Why Women Kill
On Gendered Violence and Our Inability to Understand Female Rage
“By the time humankind reached the stage of written mythology and law, the patriarchate was definitely established: the males were to write the codes. While setting up the machinery of women’s oppression, the legislators are afraid of her.”
–Simone de Beauvoir
On April 26, 1885 Maria Barbella, a young Italian immigrant, entered a saloon on East 13th street in New York and slashed the throat of Domenico Cataldo with a straight razor. His last words before blood sprayed across the bar, “Only a pig can marry you!”
Maria had fallen in love with Domenico on her daily walk past his shoeshine booth to a factory job. It was on one of these walks that he drugged, and then raped her. In the weeks that followed, Maria would enlist her mother’s help in demanding a marriage proposal. Domenico eventually promised to marry her just before he prepared to leave, on the evening of April 26
Over a century later, near Maria’s hometown in Southern Italy, a Tamil woman, Inbam steps off a boat overflowing with migrant misery to meet the middleman entrusted with her safe passage as a refugee.
In Sri Lanka, where she started her journey, she had been one of the guerillas fighting the government for a separate state when she was taken captive by the government. The soldier who raped her made it clear that if she spoke out he had plenty of ways, and reasons, to kill her. “In Italy,” she later said, “I felt I had finally arrived safely.”
The decision by a woman to kill is always unexpected, generally condemned, and deeply misunderstood.
Not long after she did, the middle man locked her in a tiny hotel room where he raped her repeatedly for two days. She managed eventually to escape and in the year that followed she focused only on saving what money she earned. “When I have enough, I will find both these men. I am trained, as a sniper. I will find both these men and I will kill them.”
On a recent television appearance to promote her book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Girls and Women, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy asked, “How many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?” In the controversy that ensued, the show was pulled from the air and the social media sphere immediately divided into opposing camps: either condemning the call to violence or condoning the sentiment, with a backup chorus of “Fuck the patriarchy!”
Neither response fully grapples with the question of why women kill—and what connects women who do, like Maria and Inbam. The decision by a woman to kill, as the outrage surrounding Eltahawy’s comments reveals, is always unexpected, generally condemned, and deeply misunderstood.
Our initial view of these women is obfuscated by the desire to morally condemn the choice of violence over nonviolence. For the women who defy expectations of their presumed peaceful nature, any attempt to understand a violent response is parsed into categories that fit neatly into existing gender assumptions: she was either acting for survival against sexual abuse or she was fighting (likely brainwashed into fighting) as a militant for a political ideology.
Eltahawy’s book stands slightly apart from a recent spate of feminist writers probing anger and rage as the closest to suggesting we consider violence, if not as a form of organized resistance, than as immediate retaliation—asking us to consider extending grievances against patriarchy from the home to the streets.
“If violence is the language that patriarchy understands, isn’t it time that more women speak it, if only for their own safety?”
Inside a feminist debate that, at best, timidly addresses violence, this suggestion from Eltahawy’s book appears radical—dangerous, even. But what happens when we extract the calls to indulge the politics of emotion (specifically anger and rage) from the imaginary into the real politik of the women who choose to arm themselves?
“If violence is the language that patriarchy understands, isn’t it time that more women speak it, if only for their own safety?”
Sexual violence is a political act, and violence that targets identity will always be intimately felt. Women’s violent responses, ones we are often unwilling to treat even as self-defense are perhaps more usefully understood as a political act: a collective struggle for self-determination.
For the abused wife, the violated minority, and the many women for whom categories are collapsed, deep wounds fester to fuel an intrinsic motivation, pushing her to act in calculated ways, for autonomy, control, and self-governance.
“I felt a ‘killing rage.’ I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse.”
Maria Barbella chose to kill her rapist at a moment in which mass lynchings of Italian-Americans were taking place across the nation. In a familiar contemporary refrain, a New York Times op-ed at the time describes Maria’s community as “the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, (who) are to us a pest without mitigation.” In “How the Other Half Lives,” author Jacob Riis offers a bleak, xenophobic description of Maria’s neighborhood, Mulberry Bend, “In the memory of man the old cowpath has never been other than a vast human pig-sty.”
