Posts tagged ‘women and violence’

January, 2014

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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January, 2014

Gender justice 2: Female suicide bombers

Herj Marway

Herjeet Marway

In yesterday’s blog, Heather started the discussion on gender justice by posing the question, are women human yet? The suggestion was that, unfortunately, this couldn’t yet be answered in the affirmative; women continue to be doubly disadvantaged (they are afflicted by the same conditions men face and, in addition, are harmed specifically as women) and are still often regarded differently to men (while dominant men in the workplace are caricatured as ‘assertive’, dominant women are ‘bitches’, and the like

512px-Adult_Female_Black_Widow HerjMarway 14 Jan

It is claims of the second sort in particular that root some of my research into women and violence. I focus on how violent behaviour is often associated with men (when we think about violent crime and paedophiles and domestic abusers, many of us automatically assume the perpetrator is a man). Yet women are violent too (just recently there have been reports on female gang members, murderers  , child abusers , and even – so the internet tells me! – a storyline on an abusive relationship in Coronation Street .

A more extreme case of female violence that I look at is that of the suicide bomber, of which there are also numerous examples, including one just a few months ago in Russia. Since women are not expected to be violent, there are usually excuses or justifications presented about the bombers – they were coerced, manipulated, deranged, bereaved . Though male bombers can be attributed similar ‘reasons’, violence is within the suite of possible male behaviour and so suicide bombing is regarded as a possible (albeit extreme) act for men to carry out (Eager, 2008). But, as women are considered far more passive, all these ‘reasons’ end up perpetuating the myth of the non-violent ‘nature’ of women (Elshtain, 1995; Sjoberg, 2010). Moreover, they do so by detracting from the women’s agency (their ability to act upon the world) (Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007) and autonomy (their capacity for self-governance). In other words, these labels cast the female bombers as incapable of carrying out violence, and this in part sustains the view that only men can be violent (‘she can’t really have wanted to be a bomber – because women are peaceful – and only did it because she was coerced/manipulated/deranged/bereaved’).

You might think why is it so important that women be considered capable of violence? One reason is because of the concerns around whether women are persons yet. Women are often regarded not as subjects or agents but – as Simone de Beauvoir put it – as ‘other’ (characterised in opposition to men). In the non-violent example above, since assertiveness is recognised as a male trait rather than a female – or better – a neutral one, any attempt by a woman to be bullish is rationalised (she’s a ‘bitch’ or not feminine); in short, neither a man nor a ‘proper’ woman. Derogatory labels that ‘explain’ assertiveness by a woman will continue if we don’t challenge false assumptions about what women (and men) can and should be. Likewise, in cases of violent women, the women are not-men (who can ‘legitimately’ be violent) and not-women (since they’re not peaceful); neither persons nor women. If we care about moving away from gendered stereotypes like these then rectifying who we perceive to be violent actors deserves our attention.

In my work, I aim to go a little way towards this goal by exploring models of autonomy and devising better ways of capturing self-rule. In particular, I reject the ‘liberal’ notion of autonomy that depends on a detached and disconnected understanding of the self and favour a ‘relational’ approach that is based on an attached and connected self. I demonstrate ways in which all persons are constrained, including female suicide bombers but also the New York banker, as well as you and I, and that relational autonomy more persuasively recognises this for everyone and so can better recognise it for the bombers too. In sum, the claim is that men and women, rich and poor, white and black – not just some people – are limited in various ways and their autonomy is limited too, but this does not mean they are not self-governing. In so doing, we can start to redress incorrect assumptions about all of us.

Useful links:

Female Suicide Bombers: recognising media’s gendered descriptions of women’s violence- Merkel

Female suicide bombers: A global trend? – Bloom

Suicide Bombers as Women Warriors- Berkowitz

Male and Female suicide bombers different sexes, different reasons? – Jacques & Taylor

Female suicide bomber blamed for Russian blast

Black widow suicide bomber strikes at Russian Station- Ruggio

Female suicide bombers- dying for equality?

The mind of a female suicide bomber- Ghosh

Image Source

Image: Black Widow Spider: By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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