Interview Feminicide@

Christelle Taraud: The feminicide continuum, ‘a war machine directed against women’

To name things is to write their history. It also gives them an existence. An interview with historian Christelle Taraud, on the difference between "feminicide" and "fémicide": the history of a word that is born in Brussels in the 1970s, bears witness to the murders of women in 1980s Mexico, and returns with #MeToo.

Published on 5 March 2024 at 12:19
Christelle Taraud La Decouverte

Christelle Taraud, a French historian and feminist, is a member of the Centre for 19th Century History (Paris 1/Paris 4 - Sorbonne University). A specialist in questions of gender and sexualities in colonial spaces, she is the editor of Féminicides. Une histoire mondiale ("Feminicides. A world history", La Découverte, 2022)

The word feminicide is now widespread. How is it defined?

Christelle Taraud: My own definition of feminicide is "the execution of a woman because she is a woman". The term dates back to 1976, when feminist activists and researchers from some forty different countries met in Brussels and organised the first International Tribunal on Crimes against Women.

A sociologist born in South Africa and living in the United States, Diana E. H. Russell, is credited with the concept of "femicide". Based on the concept of "homicide", femicide consists of killing a woman because she is a woman. However, not all murders of women are femicides, and the patriarchal dimension must be mobilised to attest to this. According to Russell, the hate crime of femicide is in fact the tip of a vast system for crushing women, which can be defined as a global patriarchal system, but takes different forms depending on the period, context and society.

So there’s a difference between femicide and feminicide?

When the activists left Brussels, they took the concept with them. It was quickly acclimatised to some parts of the world (Latin America, the Caribbean, Northern Europe), much less so in others (the United States, Canada, Western Europe).

In Mexico, at the end of the 1980s, there began to emerge what were initially thought to be isolated incidents. On the border with the United States, one of the most dangerous areas in the world – a zone of migration, where extreme forms of capitalism were developing, including subcontracting factories where working conditions were terrible, and where drug cartels were rife, among other things – women began to disappear. Faced with the inaction and victim-blaming of the Mexican police, families demanded accountability, formed groups and attracted the attention of journalists and feminist researchers. It was then that they realised that the concept of "femicide" was unsuitable for describing and analysing the Mexican situation: this was not an individual hate crime, but a massive phenomenon. The term "feminicide" was coined and attributed to the Mexican anthropologist and politician Marcela Lagarde y de los Ríos.

For Lagarde, while femicide is intimately linked to homicide, feminicide is conceived in relation to genocide. 

Lagarde deploys four elements to characterise the phenomenon: feminicide is a collective crime, involving the whole of Mexican society; it is a mass crime (in a "normal" period, there are at least ten feminicides a day in Mexico); it is a State crime. Like other countries, the Mexican state and its institutions (police, justice, prisons) are patriarchal: they blame the victims, refuse to investigate the crimes, and police officers are sometimes even the perpetrators of feminicide. Finally, says Lagarde, this is a crime with genocidal tendencies.

Lagarde didn’t speak of "genocide" at the time. It was the early 1990s, and "Genocide Studies" didn't yet have the status it has today. At the time, the notion of genocide still referred almost exclusively to the Holocaust, and, relatedly, to Judeocide. The 1990s saw the development of studies of other genocides, including from a comparative perspective. This was also the period when the Armenian genocide began to be discussed much more prominently, and when new genocides were taking place in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Lagarde also draws on the concept of 'necropolitics', from the work of Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, and the notion of 'overkill', used in criminology.

What do the concepts of necropolitics and overkill help to clarify?

Almost all the women killed in Mexico whose bodies have been found, enabling even a partial forensic analysis, were killed using a variety of methods: some were beaten and strangled, for example – which is not very common. Or they were subjected to abuse that was not a sufficient cause of death. For example, sexual assault or abuse, such as multiple penetrations, including with blunt objects, or mutilation of the reproductive system and genitals. Or their faces have been destroyed, making identification by facial recognition impossible. Sometimes they have been decapitated, dismembered, burnt with fire or acid.

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This shows that it is not just the physical bodies of these women that have been attacked, but also the identity that these bodies carry. In this case, female identity. This concerns both cisgender and transgender women, because in this large border area, a large number of sex workers, both cisgender and transgender, are killed. Feminicide is therefore a crime of identity-based hatred that is the product of a necropolitics – a politics of death that imposes itself on life – orchestrated by the State with the aim of controlling territories, in this case women.

This is very far from the definition used in France…  and also the majority of European countries. There is no reference to the genocidal character of this phenomenon.  

