Who gets to define femicide?

I’ve been undecided about the use of the term ‘femicide’  to describe the list of names of the UK  women killed through suspected1 male violence.  The term is useful because it takes the concept of fatal male violence against women beyond domestic violence and that’s important, many people’s understanding of the concept of fatal male violence against women stops and ends at women killed through domestic violence.  However, that the term ‘femicide’ in itself fails to name the male as the agent is problematic.  An early definition of femicide as “the killing of females by males because they are females” dealt with this, though there is a convincing argument for the inclusion of women killed by women because of the influence of patriarchal values.

In 2012, the participants of the Vienna Symposium on Femicide agreed the following:

Femicide is the killing of women and girls because of their gender, which can take the form of, inter alia: 1) the murder of women as a result of intimate partner violence; 2) the torture and misogynist slaying of women 3) killing of women and girls in the name of “ honour”; 4) targeted killing of women and girls in the context of armed conflict; 5) dowry-related killings of women; 6) killing of women and girls because of their sexual orientation and gender identity; 7) the killing of aboriginal and indigenous women and girls because of their gender; 8) female infanticide and gender-based sex selection foeticide; 9) genital mutilation related femicide; 10) accusations of witchcraft and 11) other femicides connected with gangs, organized crime, drug dealers, human trafficking, and the proliferation of small arms.

As a list of some of the forms that femicide can take, this is helpful and aids the understanding of femicide as something much wider than domestic violence.  The use of the term ‘inter alia’ meaning ‘among other things’ indicates that even they were not convinced that this included everything.  They’re right, it certainly doesn’t include everything.  The definition fascinates me.  It is 123 words long.  123 words and the words man, men or male do not appear once. The full declaration is over 800 words long.  It mentions men and boys once, in reference to ‘sensitising education programmes’. The argument that femicide can also include the killings of women by women because of the influence of patriarchal values is not so convincing that it warrants the absence of the identification of men as perpetrators in a declaration to take action to end femicide that spans over 800 words. The vast majority of women who are killed, are killed by men, whilst it is also true that the vast majority of killers of men are also men, this cannot warrant the failure to name men as the killers of women.  One of the significant achievements of feminism is getting male violence against women into the mainstream and onto the policy agenda.  One of the threats against this achievement is that those with power take the concepts and under the auspices of dealing with the problem shake some of the most basic elements of feminist understanding right out of them.  The exclusion of male violence from the declaration on femicide is inexcusable.  Inexcusable because failing to name the agent will not help us to end, or even reduce, fatal male violence against women.  Could failing to name men as the agents of femicide be a patriarchal political act?

I’ve written about the murders of 18 year-old Samantha Sykes and 17 year-old Kimberley Frank in other pieces.  It was their murders by Ahmad Otak that convinced me that a list of women killed by men through domestic violence, simply was not enough. Otak wasn’t the boyfriend of either of them, but of Elisa Frank, Kimberley’s sister.  The murders of Samantha and Kimberley don’t fit the definition of domestic violence, but they’re absolutely about a man trying to exert power, control and coercion in his relationship, reports of their murders have stated that he was attempting to show Elisa that he would allow no-one to stand in the way of them being together. The murders of Kimberley and Samantha were every bit about male violence against women, control and coercion through the display of the power to kill.  I doubt anyone would try to say that the murders of Samantha and Kimberley weren’t femicide.

I’ve been challenged about the inclusion of older women killed in the process of robberies and muggings in my work naming the women killed through male violence.  In 2012, six older women, aged between 75 and 88 were killed by much younger men, aged between 15 and 43 as they were robbed or mugged:

Irene Lawless, 68 who was raped, beaten and strangled by 26 year old Darren Martin. Pornography depicting rape and featuring older women was found on his home computer.

Margaret Biddolph, 78 and Annie Leyland, 88 were strangled and robbed by Andrew Flood, 43, who knew them through his job as a taxi driver. He’d also robbed a third woman elderly woman and threatened to kill her cat.  He was clearly targeting women.

Delia Hughes was 85 when she was killed by 25 year-old Jamie Boult. He struck her repeatedly about the head with a hammer, a hammer he was carrying specifically because he intended to kill.  When Boult was sentenced, Delia’s daughter, Beryl said

“I’ve never seen a dead body before. Seeing my mum her head battered, covered in blood, black and blue with bruises, sitting in a pool of blood, blood splattered on the walls, this is a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

The murder of Delia Hughes was not simply a robbery gone wrong.

Similarly, Jean Farrar, 77, was kicked and stamped on by Daniel Barnett, 20, until she was her virtually unrecognisable.  Her  son Jamie was absolutely right when he said 2Daniel Barnett did not need to enter my mother’s house that night. He chose to. Upon finding my mum at home, he easily could have left.  Instead he chose to beat her and throw her against the wall. And when she screamed in pain, he chose to kick her, stamp on her, and jump on her head until she was unable to scream any more.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Jamie Boult and Daniel Barnett’s choices to carry out robberies, that these choices also included choices to inflict fatal violence was not inevitable.

Paula Castle was 85 when she was knocked to the ground when she was mugged by Jiervon Bartlett and Nayed Hoque who were both 15.  They may not have intended to kill her, but they also mugged another woman the next day.  They were clearly targeting women.  

I’ve been told that the killing of elderly women as part of a robbery or mugging is “not femicide”.  I disagree.  These women were killed because they were women.  And if their killings are not femicide, then it is because the term femicide is being misused

Epistemology questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired. The acquisition and identification of what constitutes knowledge does not escape structural inequalities of sex, class and race.  Dr Maddy Coy of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University calls for the recognition of practice-based evidence, for example from specialist women’s organisations, to be considered as expertise as worthy as that of academics.  It’s ‘participant observation’ when it’s produced by an academic, it’s ‘anecdotal’ when it comes from a women’s services provider.  Does the objectification of women and the valuing of us on our merits based on the patriarchal fuckability test mean that it is the murders of elderly women that are those most likely to be excluded from the term femicide?  Women talk about the mixed blessing of becoming invisible as we grow older, is that what has happened with the term femicide?  Has sex inequality, particularly in patriarchally infected academia and state bureaucracies, depoliticised them term ‘femicide’ to the point that male violence has been erased from the concept?  Until the hierarchies of knowledge  are eradicated, then the role of anything considered knowledge in upholding structural inequality, is open to question.

How easy is it to escape socially constructed gender? How many of us, if our values were assessed and measured, would be found not to be influenced – at all – by sexism and sexist stereotypes?  Do we know that the population of men who kill women are not more sexist and misogynistic than a control group? When misogyny and sexism are so pervasive, are all but inescapable, can a man killing a women ever not be a sexist act?  A fatal enactment of patriarchy?

If an 800 word declaration on  femicide is the best that policy makers and ‘experts’ can come up with and yet it does not mention the words ‘male violence’ ,  if it does not name men as the agents and beneficiaries of fatal male violence against women, it is time for feminists to take back the term and make sure that the definition is ours.

Footnotes

 1 I have to say ‘suspected’ until a trial has been held or an inquest in the case of a man who has also killed himself.

2 Credited to   Diana E. H. Russell

 

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