Counting violence against women

Treating acts of fatal male violence as 'isolated incidents' both downplays the frequency with which women are murdered by men, and ignores the underlying dynamics of patriarchy.

Harriet Williamson
13 November 2015

On 1st November, protesters gathered outside a museum in East London dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who murdered numerous women in the Whitechapel area in 1888. Those protesting included members of Fourth Wave and a faction of Class War, an anti-austerity anarchist group, the Women’s Death Brigade.

Speaking to Broadly, organizer Sufei Lu said “we were promised a women's museum, and then when it opens, it celebrates a man who murdered women. It's like a sick joke. Then we found out they were organizing a Halloween event where you were encouraged to take selfies with the body of Catherine Eddowes [one of the Ripper's victims]. Who wants to take a selfie next to someone who's been violently murdered?"

Could anything be more profoundly disrespectful to women who were murdered by a violent misogynist than for them to be used as selfie props on Halloween? When the museum proposal was accepted, it was given the green light on the basis that it would celebrate the social history of women who had lived in the local area. However, it opened to the public as something very different, and women’s groups were quick to point out that a serial killer who disemboweled and mutilated sex workers is not the ideal candidate for celebration in a new cultural attraction.

Jack the Ripper expert Russell Edwards told the Telegraph that “what the museum does is perpetuate the myth of Jack the Ripper. Is it really doing the public good? Especially considering they set up a museum to highlight the women in Whitechapel at the time, which is by far the more important thing.” The distasteful spectacle of the Ripper museum’s Halloween selfie gimmick is all the more crass when we consider that by 30th September, 97 women had been killed by men in 2015, one every 2.8 days. As I write this, it’s certain that the number of female victims of fatal male violence will now have surpassed 100.

un women brazil.jpg

UN Women Brazil mural, Rio de Janeiro, December 15th 2014. UN Women via Flickr.

Karen Ingala Smith started what would become the Counting Dead Women project in 2012. It began quite accidentally, while she was searching for news about the murder of a young woman in Hackney, where the non-profit organization nia that Ingala Smith is CEO of is situated.  “Even though I’ve been working in women’s services since 1990, I was shocked by the number of murders of women that I came across and I just started a list of their names so that I could count them.  In the end it turned out that in the first three days of that year, 8 British women had been killed by men: 3 shot, 2 stabbed, 1 strangled, 1 smothered and one beaten to death through 15 blunt force trauma injuries. Then, the simple explanation is once I’d started, I didn’t feel like I could stop.  At what point do you say ’the next woman killed isn’t important enough’?” Counting Dead Women has now recorded and named every woman killed by a man in the UK since 2013.

Ingala Smith has long argued that if we record the killing of women by men, we will see a disturbing pattern emerge. She told me “I wanted to make sure the scale of the problem of men’s fatal violence was understood. I also wanted to challenge the notion that what we’re seeing is a series of so-called isolated incidents because if we don’t make the connections, we’ve no chance of comprehending the multi-level of social change that we need to end men’s violence against women.”

The ‘isolated incident’ narrative is one of the most misleading notions about fatal male violence. There were 144 women killed by men in 2013 and 149 in 2014. If a similar number of people in the UK were killed every year by Muslims, for example, the press would be very quick to establish a pattern. The word ‘terrorism’ would be used and a dedicated task force employed with urgency. When Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, after posting numerous hate-filled rants on YouTube about women not providing him with the sex he was entitled to, no one used the word ‘terrorism’. The major media outlets in the US did not make links to overall stats regarding misogynistic violence, or reference the particular race and culture of Rodger, as they almost certainly would have had he been a person of colour.  

Referring to the murders of women by relatives or intimate partners as merely ‘domestic’ incidents trivializes and normalizes them. The tendency for us to consider occurrences of fatal male violence as ‘isolated incidents’ not only downplays the frequency with which women are murdered by men, but it also represents a denial of the impact of patriarchal conditioning.

Systems of oppression often work in insidious ways, and patriarchy is no different, perpetuating the narrative that women are the weaker sex, open to control and ownership by the men around them. It insists that men are ‘owed’ sex by women, as Elliot Rodger was adamant in his YouTube diatribes. It ensures that men are often protected by public opinion and legal rulings, like Oscar Pistorius who shot Reeva Steenkamp four times through their bathroom door, but only served a sixth of his paltry five year sentence.  It teaches us that some women are worth more than others, leading to an increased risk of murder and male violence for sex workers, disabled women, and trans women.

The death of Steenkamp is a tragic example of male violence, but it’s disturbing to note that her murder as an attractive white woman is given much more attention than the death of a black woman in South Africa. The patriarchy too often divides women into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims, opening the door to judgements about a woman’s sex life, education, career, lifestyle, and physical appearance, and allowing the public and the judicial system to view some women as complicit in or to blame for the violence perpetrated against them.

Speaking to Vice, Professor Russell Dobash, a criminologist at the University of Manchester, concurred that “the real issue is the sense of entitlement in masculine culture which is so prevalent”. If men were not taught that they are entitled to women and their physical bodies, would they extinguish the life from female bodies in such disturbing numbers? Paul Daly wrote for The Guardian that “men assault, rape and kill women and their children because they think they have a right to”.

An understanding of rape culture is highly pertinent to this issue. Men who rape women do so largely out of a sense of entitlement. They do it because they know their victims are unlikely to be believed, because the responsibility for the crime is often placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose sexual and personal histories are dragged through the mud in a disingenuous attempt to explain why the crime took place. Rape cases are also complicated by the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ myth, when most women are assaulted by those known to and close to them, just as the ‘isolated incident’ narrative clouds the issue of fatal male violence.

Karen Ingala Smith believes that the increased reporting of domestic and sexual violence is not exclusively a positive step. “We’ve seen a huge change in how domestic and sexual violence are responded to over the last few decades. But what we’ve also seen is the mainstream take-up, the male-stream take-up, of what was initially the preserve of feminist and survivors (not mutually exclusive) and whilst that could and should be a good thing, the issues have often had the feminist analysis washed right out of them.” Feminist analysis and recognition of the misogyny inherent in male on female violence is key to comprehending this crisis and ultimately resolving it. We cannot lay all the blame at the feet of law enforcement and judicial services when our society continues to instil in boys and young men the belief that they are subjective ‘takers’ and masters of their own destiny, while women are objects to be acted upon. 

Our current government is determined to further degrading the lot of women in Britain, a fact that makes the recent Independent piece calling for ‘respect’ for Tory feminists even more misguided, given what the Tories stand for with regard to gender issues. Dr Louisa Cox, chair of the women’s charity Eaves says “we have seen a 70% increase in demand for services in the first six months of 2015 compared to the last six months of 2014. Yet, not only have we not seen a corresponding increase in funding; but, on the contrary, only cuts and closures across the specialist women’s sector”.  Between the toxicity of a patriarchal culture and a government that continues to slash and burn its way through women’s services, it’s more important than ever that we start joining the dots to see the connections across all forms of male violence against women, including non-fatal violence. We need to view male on female violence as the mass atrocity that it is, focussing on a societal-level injustice and tragedy rather than individual acts by damaged or ‘evil’ men.

Two women are murdered by current or former partners every week in the UK. This statistic is tired and often repeated but it is real. The Counting Dead Women project and the Femicide Census give faces and names to these women. The problem is of epidemic proportions and our response should reflect this. If we care at all about our mothers and daughters and sisters and partners, we as a society must urgently face up to unpleasant truths about victim blame, about misogyny, and about collective blindness. 

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