Very few people, even in feminist circles, have taken an interest in the genealogy of this concept. Public opinion in Western Europe began to use the word "feminicide" without going through the "femicide" stage, unlike in Northern Europe, where the term "femicide" is more commonly used. The term returned with the #MeToo movement, not from the United States but from Latin America, and the two terms were merged.

In France and Europe, we use the term feminicide to describe a femicide. Although I think it's important to know the origin of words – and their history – I'm not particularly attached to the use of one word or the other. I think it's important to name the phenomenon as a whole, which is why I prefer to talk about a "feminicide continuum".

"Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them", Margaret Atwood

As for the genocidal character originally defined by Marcela Lagarde y de los Rios, it is not only applicable to the situation in Mexico or more generally in America. A femicide – albeit part of an undeniable system for crushing women – may be considered an "isolated act", but hundreds of "femicides" make a "feminicide", which is always a mass crime.

Discussions about how to identify and record feminicide exist in France, but also in other European countries. But the fact that they are not counted in the same way makes comparisons on a European scale very difficult. When comparisons are made, there is a great risk that the common denominator will be both the lowest and the least political.

Yet in Italy and Spain, for example, there is talk of "structural violence", which includes feminicide, without considering the genocidal nature of the term.

Absolutely. The problem is scale. That's why I created the concept of the “feminicide continuum”, to show the systemic nature of feminicide. Femicide and feminicide are just the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. The concept of the "feminicide continuum" makes it possible to account for all forms of violence against women, from birth to death.

Feminicide will not be stopped if we do not become aware of what authorises it, namely structural inequalities and the impunity associated with them.

Let me explain. No man starts out as a perpetrator of feminicide. The execution of women emerges as part of a long biography of violence. For a man to kill a woman because she is a woman, he has to be in an environment where violence against women is generally governed by a regime of impunity and where the State – and its institutions – collaborate, actively or passively.

This violence has to be seen as part of a flow that, in my opinion, cannot be ranked in order of importance. Murder is not, in absolute terms, more serious than an insult, because both stem from the same deadly logic. The man who kills a woman will have committed numerous acts of violence beforehand that society considers 'acceptable' – because they are commonplace and trivialised – and will therefore never have been arrested. These acts of violence will have been described as "micro-aggressions".

‘Feminicide will not be stopped if we do not become aware of what authorises it, namely structural inequalities and the impunity associated with them’

And women are often the first to play it down. "I was called a 'dirty whore' again in the street. I didn't say anything because I was in a hurry, I can't be at war all the time, I was scared..." As the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood points out, "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them". Men are used to attacking women by insulting them and touching them without their permission, at school, at work, and in the street. Men are also acclimatised to the culture of incest and rape... At the end of the chain are men who allow themselves to kill women. All this is accentuated by our cultural habits, both legal and illegal, from literature to cinema and straight pornography. It's a war machine directed against women.

What can be done to change this situation?

In the long run, we need to move away from the logic of repression/punishment because it is profoundly patriarchal. The cardinal value of hegemonic masculinity is violence, and this must be constantly emphasised. Moving away from repressive logic, however, must be done not at the expense of the victims – and their families – but with a constant concern for repair, a prerequisite for individual and collective reconstruction.

Increasing prison sentences will not solve the problem, as we know. Especially since repressive policies are often accompanied by culturalist and racist discourses that single out certain men over others. In the 19th century in Europe, white proletarians were stigmatised. Today, it is the racialised new proletariat that is stigmatised. This is all too convenient, avoiding discussion of the violence of the ruling classes and recalling the systemic nature of the "feminicide continuum": all age groups, all ethno-confessional categories, all social backgrounds, and of course, all professions are affected.

In the short term, we must therefore improve the consideration of violence throughout the femicidal continuum: we must believe and protect women. This means a total change of paradigm. Thus, rape is the only crime where the victim must constantly explain themselves: when your mobile phone is stolen, no one seeks to know the conditions under which you were using it. Conversely, for rape victims, the context is questioned, the use of drugs or alcohol, the existence or absence of a partner, how you were dressed, the timeand location...

How do we move from the short term to the long term?

I'm a great believer in women's politics. Obviously, we are not “naturally” benevolent. But our gendered socialisation is very powerful: we are very well domesticated, particularly in terms of care. This makes us more social and sociable beings than men, generally speaking. In this sense, supporting women's politics means promoting a more caring, empathetic and inclusive society.

In my view, this is the only way to produce viable societies. In saying this, I make the link between feminicide and ecocide. Women were the first colonies, because humanity developed when men began to take power over women's wombs. That was the first frontier. All other regimes of power are an extension of this elementary matrix, including racist and capitalist violence. Before there were human societies in the strict sense of the word – before there were castes, classes and races – there was violence against women, from the very beginning of our species.

In partnership with the European Data Journalism Network

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