Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D.
Origin of Femicide

THE ORIGIN AND IMPORTANCE OF THE TERM FEMICIDE

December, 2011

(For a video of Diana presenting this speech, please visit her Audio and Video Page.)

     I first heard this word 37 years ago in 1974 when a friend in London told me that she had heard that a woman in the United States was planning to write a book titled "Femicide".  I immediately became very excited by this new word, seeing it as a substitute for the gender-neutral word "homicide." 

     I first used the term femicide in public when I testified to the approximately 2,000 women from 40 countries who attended the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, in Brussels, Belgium, in 1976. Here is a photo of the female-only participants attending this groundbreaking global speak-out, some of whom also testified about other crimes against women.  We, the organizers, used the term "crimes" to refer to any and all forms of patriarchal and sexist oppression of females.

     Belgian feminist Nicole Van de Ven and I compiled a book about this event, including all the testimony, which we titled Crimes Against Women: The Proceedings of the International Tribunal, which was published in 1976. Used copies of this book are still available on Amazon.com. 

     Incidentally, when I finally discovered that Carol Orlock was the author who had planned to write a book on femicide, but had never done so, she told me that she couldn't recall how she had defined femicide.  She also expressed delight that I had succeeded in resurrecting this term that now promises to eventually raise global awareness of the misogynist character of most murders of women and girls, as well as mobilizing women to combat these lethal hate crimes against us.

     When I testified about femicide at the International Tribunal, I defined it implicitly as a hate killing of females perpetrated by males.  For example, I stated that:

"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 so-called honor, we realize that femicide has been going on a long time."

     Just as murders targeting African Americans and/or other minority groups, are differentiated by those that are racist and those that are not, so must murders targeting females be differentiated by those that are femicides and those that are not.  When the gender of the victim is irrelevant to the perpetrator, the murder qualifies as a non-femicidal crime. 

     After making minor changes in my definition of femicide over the years, I finally defined it very simply as "the killing of females by males because they are female."  I'll repeat this definition: "the killing of females by males because they are female."  I use the term "female" instead of "women" to emphasize that my definition includes baby girls and older girls.  However, the term femicide does not include the increasingly widespread practice of aborting female fetuses, particularly in India and China.  The correct term for this sexist practice is female feticide

     Examples of femicide include the stoning to death of females (which I consider a form of torture-femicide); murders of females for so-called "honor;" rape murders; murders of women and girls by their husbands, boyfriends, and dates, for having an affair, or being rebellious, or any number of other excuses; wife-killing by immolation because of too little dowry; deaths as a result of genital mutilations; female sex slaves, trafficked females, and prostituted females, murdered by their "owners", traffickers, "johns" and pimps, and females killed by misogynist strangers, acquaintances, and serial killers.

     There is a continuum of femicides ranging from one-on-one sexist murders, e.g., a man strangling his wife because she plans to leave him; to one or more males killing a group of women for, say, refusing to wear the correct attire in public; to the other end of the continuum, for example, mass femicides such as when preference for male children results in the killing, or death from neglect, of millions of female babies and girls, as in India and China.

     My definition of femicide also includes covert forms of the killing of females, such as when patriarchal governments and religions forbid women's use of contraception and/or obtaining abortions.  Consequently, millions of pregnant women die every year from botched attempts to abort their fetuses.  And when promiscuous AIDS-infected males continue to feel entitled to have sex with their wives, girl friends, and/or prostituted women and girls, their sexist behavior causes the death of millions of these women and girls.  So do AIDS-infected males who refuse to wear condoms to protect their female sex partners and the females whom they rape, including the common practice in parts of Southern Africa where many males rape babies -- including their own daughters -- believing that these barbaric acts will cure them of AIDS.  Hence, I consider AIDS resulting in the deaths of females to be a form of mass femicide.

     Some people might wonder why I decided to use the invented word femicide instead of some other term like gender-discriminatory-murders.  First of all, gender discrimination is not specific about which gender is a victim of discriminatory murder.  In addition, the prefix "fem" connotes female, and "icide" connotes killing -- as in terms like homicide, suicide, genocide, patricide, matricide, infanticide.  More importantly, the excitement I felt when I first heard the new word femicide caused me to intuit that other feminists would likely share my response.

     Just as U.S. Professor Catharine MacKinnon's invention of the new feminist term sexual harassment was necessary before laws against these crimes could be formulated, so I believed that inventing a new term for sexist/misogynist killings of females was necessary for feminists to start organizing to combat these heretofore neglected lethal forms of violence against women and girls.  Still today in the United States, where rates of violence against women are extremely high, most feminist organizations set up to combat violence against women, continue to ignore the most extreme form of it, that is, the murder of women. 

