Feminicide, misogynist terrorism and extraordinary courts: France tackles women’s murder by men

For the last few weeks, French newspapers have started using the word «feminicide» to address the killing of women and girls. In France, every 2.5 days, a woman is murdered by her partner. 77 women have been killed between January 1st and July 15th 2019. Voices everywhere in the country have demanded change. They point to the inefficiency of the French government in its attempt to protect women against men’s violence. While some feminist organizations ask for legal recognition of feminicide as a gender hate crime, with the creation of a special court, an approach adopted in Spain 15 years ago,others prefer to stick to «ordinary law» to effectively prosecute and punish those crimes. They argue that the already comprehensive criminal apparatus would be efficient enough to tackle violence against women, if it were used correctly. The public opinion questions its criminal legal system, wondering what is the best judicial forum to prosecute, judge and repair the crime of feminicide? How to prevent those crimes? What legal apparatus will later fully grant reparation to the victims and victims’ family?

From the European witch-hunting in the 15th 16th and 17th centuries to the Chinese traditional biases against women combined with the strict “one-child” policy leading to the almost systematic abortion of female fetuses, to the dowry crimes of girls in India, to domestic violence resulting in the mass murder of women by male partners, feminicide is a phenomenon as old as patriarchy. It was first used by the women’s rights activist Diana E. H. Russel, in «Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing », to explain the misogynist killing of women by men. Jill Radford thenbegan using the term in her classes during the eighties at the University of Teeside, defining feminicide as the misogynous killing of women by men. Today, misogyny, stigmatization of women and the belief that women’s bodies are disposable are seen as serving to justify killing women. 

The two most commonly cited examples of feminicide occurred in Mexico and Canada. In Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez,  since 1993 approximately 500 women and girls have been murdered; the large majority of these crimes remain unsolved). In Canada, on December 6th 1989 Marc Lépine stormed into the School of Engineering of the University of Montréal, separated women from men, and opened fire on the women, shouting “You’re all fucking feminists.”

UN Women France is currently working on an advocacy campaign aiming to change the French criminal law by introducing the crime of feminicide that would be judged in a special court, with a distinctive prosecution, special prosecutors and judges following the model of the judicial system of Latin America and Spain. The philosophy behind this campaign is that when the «ordinary law » and ordinary courts have failed to effectively prosecute crimes, when the feeling of impunity has risen, the State must create an «extraordinary juridiction» to tackle those crimes. A special court is necessary when the State has failed to effectively prosecute a crime, and therefore has created a feeling of impunity. 

To support this philosophy, some describe feminicide as «misogynist terrorism», taking into account the extreme violence of the crimes and the hateful ideological discourses that support them. Whether it is a husband murdering his wife attempting to escape from his control or Alek Minassian, a man who believed that women unjustly denied sex to him and plowed a rental van through a Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 women, in every case, those men believe that women owe them obedience and that women are inferior to men.  This is the core of misogynist hateful violent ideology.  As terrorism is considered by the society and the legal system as an «extraordinary crime» which needs to be prosecuted in front of an extraordinary court, prosecuted feminicide should follow the same procedure.

In 2004 Spain reformed its criminal court system to bring down domestic violence; it created 106 specialized courts and a distinctive prosecution. As a result, from 2003 to 2018, the rate of Spanish women killed by their husband annually has dropped from 71 to 43. In addition to legal measures, the Spanish law targets victim support (emergency telephone numbers, social centres for assistance of victims and their children, free specialized juridical assistance, special financial assistance and employment help), administrative measures (specialized corps of the Local police and the “Guardia Civil” with agents trained for dealing with domestic violence cases, a national observatory of the violence against women in charge of the statistical follow up, in order to analyse the effect of the new laws on Spanish society) and the education of the Spanish society. In recent years, France has developed a similar but incomplete  approach. Incomplete in that these means are rarely used by police, judges, or prosecutors and therefore become inadequate. In the last case of feminicide in France, the woman went to the police the night before, fearing for her life, did not get the assistance needed and required by law: and was murdered the following day.

The judicial system cannot transform societal behavior by itself: it is neither its role, nor is it in its power. The role of the criminal judge is to judge, nothing more. It can contribute to repair prejudice against victims, protect society and rehabilitate the criminal who served his sentence. The law and the administration of justice cannot guarantee the establishment of societal peace, nor can it carry by itself the responsibility of transforming the mentality of the society. It can, however, give a framework for people to maintain respect in society, to provide moral redress to victims, restore their personal dignity and allow them to be recognized as victims by the rest of society. In that regard, the full recognition of feminicide will contribute to righting and writing the narrative of women killed by men. Women’s lives matter. 

(Photo Credit: France Culture / Denis Meyer / Hans Lucas / AFP)

About Mailys Ardit

Mailys Ardit is a French international lawyer, who has worked in feminist NGOs and IOs. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.