While we don’t know enough of Maria’s consciousness outside the sensationalized tale of her swift killing hand, we know now that at moments when the force of racism, exclusion, and marginalization bear down on particular communities on the streets, there will always be an increase in intimate partner violence inside the home.
In these moments of heightened vulnerability for women in these communities, the police are not seen as their salvation—rather, they are complicit in the violent racism of the society that surrounds their entire family. Placing the individual action inside the collective struggle of a community, Kimberlé Crenshaw once remarked of the black women in America who’d taken up arms, “This quite frankly is the work of defending the community, the work of protection, the work of advancing a sense of self-worth, self determination, and just of a pure right to exist.”
Even when we try to understand women who kill, we ask pointed questions and receive calculated answers entered into a defense formula with a precedent of success: individual acquittal. It is only when the woman, and the conversation, is allowed to breathe that the political nature of the act of killing is revealed, through an excavation of deep-seated desires for collective freedom.
Dark circles under her eyes parade the reality of her exhaustion. Racine’s parole hearing is nearing. Six weeks out and she’s riding them hard. The skin around what’s left of her nails is splintered. But she gnaws at her fingers like they alone will swiftly move the hours along at Riker’s Island.
Thirteen years prior, during a blizzard in 2006, Racine was home alone with her children in Brooklyn, when her abusive partner, Wes, in violation of a restraining order, showed up at her door with his friend Jerry. It became clear that Wes would not leave, so Racine agreed to allow her children to go to the apartment of Wes’s mother, four blocks away. In the ensuing hours, Racine is drugged, raped, and beaten by both men. She is held hostage in her own home for 28 hours. She already knew what calling the police would do.
Two days later, after obtaining a gun from a relative, she sought out Wes who, along with Jerry, was staying in the basement of the home of Jerry’s elderly parents. She shot both men. A bullet would strike Jerry in the stomach and he would die of his injuries. Wes was also injured but not critically. Racine would be tried and charged with 2
Where does a woman like Racine sit in the political imaginary of the “rage feminist” who will often buttress their arguments inside the safety of an appeal to a constructive kind of fury that, as Brittany Cooper articulates, in Eloquent Rage, “help us to build the world we want to see”. Similarly, Soraya Chemaly, in Rage Becomes Her (quoting Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter) cautions of acting on anger: “When it’s not used properly, it can quickly become destructive.”
While encouraging women to engage with (a singular) emotive response to injustice, the form their political actions take in these texts is also prescribed to both stay within the lines of acceptable modes of resistance and focus on the agreed-upon target: patriarchy.
For those women who see violence as the logical means to the end of an evolving political consciousness across the difficult terrain of their entire lives, mapping the complex stirrings of intimate wounds that drive action often finds a clearer reflection in fictional characters—in the women allowed to indulge freely in fantasies of violence.
In Meena Kandasamy’s autofiction, When I Hit You, a wife chronicles the abuses of her husband and the art of her own resistance. In each of his blows the patriarchy convincingly plays the role of political critique.
“In the Marxist jargon I have picked up from husband, I can proudly declare: there are tactics, and then, there is strategy.
I have become a strategist.
I remember that my defiance over the trip to the gynecologist was enough to make him inflict burns on his own body with a glowing ladle. I begin to realize, for the first time, that his violence, which is forever directed against me, can sometimes be twisted to turn upon himself.
It gives me hope. I know that his anger is a device that I can detonate at will. When the
The abused wife and the political revolutionary—the violence that shapes both—are all contested inside the home.
“But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centeredness that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.”
Even before Dharini’s sister was raped, she already felt drawn to join the guerillas. She had gotten used to the fear of walking quickly past the known military checkpoints until the leering faded away. But then unknown foreign soldiers showed up, haphazardly spread across the red-tinged streets of her childhood in Northern Sri Lanka. The circle of her free movement closed in until she spent most days at home, frustrated.
“I wasn’t at home when the soldiers came for a ‘security check’ that evening – only my younger sister. She was targeted because she was a Tamil, they said they were looking for guerillas. She was raped because she was a woman.”
But Dharini’s decision to join the militancy did not happen at that moment, the one we might expect, that Eltahawy calls “a fuck-this-shit snapping”.