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     When I was invited to speak at a seminar on femicide in Juarez, Mexico, in December 2004, I discovered that well-known Mexican feminist scholar and Congresswoman Marcela Lagarde who is the shorter woman on my left in this photo, had been inspired by my co-edited book published in 1992, titled, Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing  to adopt this term.  However, she chose to translate the term femicide into Spanish as feminicidio.

     I believe that it was largely thanks to Lagarde's determined efforts that the terms femicide and feminicidio -- which is more often shortened to feminicide, became widely adopted in Mexico, and then spread to several other Latin American countries.  Adoption of this term typically motivated feminists in these countries to create anti-femicide organizations to try to combat these lethal misogynist crimes.  Thanks to the activism of many of these feminists, eight countries in Latin America have succeeded in pressuring their patriarchal governments to pass laws against femicide. 

     Lagarde specifically asked my permission to translate my term femicide into feminicidio.  She also requested my permission to arrange for Spanish translations of both of my co-edited books on femicide -- the second one of which was published in 2001, and which is titled Femicide in Global Perspective. I was delighted at that time to grant Lagarde's requests.

     However in 2005, Lagarde decided to change her definition of feminicidio.  Because virtually all the femicides perpetrated in Juarez were, and still are, treated with impunity by the Mexican government and police, she added this factor to her definition. 

     While Lagarde is certainly correct about the impunity issue, I am critical of her adding this factor to her definition of feminicidio.

     Why? you may be wondering.

     Here are my main reasons:

     First, because it means that in those cases where femicide perpetrators are arrested and imprisoned, these crimes are no longer considered feminicides. 

     Second, because while this impunity may also be common in many other countries, this is not always the case.  Many femicides in the United States and England, for example, are prosecuted, and many of the prepetrators are sentenced and incarcerated.  It is preferable to define femicide or feminicide in a way that can be used globally.

     Third is that I dislike using a term that resembles the oppressive concept femininity.  While this criticism may only apply to English speakers, this includes massive numbers of individuals in the world, including those for whom it is a second language.

     Fourth is the unfortunate fact that intense conflicts have developed between many of the feminists in Latin America who have adopted the term feminicide and those who have adopted the term femicide.  For example, when I delivered several speeches at a conference on feminicide in El Savaldor in 2008 after the director swore to me that her organization used my definition of femicide -- I subsequently learned that while the members of other organizations in this country that used the term feminicide had been invited to attend, the members of another organization that used the term femicide had not been invited.  This experience highlights how the solidarity that should ideally exist between feminists working to combat the same misogynist murders of females has been destroyed by the competition that has developed in Latin America between feminists who have chosen to use one or the other of these terms.

     Ever since this disappointing experience, I have become distressed when the term feminicide is used rather than femicide.  And I become even more distressed when Lagard claims that she coinded the term.  If I hadn't used and deceminated the term femicide by speaking and publishing books about it, there would be no such term, including feminicide!

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     I'd like to begin my conclusion by quoting a slightly edited version of a paragraph of the testimony on femicide that I delivered at the International Tribunal in 1976.  These words followed my reading descriptions of 17 examples of femicides that had occurred recently in San Francisco, in the Unites States -- where men's murders of their wives are by far the most frequent form of femicide.

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 event.  Men tell us that they cannot be blamed for what a few maniacs do.  Yet the very process of denying the politics of this form of terrorizing women helps to perpetuate it, keeps us weak, vulnerable, and fearful.  These are the twentieth century witch burnings.  The so-called "maniacs" who commit these atrocities are acting out the logical conclusion of the woman-hatred which pervades all the patriarchal cultures in the world. 

     More recently, increasing numbers of male leaders in several countries order their armies and supporters to perpetrate mass rape-and-mutilation femicides as a deliberate strategy in their patriarchal wars.  If increasing numbers of women and our male allies don't succeed in organizing effective strategies against femicide, the already epidemic prevalence of femicides in almost all countries will escalate even more.

     We must demand that the United Nations recognize that large numbers of males are engaged in a war against women and girls in which many of us are terrorized into submission.  National and international efforts must be made to assist feminists in ending this war -- including by implementing severe punishments for the millions of perpetrators of femicide, just as the perpetrators of genocide are prosecuted for their murderous acts.

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