Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D.
Defining Femicide

 

DEFINING FEMICIDE

 

Speech given at the UN Symposium on Femicide: A Global Issue that Demands Action

Vienna, Austria: November 2012

 

 

My Warmest Greetings to all of you!

 

Being here with you today is one of the most thrilling experiences in my life. Having struggled for more than 37 years to advocate for the importance of the adoption of the term femicide in the United States and other countries, I had never imagined that I would have the honor to address a United Nations Symposium on Femicide in my life time.

 

Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, emphasized in her Summary Report of an expert group meeting on October 12, 2011, the importance of adopting a clear definition of femicide in order to carry out effective investigations and prosecutions of these lethal crimes.

 

It is my important task today to provide you with what I consider to be the best definition of femicide to use globally. I shall begin by describing a brief history of this important concept -- which is still unfamiliar to so many.

 

The first time that the term femicide was used in public in the modern age was when I testified about these lethal misogynist crimes at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium in 1976. This was a four-day radical feminist women's speak-out attended by about 2,000 women from 40 countries, which Simone de Beauvoir saluted as "the beginning of the radical decolonization of women."

 

Following are two excerpts of the testimony on femicide that I read at this herstoric event:

 

"We must realize that a lot of homicide is in fact femicide. We must recognize the sexual politics of murder. From the burning of witches in the past, to the more recent widespread custom of female infanticide in many societies, to the killing of women for "honor," we realize that femicide has been going on a long time. But since it involves mere females, there was no name for it before the term femicide was coined."

 

Then I cited a long list of femicides that had recently been reported in the local newspaper in San Francisco, after which I concluded my testimony on femicide as follows:

 

"Men tell us not to take a morbid interest in these atrocities. The epitome of triviality is alleged to be a curiosity about 'the latest rape and the latest murder.' The murder and mutilation of a woman is not considered a political crime (event). Men tell us that they cannot be blamed for what a few maniacs do. Yet the very process of denying the political content of the terror helps to perpetuate it, keeps us weak, vulnerable, and fearful.

 

These are the twentieth century witchburnings. The so-called maniacs who commit these atrocities are acting out the logical conclusion of the woman-hatred which pervades the entire culture.

 

Recently, this has resulted in several pornographic movies whose climax is said to be the actual killing and dismembering of a woman. These so-called "snuff" movies are now being imitated. For example, a movie shown in the U.S. is advertising that it is impossible for audiences to tell whether the killing of the woman is real or not.

 

The women slaughtered in Snuff movies have no names. The names of those I have read out to you today will soon be obliterated. No demonstrations have accompanied them to the grave, no protests rocked the city, no leaflets were passed out, no committees were formed. But today we have remembered them. And tomorrow we must act to stop femicide!

 

As I'm sure you've noticed, this testimony wasn't written in the sort of language that one finds in United Nations documents!

 

It is the language of the women's liberation movements in the United States and some European countries in 1976. Whether or not we are aware of it, we are all greatly indebted to these movements for initiating and pursuing the struggle to combat many different forms of violence and sexual abuse of women and girls.

 

Although my testimony at the International Tribunal didn't provide an explicit definition of femicide, it nevertheless implied that this term refers to the misogynist murders of women and girls.

 

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In 1992, when the term femicide was still virtually unknown, Jill Radford and I defined femicide in our book titled, Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing (p. ) as "the misogynist killing of women by men."

 

Nine years later in 2001, I redefined femicide in my co-edited book titled, Femicide in Global Perspective, as "the killing of females by males because they are female" (p. 3).

 

This remains my definition of femicide today. It is comparable to the definition of racist murders as the killing of people of color by white people because of their race.

 

Thus, according to my definition, murders or killings that are not perpetrated by males because of gender are not femicides: for example:

 

the accidental killings of women or girls by men, or the murders of women by men in which the victims' gender is irrelevant, say, in the course of a robbery, or murders of women by their female partners, I refer to these crimes as murders or homicides.

 

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In support of my definition is the fact that men are the overwhelming majority of killers of women and girls because of their gender. For example, in the most prevalent form of femicide, referred to as intimate partner femicides -- in which males kill their wives and unmarried female partners, research has documented that these murders are typically motivated in whole or in part by sexist or misogynist attitudes.

 

Female-Perpetrated Homicides

 

But, I can hear some of you saying, what about the mothers who kill their female babies due to male-child-preference in China, India, and many other countries?

 

And what about the untrained women whose unhygienic methods of genital mutilation cause the deaths of many young girls in some African countries and Muslim cultures? Note that deaths from genital mutilation are unintended, so murder isn't an appropriate term.

 

These are but two examples of what I call female-perpetrated murders or killings of girls -- and yes, these crimes are also due to the gender of the victims. However, most of these women are acting as agents of males or the patriarchy. For example, men won't marry girls in these cultures who haven't been genitally mutilated. Mothers in male-child-preference countries are at risk of femicide if they don't kill their daughters.

 

I consider some of the women who kill females because of their gender as collaborators, for example, those who assist their sons in committing dowry-related-deaths of their wives. Similarly, some Jews during the holocaust became collaborators with Nazis resulting in the deaths of other Jews. This is a common phenomenon with oppressed peoples.

 

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The Femicide vs. Feminicide Debate

I suspect that many of you here today have also heard of the term feminicide. When I was invited to a Seminar on femicide in Juarez, Mexico, in 2004, that had been initiated by a radical feminist anthropologist and Congresswoman, Marcela Lagarde, she asked me for my permission to translate femicide into Spanish as feminicide -- to which I consented.

 

However, in 2006, Lagarde redefined feminicide, adding the following clause to my 2001 definition of femicide "the impunity with which these crimes are typically treated in Latin America." I understand that Lagarde and her supporters now claim that she coined the term feminicide.*

 

But it's not legitimate to consider the redefinition of a term as constituting coining it. Furthermore, a sound definition must avoid making the definition of the phenomenon being defined, conditional on the reaction to it. So, for example, if a wife-batterer finally kills his wife because she wants a divorce, he would be guilty of femicide. However, if he is arrested and found guilty of this crime, then by Lagarde's definition, he is no longer guilty of feminicide because the case wasn't treated with impunity. This demonstrates why Lagarde's revised definition of feminicide doesn't meet the criterion of a sound definition.

 

Unfortunately, a very destructive conflict has developed in many Latin American countries based on whether feminists there have chosen to adopt the terms femicide or feminicide. The feminists who have adopted feminicide typically refuse to work with those who have adopted femicide, and vice versa. I very much hope that this unfortunate situation won't spread to other countries.

 

For this reason, I was very distressed to read Ms. Manjoo's statement in her United Nations Summary Report that "adopting feminicide in English could prove useful when State accountability was at stake."** I strongly oppose this suggestion, for reasons that are hopefully now obvious. I consider it vitally important to adhere to only one term, namely femicide, regardless of the languages spoken in non-English-speaking countries.

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, although the definition of femicide printed on the program of this Symposium on Femicide is not limited to male perpetrators who kill women and girls because of their gender, I urge whoever is in a position to decide the UN's definition of femicide to consider the rationale I have provided for my definition, and to consider adopting it.

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Footnotes

*See Pamela Munoz Cabrera. Intersecting Violences: A review of feminist theories and debates on violence against women and poverty in Latin America (Central American Women's Network, [CAWN]), 2010, p. 18.

**Rashida Manjoo. Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Submitted to the United Nations General Assembly, August 1, 2011, paragraph 9, p. 4.

 

To see the Symposium Program: UN Symposium on Femicide, Program

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