“I had heard of the Tigers, the women came to our school sometimes. They seemed strong, braver than I was. I liked that someone was fighting for us, for the Tamils, but I didn’t think I could do it. When I joined the training camp, my Amma (mother), asked me to come home. I explained to her that this is the only way for us to be safe, but I cried
When women are vulnerable, and violated, there is rage. But over a lifetime of violence, there is also sadness, anxiety, fear, and frustration. When we see only the action limited to a single emotion born of a specific moment (“snapping/triggering”), we see only an individual woman, acting in self-defense.
If we are willing to see the evolution of a politically-oriented consciousness that takes shape through the spectrum of emotional reactions to violence we can begin to understand women who kill as acting for self-determination. The women for whom resistance is collective.
Patriarchy is enshrined in the state and the society that wraps around it. In a bid to hold onto power it assumes a hydra-like form. The body anchored in the patriarchal desire for domination defends itself with multiple heads: militarization, racism, supremacy.
Where misogyny is the hatred of women; supremacy is the hatred of specific women. What of the women confronted with the breath of one of the heads that seeks to extinguish an entire race, those that choose to fight the enemy that confronts them? The ones fighting not for women’s rights, but the right to exist.
Throughout her turbulent marriage and increasingly after it, Meena Kandasamy would write of the incessant violence that both destroyed and birthed the Tamil fighter.
“It is impossible for Tamil people to forget the horrors of rape committed by the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), or the Sri Lanka Army on the bodies of Tamil women, including the female fighters of the LTTE (Tigers). This is the anger of a people who are traumatized by the memory of the rapes and murders of Krishanthi and Koneshwari, of Isai Priya and Logarani”
Within a continuous sentence Kandasamy strings together Tamil women, private citizens and public combatants, for whom all violence is political.
In Seven Sins, Eltahawy suggests “the wars that female combatants will fight are done so in the name of patriarchy; they promote a violence that only the patriarchal state claims a right to.” She is right to point to the patriarchy that is the beating heart of most movements, but cannot so easily dismiss the motivations of the women inside them—the women who choose to kill.
Where the decision to fight demands they unleash a desire to survive violence, the decision to kill requires they sublimate the coherent conscience needed to live peacefully.
In her as-yet-unpublished memoir, Thamilini, the head of the Tiger’s Women’s Political Wing, reflects on the narrow feminist lens applied to the guerilla struggle:
“In those times when the fundamental rights of the average man were denied, their familiarity with oppression became the very reason women were able to endure and develop the inner strength to survive the impact of the crises that faced them. It was as an extension of this, that from the beginning of the struggle they stepped out with courage into the street to enter into armed combat for the liberation of the race.”
Dharini, who joined the Thamilini’s division in 1994, puts it simply,
“I didn’t think much past the need to have all these soldiers out of our village, to live peacefully. After the incident (rape) with Akka (older sister), I knew it would happen to me also. Maybe it was to protect me, but I wanted to protect all of us.”
Even among those women who join a militancy, the decision to kill is often an afterthought. Where the decision to fight demands they unleash a desire to survive violence, the decision to kill requires they sublimate the coherent conscience needed to live peacefully.
In the end, choice was captured by the moment distilled into clarity by life on the frontlines—one where, as Dharini notes, “the only thought you have is preservation.”
“I find myself saying often, the sad thing is that the only correct woman in a self-defense case is a dead one.”
–Sue Osthoff, Director, National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.
A woman who kills is more likely to be put on trial than the man who abuses her. The women abused by states, soldiers, and lovers are rarely considered a reliable witness to argue their case.
In 1976, when Gayle Jones published Eva’s Man, the dark fictional tale of a black woman who castrates and kills her abuser after a lifetime of sexual violence, the complexity of Eva’s character was widely found to be both controversial and unsatisfying.
“The coldness in her tone forced us to confront this horror without recourse to blame or pity,” contemporary novelist Namwalli Serpell reflects. Eva’s repetitive, muddled, recounting of traumas “unite into a mosaic of Some Larger Violence that we are left staring at, appalled and in awe.”
