Analysis: The Continuum of Misogynist Violence
Every 11 minutes, a woman or girl somewhere in the world is killed by a male family member or intimate partner. These killings occur on the grounds of customs and ideologies that centre men and marginalize women — that are, in other words, androcentric — and that are energized by incremental actions and attitudes that begin with language and end with femicide.
What is femicide?
Some researchers understand femicide as any killing of a woman. However, other scholars recognize that not all killings in which the victim is female necessarily constitutes a femicide, which they define as a murder that happens specifically on the basis of sex or gender. Simultaneously, they recognize that femicide is not taken seriously as a sexed crime and that the legal system’s perspective must adapt to help women as a politico-social class.
Common indicators of a femicide include the killing of a woman by a male partner or family member, the killing of a woman for honour-based reasons, or the death of a woman resulting from abuse-induced health conditions or suicides. Femicides are committed in accordance with or result from androcentric notions of control and power — for instance, the need to correct or punish “unacceptable” female behaviour.
The continuum of misogyny
One can understand misogyny as a continuum of violence. On one end of the continuum, the use of misogynistic pejoratives or slurs like “bitch” is widespread. On the other end is the cultural normalization of and desensitization to sexualized physical violence like rape and femicide. Rape and femicide represent the tip of the “feminist iceberg” — the most publically observable instances of a much larger assemblage of misogynist practices. Incidents at the less overtly violent end of the continuum can escalate until they manifest in physical violence. Even when they do not themselves escalate, they contribute to an environment that fosters misogynist violence more generally.
Language precedes action, and there are hundreds more pejorative terms for women than men in English. Among the most common imply sexual depravity and intellectual inferiority. The ubiquity of such words in everyday conversation permeates the collective conceptualization of women, ultimately dehumanizing and objectifying them. Researchers link dehumanization to heightened aggression, and when someone denies a person their human uniqueness or nature, they are easier to target sexually and violently. Ultimately, dehumanization relegates women — in an unevenly racialized way — to the role of sexual objects, thereby justifying sexual violence against them.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights illuminates the problem of the continuum in Canada. The rise in woman-hating content across social media — known altogether as the “manosphere” — inspired Canada’s most recent misogynist-terrorist attack. The perpetrator engaged with so-called “incel” content online prior to his attack and stabbed a female victim with a sword inscribed with “thot slayer.” “Thot” is a pejorative for women — often a racialized one — that hints towards promiscuity.
Dehumanizing linguistics and symbols might not directly cause a rape or femicide, but they permeate other realms of culture that then further impact a collective view of women which fosters the escalation of misogynist violence. For instance, the use of such pejoratives and slurs presented in easily accessible media like pornography — which not only draws on but adds to misogynistic dialect — pairs with imagery of men aggressively sexually dominating women. This connects the language with idealized action, solidifying it as a normal dynamic.
The continuum also includes overt discrimination. Androcentric ideas purport that women are less intelligent than their male counterparts which are part of sexist practices like hiring discrimination, wage gaps, and resource asymmetry — elements that are further affected by age, class, race, and sexual orientation.
The continuum of femicide
There is also a continuum of different kinds of femicides: those that involve individual men who murder their female partners for leaving them; those in which one or more men kill groups of women for “disobeying” dress codes or other arbitrary mores; and those where a preference for male children results in the killing or death from neglect of millions of girls and female babies. Noting the continuum of femicide alongside the continuum of misogyny is important because it illustrates femicide as a sexed — not cultured — problem and rejects the notion that certain cultures are inherently more prone to violence against women.
The nature of VAW in Canada and how it illuminates root causes
Canada is not exempt from the alarming global rates of violence against women. In 2021, we saw the seventh consecutive year with an increase in reported intimate partner violence and the fifth showing the same for family violence mostly targeting women and girls.
Women living in rural areas face 75% more IPV than women living in urban areas, and Indigenous women face 25% more IPV than non-Indigenous women. This suggests two fundamental problems: economic conditions exacerbating VAW and media coverage. Industrialization offers more modes of communication and more access to healthcare resources for those living in urban areas. This means that both rural women and Indigenous women in any setting are more isolated from a larger community and don’t have as easy access to potential resources of aid.
Evidently, there is an interplay regarding violence against women and the additional roles they inhabit as minorities. Indigenous women in Canada receive three and a half times less media coverage when missing or murdered. When they are covered, they are afforded less detail and sympathy. This points to a reproduction and maintenance of colonial violence that pushes Indigenous women even further to the margins, thereby dehumanizing them on more than one axis.
Violence against women in the media is already portrayed dishonestly — most notably, by unjustly framing domestic and intimate partner violence either as mutual or in ways that blame the victim. Scholars have suggested that such media coverage is simply traditional anti-woman narratives displayed through a false lens of objectivity. If this is indeed the case, the effects are even more detrimental for Indigenous women, who must battle media portrayal that is both misogynistic and anti-Indigenous. Aboriginal feminist Celeste Liddles, who is based in the Australian context, says that “[her] experience of structural forms of oppression was heightened due to these intersecting forms of oppression, and are particularly acute due to being of a working class background.”
Many women fear if they leave their partner, he will turn his physical violence against their children, so they stay in the relationship longer than they otherwise would. Others face financial abuse or a lack of adequate resources to leave, depending on their male partner to survive. To prevent these women from facing prolonged violence, governments must implement specific policies to address these material problems. Allocating resources to child care and a universal basic income are strategies many economists and professionals advocate because they would have broad social benefits. But these measures also have the potential to alter abusive dynamics. When women have guaranteed access to independence, this lessens the burden of leaving.
Cultural and larger-scale measures
Fighting femicide and violence against women must begin with understanding women as human. This means reforming the most fundamental elements of communication: language and symbols. We must eliminate misogynistic slurs from our everyday language altogether.
Reconstructing the collective understanding of violent relationships is also critical. Official systems categorize and narrativize physical violence in a way that isolates it from the larger context within which it occurs. When a man kills a woman or girl it is recorded as a homicide or suicide without consideration to the contributing factors of death. Researchers found that patients in a hospital who were victims of domestic violence were more likely to die from assault, poisoning, and suicide, whereas other patients were more likely to die from various cancers — this points to the health consequences and deaths that result from domestic violence that might not be connected with abuse if one were to look only at criminal justice administrative data and illuminates the limitations of the law and highlights the need for legal reform. We must also understand these relationships as processual and escalating — just as there is a continuum of misogyny, so relationships that begin with mild misogyny will often progress to physical violence.
While femicide is a persistent and increasing problem, there are things we can do. From legal reform, to increased child care and social welfare support, to better data collection, to ongoing challenges to misogynist language and symbols, we can collectively begin to address the root causes of femicide.
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