Gender justice 4: Women and Violence

Professor Heather Widdows


One project which Herj (Tuesday’s blogger) and I are working on together is a book project on ‘Women and Violence’. The idea of the book came from a conference we ran in 2011 which brought together speakers from students to Professors working on the agency of women, particularly violent women. Our concern was – and on similar lines to those with Herj discussed yesterday with regard to female suicide bombers – that when women step outside the norms of what is expected of women then they are marginalised and their voices ignored. Too often their voices, choices, and actions are denied, and women become ‘victims’ – wholly lacking agency, or we present women as ‘fully agents’ and presume that anything is justified as long as the women says ‘I chose to do it’. Our starting point for the conference and what we develop in the book is a rejection of this type of categorising of women.  We think frameworks which have a view of women in advance (victims or full agents) as unhelpful and simply another way of failing to respect women as persons, human beings equal to men.

In the book we explore how to escape this dichotomy – to ‘see’ real women.  As was indicated in the blog on day 1 women are often exploited and oppressed and in positions of ‘desperate choice’ which leaves them with few options, none which you might think of as ‘good choices’. In such constrained circumstances women do have agency, but this is limited by circumstances. Women – like men – make choices which are always constrained by their background, character and opportunities. Our work explores this in the extreme context of women who are violent and who have violence done to them. This includes ‘victims’ of domestic violence and rape, as well as the suicide bombers discussed in Tuesday’s blog.

There is not space here to detail each of the chapters or the authors – you will have to look out for the book, which is coming out later this year – but here are a few tasters:

  • One chapter focuses on rape culture and women’s fear of rape (a real fear). Controversially it argues that rape can’t be addressed by asking women to ‘resist’, but only by changing the attitudes and behaviour of men. In terms of Saving Humans, one can see that this argument is particularly relevant globally thinking of recent high profile gang rape cases in India and the widespread use of rape as a war crime. As discussed in the first blog of the week such use of women as ‘objects’ suggests women may well not be ‘human’ yet!
  • Other chapters make pleas for recognising the expressions of that women have in roles where they are too often dismissed as ‘victims’ – for instance, in situations of domestic violence or when violence is inflicted on sex workers. These chapters argue for ways of recognising the agency that these women do have, without claiming that these choices are wholly agential and equivalent to any other choices.
  • Another chapter argues that the rhetoric surrounding women and pregnancy is hostile to women. On the one hand it often relies on an implicit assumption that pregnant women have reduced agency, despite there being no evidence of this, and uses this claim to control pregnant women. On the other hand, when women who may actually have reduced agency (through severe post-natal depression or puerperal psychosis) harm their babies, they are treated as having full agency and prosecuted as competent agents

Tomorrow will be the last blog of this gender justice week and will focus on my current project – a book on beauty – Perfect Me!

Useful links:

Violent women- a Texas inmates study- Pollock, Mullings & Crouch

Images of violent women in the criminal justice system- Keitner

Violent women: questions for feminist theory- Fitzroy

Reduced to Bad Sex: Narratives of Violent Women from the Bible to the War on Terror- Sjorberg & Gentry

Dramatic portrayals of violence women- Cecil

Young women and gang violence- Miller & Decker

Women are more violent, says study, Independent

‘When she was bad’ Violent women and the myth of innocence: Pearson

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