such as genocide, and risks being used to designate any negative action involving women, thereby diffusing its strength and undermining its purposes. Indeed, it is questionable to what extent one term which covers such a wide range of practices in a variety of different cultures, can be legitimately used without harming culturally-specific attempts to define and then counteract damaging social practices. Lastly, the claim made by Radford and Russell that most murders by women are in self-defense or represent a desperate attempt at self-preservation seems to lend support to the questionable belief that women are innately less violent than men.
FARRELL, Susan A. (1989), Reviewed Work(s): “Man-Made Women: How New Reproductive Technologies Affect Women” by Gena Corea; Renate Duelli Klein; Jalna Hanmer; Helen B. Holmes; Betty Hoskins; Madhu Kishwar; Janice Raymond; Robyn Rowland; Roberta Steinbacher, Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 1, 127-128.
RUSSELL, Diana E H. and Radford, Jill, 1992, Femicide, the politics of woman killing, Buckingham, Open University Press
SHALHOUB-KEVORKIAN, Nadera, 2002, “Femicide and the Palestinian Criminal Justice System: Seeds of Change in the Context of State Building?” Law & Society Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, 577-606.