In late March, France’s Minister for Family, Children, and Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol urged the UN to categorize the horrible crimes of Daesh suffered by Yazidi women as ‘femicide,’ describing the term as “the persecution of women because they are women… [I]t is an intention to wipe out a group.” This request may have headline grabbing appeal but is this a sound academic or indeed, legal, concept and is it useful? Where did the term even come from?
Femicide is referred to by an early pioneer of the term, feminist author Diana Russell, as the killing of females by males because they are females and is a subset of the crime of homicide. The term was broadened to its more inclusive and typo-resembling form, gendercide, and explicitly compared to genocide (as in Minister Rossignol’s plea) in Mary Anne Warren’s book Gendercide: The Implications of Sex Selection. Warren made an analogy between genocide and her concept of gendercide before proceeding to discuss the implications of sex-selective abortion of female fetuses.
The term gendercide became popular due to a Canadian feminist and scholar of comparative genocide, Adam Jones. In his article “Gendercide and Genocide”, Jones lauds the gender-inclusive nature of her term, but roundly criticizes Warren’s elision of male victims in her discussion, which focuses overwhelmingly on women’s victimization. Jones’ controversial piece then becomes an argument for the importance of gender in genocide studies. It is simultaneously an attempt at rescuing the concept of ‘gendercide’ from becoming categorically a woman’s issue, from which men are unfairly excluded, as they too frequently are when it comes to identifying who qualifies as a victim. He makes a leap from Warren’s mere analogy and defines gendercide as “gender-selective mass killing”. He furthermore defines ‘gender’, for the purposes of his text, as biological sex.
This last definition, which has remained uncontested in ‘gendercide’ literature and presumably in the French minister’s definition of ‘femicide’, is glaringly problematic. For one, it erases cases of widespread murder of non-binary genders, such as the practice during the colonization of Turtle Island (North America) of feeding two-spirit (a set of non-Western genders that elude the colonial gender binary) indigenous people to dogs and crocodiles, from consideration and study. Moreover, as Charli Carpenter points out in responding to Jones’ work, the dogged and misguided attachment to politically attractive terms like ‘femicide’ and ‘gendercide’ is actually detrimental to the more important goal of introducing gender as a lens in the study of comparative genocide studies. Firstly, these terms are premised on a confusion of sex and gender.
Sex is a biological distinction, while gender is a social construction that gives meaning to sexual differentiation in humans. By defining gender as biological sex in this instance, it becomes conceptually confusing to discuss how ideas about gender may influence sex-inclusive mass killing. Indeed it is this difficulty that causes Jones to abandon a gender analysis of the Holocaust; according to Jones, as both men and women died “gender was far from a dominant consideration in the Holocaust overall”. It seems difficult to acknowledge within the ‘gendercide’ framework that genocide and mass killing are gendered experiences unless they meet the strict definition of ‘gendercide’.
Furthermore, as Minister Rossignol pointed out, a true ‘femicide’ (or ‘gendercide’) must not simply be the mass killing or persecution of women per se, but doing so because they are women. One might add that the intention, important especially in the legal classification of genocide, must be to destroy that sex in whole or significant part. This is not mere semantics; the variables defining targets in mass killings and atrocities are analytically significant. However, in this instance it is not women as such but women of a particular group (the Yazidis) who are targeted in sex-selective murders, sexual violence, and slavery.
Similarly, witch-hunts did not constitute a genocide against women, but were a genocide against ‘witches’ in the same way as Stalin’s purges were a genocide against the ‘enemies of the people’. Being female in and of itself was not enough to be accused of witchcraft and not all women were accused. The criminal atrocities of Daesh are not a ‘femicide’ or a genocide against women, but rather against Yazidis who happen to be women. In the same way, the Srebrenica massacre was not a genocide against men, but rather a genocide against Bosniaks who happened to be men.
Nevertheless, gender is important in understanding genocide and it, as many other experiences, is fundamentally a gendered one. It is important to acknowledge that not all sex-specific killings are sex-selective, because pre-existing gender structures in a society may make it the case that men are disproportionately soldiers and women disproportionately caregivers, for instance. If one is then targeting soldiers or caregivers as a strategy of genocide it may result in sex-specific atrocities without any particular sex-selectivity at play.
It could also be the case that mass killings and other crimes involved in perpetrating genocide are sex-selective, that is to say that conscious assumptions about men (and masculinity) and women (and femininity) inform the perpetrators’ choice of targets. Men are often killed in genocides because they are considered threats while women are killed or forced into sexual slavery because they are considered objects. Patriarchy, an institution of sex-selective discrimination, informs the logic of genocide such that killing is sex-inclusive (men and women are killed), but gendered (they are killed for different reasons).
For the sake of legal and academic clarity, and hoping that either of those traditions may deter or help us to understand and prevent further future genocides, the pop-IR terms ‘femicide’ and ‘gendercide’ should be eschewed in favour of the ‘gender-in-genocide’ framework proposed by Carpenter. It is too simple to call these tragedies ‘femicide’ or ‘gendercide’; what is really needed is a critical gender lens on genocide, regardless of if the numbers of dead are sex-skewed or sex-balanced, to better understand gendered experiences of gender and how sex-specific murders and atrocities are used as tools of genocide.
Sarah Littisha Jansen is in her second year of the PhD program in International Conflict Management and Resolution at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her B.A. Honours at Glendon College of York University in International Studies and Études françaises and did undergraduate research in Kosovo/a on Serbian-Albanian bilingualism and its implications for building sustainable peace
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