In Lahore, in Johannesburg, there was no stampede

In the past two days, four women have died in what the press has called `stampedes.’

There was a concert Monday in Lahore, Pakistan. It was organized by a private college. The crowd was mostly young people, college students. At some point after the concert, something happened, the crowd tried to leave, there was only one door and even less organization, and … three young women—Farah Nawaz, Maheen Naseem Abbas, 17 years old, and Sadia Batool—were crushed to death. It’s a common enough occurrence, around the world.

On Tuesday, in South Africa, universities registered students who, for whatever reasons, had missed the earlier registration dates. Often the reason is students come from historically disenfranchised communities where there’s little or no expectation of their successfully pursuing further education. That too is a common enough situation, around the world.

As in past years, the lines were endlessly long, but the number of available slots were finite. Painfully, tragically so. Excitement, tension, anticipation, apprehension, were high. When the gates opened at the University of Johannesburg, the people rushed forward. In the rush, people were injured, and one woman, the mother of a prospective student, was killed. There were many mothers in the crowd, assisting their children. Many mothers, many children were injured. At least 22 are counted as injured, but those are only the visible injuries.

Both incidents, and especially the South African incident, have been widely, even universally, described as stampedes.

What exactly is a `stampede’, and how does a crowd of people, of human beings, morph into a stampede? And why is it the case that women and girls are more often than not those who suffer the violence of so-called stampedes?

Stampede is a relatively new word, and it seems to be a North American invention, another gift the United States has bestowed upon the world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined early in the 1800s. Cowboys in the United States borrowed the Mexican word, estampido, which means crash, explosion, or report of a firearm, and estampida, which means a stampede of cattle or horses. It was an early example of transnational vaquero cowboy culture.

Stampede, or stompado, was a “sudden rush and flight of a body of panic-stricken cattle” or horses. Later, stampede came to mean a “sudden or unreasoning rush or flight of persons in a body or mass”.

At its inception, stampede meant a thundering, powerful, dangerous herd of animals. Today, when referring to people, it means a mass of people who are threatened and in flight. At the beginning, a stampede was about virility, big roaring animals and big riding cowboys.

When people stampeded, that was panic. In fact, the Spanish translation of human stampede is pánico. Panic. Sudden, wild, unreasoning, excessive, at a loss and out of control. And the term for mass panic is hysteria, the women’s condition: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”.  Hysteric: “belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb”.

It doesn’t matter who is trampled in the event called a stampede. What began as an articulation of masculinity, the enraged capacity to destroy all in its path, has become the helpless, or `feminine’, implosion of self. What began as a roar has become somehow a whimper. When you read that a group was in a stampede, know this. Stampede is not a neutral word. Stampede is gendered, and the gender is woman.

There was no stampede in Lahore, there was no stampede in Johannesburg. Words matter. In both instances, educational institutions failed … and women died … again.


(Photo Credit: Adrian de Kock/