Recently I watched a very disturbing film, The Stoning of Soraya M. Based on a true story, the 2008 film depicts the murder in the mid-1980s of an Iranian woman by her husband, her father, her young sons and the other men and boys of the village, including the mullah, on trumped-up charges of adultery. Although she is innocent and denies the charges, Soraya M. is told by the village mayor: "When a man accuses his wife, she must prove her innocence. That is the law. On the other hand, if a wife accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt."
In fact, Soraya's husband, Ali, is flagrantly adulterous, cruising around in his convertible with the 14-year-old girl he wants to marry. Although polygamy is allowed under Ayatollah Khomeini's rule, Ali does not want to pay child support or alimony; he wants Soraya to grant him a divorce, which she refuses to do, knowing that he will abandon her and she will be forced to provide for their children. Ali devises a foolproof plan for getting rid of his "inconvenient wife": he conspires with the mullah and the mayor to secure a job for Soraya as a cook and housekeeper to a recently widowed neighbour. A few days later he accuses his wife of sleeping with the neighbour. Thus begins the rumour of Soraya's infidelity, and the entire village's collusion with and participation in her gruesome killing.
Is this femicide or feminicide?
Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, editors of this tour de force collection, would say the latter. Expanding on Diana Russell and Jane Caputi's definition of "femicide" as "the killing of females by males because they are females", Fregoso and Bejarano seek to introduce a human-rights frame-work to our understanding of misogynistic murders. They advocate for the term "feminicide", which is not only the murder of women for being women, but "gender-based violence that is both public and private, implicating both the state...and individual perpetrators...(and) systemic violence rooted in social, political, economic, and cultural inequalities".
Their book includes the testimonies of four family activists, 15 essays by US and Latin American feminist scholars, a critical introduction by the editors, a photo essay of the "Ni Una Mas" movement in Chihuahua, and a preface by Marcela Lagarde y de los Rios, anthropologist and president of the National Commission on Feminicide in Mexico, that lays out the political and theoretical underpinnings of the term feminicide. It makes it clear that systematic, unpunished, misogynistic murder has long been perpetrated in Latin America. Such gender-based violence is part of the colonial and patriarchal regime that continues to exploit the region politically, culturally and economically.
The book makes the point that feminicide must be analysed within local and global networks of complicity. The 17-year crime wave that has seen more than 600 women and girls murdered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that first put the notion of femicide/feminicide on the radar of global human-rights organisations should not be studied as a Mexican problem only; rather, it is a deadly side effect of a gendered power structure and global capitalism that has also transpired in Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru. By including essays about misogynistic violence in these other parts of Latin America, the editors hope to show the continental pandemic of state-sanctioned woman-hating at the core of "the low-intensity warfare waged on women's bodies that is now routine in many Latin American countries". The great value I see in this book is that it extends the conversation about femicide/feminicide beyond Mexico and into the rest of the Americas. However, a full two-thirds of the essays here focus on the Chihuahua crimes, thereby diminishing the reach of the editors' "cartography of feminicide in the Americas".
Indeed, femicide/feminicide goes beyond the Americas: it is transnational, transhistorical, transreligious terrorism. In Iran, Soraya M. was stoned to death for being a "bad" woman whose true "crime" was not that she gave her body to another man, but rather that the man she married no longer wanted her body. She was the target of both private and public violence, as much her husband's victim as the state's, punished equally by gossip and by "God's law".
In the words of Soraya's aunt Zahra, the witness-survivor who tells the story, what we learn about God's law is that "all women are guilty and all men are innocent".
Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas
Edited by Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano. Duke University Press. 416pp, £74.00 and £17.99 ISBN 9780822346692 and 6814. Published 8 July 2010