Self-defense is notoriously difficult to prove and is roundly critiqued by feminist legal scholars for its narrow applicability in cases of women who kill their abusers. A survivor who resists violence with violence must demonstrate she reasonably believed she was in “imminent” danger of bodily harm or death. Traditional standards of self-defense do not apply when a woman kills the abuser while he’s sleeping (a “burning bed” case) or like Racine, kills not in the heat of the moment but days after being attacked by her abuser. In the court room, a single moment determines her survival.
A woman doesn’t even have to kill to reveal both the limits of an appeal to self-defense and the racial disparities that undergird the criminal legal system. In 2012, in the Stand Your Ground state of Florida, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband who was threatening to kill her.
Then-District Attorney Angela Corey sought to triple her sentence to 60 years on the basis that Marissa Alexander, a Black woman, was “angry” and not fearful when she pulled the trigger. Again collapsing action into a singular emotion, this time fear, was her only chance of survival.
When Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA says, “The one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun,” he utilizes the language of self-defense. “Good women,” national studies show, are not women of any race who kill white men. A “good” woman cannot indulge her rage, she cannot make the mistake of expressing any emotion other than terrified distress in the moment that she acts to protect herself.
In her years on Rikers, Racine has been able to articulate the act that would define the rest of her life,
“When it happened, you know that night [when she shot Jerry and her partner, Wes], this wasn’t what was going through my mind, not really. But it was there. My sense of controlling my own life, you know. I knew, I fight or I die. Self-defense but more than that. I was choosing my life, choosing to live not just for me, but for those damned near dead women on the subway. Because, I knew I wasn’t the only one. You know how they say that every hour a woman is beaten in some part of the world? Well, I knew that, you know. Felt it. I was getting beat on and so was another woman, that day, the next and the one after that. I squeezed that trigger for me, for them.”
Where self-defense is the language offered for an individual’s trial, self-determination has long been the language the resistance insists upon. Central to self-determination is the idea of underlying motivation, the internal drivers that get a person to act in the name of their own self-governance against “Some Larger Violence.”
“I was getting beat on and so was another woman, that day, the next and the one after that. I squeezed that trigger for me, for them.”
If a woman kills her abusive partner or fights on the front lines, “preservation,” as Dharini says, is a form of self-determination.
For many women, if asked why they kill, self-defense is an uncomfortable fit. As in Eva’s characters decision to kill, Serpell suggests “the extremity of it—the immensity and intensity of the act signify something bigger, more ancient and terrifying, than self-defense.”
“I slip the words between his ribs like a stiletto knife. He actually gasps.”
In their inability to reckon with the lives of women who kill, the recent sub-genre of feminist writers reclaiming rage overlooks an essential part of the broader political project to mobilize women to act.
When we push past the unproductive (and generally hypocritical) moral indignation to violence as a means, and when we reject the tendency to diagnose a pre-determined defense of an entire gender, the deeper motivations of women who kill reveal a political thread that runs through the narratives of Dharini, Racine and many more women like them.
There is no vital distinction between the violence that shapes the lives of women engaged in armed struggle and the violence faced by women who live under the tyranny of threat and abuse. As feminists have long understood, violence against women is rooted in the patriarchal institutions that shape the state and in the legal systems that maintain that pervasive use of violence. To forge connections between women who resist violence by turning to violence is not a fetishization of the act. It’s a reclamation of will.
In the political consciousness that forms through an olio of emotions these women have identified their abuser in both the patriarchy and the political oppression it sustains. The end, for women like Racine, is an act of violence that is considered, calculated, and executed in defense of something much bigger than the self.
“When I got to court my lawyer is telling me to show remorse, you know to let the people know how sorry I was. But I didn’t feel it. They [her legal team] were trying to frame my actions like I snapped, like suddenly, there I was. But looking back now, I’d say, I didn’t act violently because I had enough, of his violence and abuse, not only that, you know, but it was because I knew that I was enough. I deserved my dignity, my humanity. And the police, the restraining order did nothing to uphold what I knew. It was like ‘By any means necessary,’ like Malcom X says you know. That’s what I was thinking. How to fight my way back to my humanity because the government wasn’t going to give me that, no one was.”