Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > impact on women / resistance > Recognising ’gendercide’

Recognising ’gendercide’

by Heather McRobie

Sunday 17 August 2008

(Published in: The Guardian, July 30 2008)

The intentional mass killing of any one gender demands recognition, regardless of the motivation behind it

Changing our terminology won’t stop mass killings, I know that. But it might go some way toward more fully comprehending – and better campaigning against – some of the worst atrocities of our time. Just as “genocide” refers to a systematic killing of a race or ethnicity, so “gendercide” refers to the systematic killing of a gender. Although Amnesty International and other groups have been right to push for the term “femicide” to describe the murder of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and Guatemala City, on the whole it’d be more helpful to use the more neutral term “gendercide” to help raise awareness of the issue, as, evidently, the victims are not always women.

One such case is Srebrenica, the subject of renewed analysis – although it shouldn’t take a news story to remind us of it – after the capture of Karadzic last week. It is widely acknowledged that the killing of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys was part of a policy to kill as many non-combatant males as possible, in order to reduce the pool of possible enemy soldiers. Recognising that this was a gendercide is completely compatible with recognising that it was a genocide, a fact which has been long established. The victims of Srebrenica and similar massacres ordered by Karadzic were targeted because of their ethnicity. But they were also targeted because of their gender.

To refer to Srebrenica as a gendercide doesn’t imply that one gender’s suffering in a war was somehow more important than the other side. Linda Grant’s recent piece on rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia is a reminder of how women were brutally targeted throughout the conflict. But when a rape occurs during peace-time, we tend to think of it as a violent, misogynistic act. When a rape occurs during war time, we tend to think of it as a violent, racist act – an atrocity motivated by the ethnicity of the victim. We need to start recognising that war is gendered in reality, that in this arena women are not raped solely for being women or solely for their ethnicity, but for the combination of the two. For me, feminism has always been about how rigid gender roles harm everyone, albeit primarily women. And during a war, rigid gender roles, like rigid ethnic stereotypes, lead to a differentiated targeting of civilians.

One counter-argument I anticipate in reply to this is that, as “gendercide” is a less potent phrase than “genocide” (in part by virtue of it still being largely unknown), using it may seem to belittle the genocide committed in Bosnia. But no one is arguing that gender is the main reason for the mass murders in most cases – although it does seem to be the primary element in the gendercides of Ciudad Juárez and Guatemala City. It was, however, an element of the mass killings in Bosnia, and we ignore it at our peril. As a whole, we have little framework for the concept of intersecting discriminations, and until we can formulate a succinct way of expressing the multi-dimensional nature of oppression, to refer to Srebrenica as a genocide and a gendercide may be the best way we can convey the various aspects that were at work.

Rather than belittling mass killings, moreover, using the phrase “gendercide” in other contexts has the opposite effect: it becomes an important way to convey the true scale and nature of gender-based murders, which are otherwise often dismissed as a conglomerate of discrete phenomena, the product of a few bad eggs. Until we routinely conceptualise the murders of women in Guatemala City and Ciudad Juárez as gendercides – as killings directed specifically against one section of a population – the tragedies will continue to be dismissed as essentially random acts. It’s hard to account for the shocking police impunity to the murders in Juárez, but it seems that the Mexican police’s position is, essentially, that a few men happen to kill some women, and that’s all very sad, but not something society as a whole should feel responsible for, or be concerned about.

The evocation of the word “genocide” in the word “gendercide” – the implication, that, like genocide, it is a crime against humanity for which there are no excuses – would also counter the dead-end cultural relativism that feminists have to deal with from across the spectrum whenever they speak out against gender-based violence. One of the things that is so frustrating about cultural relativism is not its central philosophical tenet so much as the fact it is used so inconsistently by its proponents – no one (I hope) ever says of apartheid South Africa: “Well, that was just their culture, who are we to judge?” The systematic oppression of a whole race is not a legitimate part of anyone’s culture. But the systematic oppression of a gender? Whenever I raise the topic of countries whose treatment of women could largely be termed a “gender apartheid”, the response in liberal circles is: “well, that’s their culture, let’s not be imperialist”. As though apartheid was a temporal, historical act, within the reach of our moral judgment, whereas “culture” must be treated as an innate, ahistorical phenomena which renders it impossible to judge. Why do gender roles get pushed into the play-pen of “culture”, beyond time and beyond criticism, when ethnicity, it is accepted, is a constructed identity that changes over time, defined and redefined, and manipulated by ultra-nationalists like Karadzic? Is the murder of female children in India and China more forgivable, on the grounds of “culture”, than the mass murder of ethnic groups?

Surely unless you’re prepared to stand up and admit: yes, I think it is worse to discriminate on the grounds of race than on gender, then “gendercide” is as legitimate a phrase as “genocide”, and we should be as ready to speak out against it as we are against racial- or ethnicity-based violence. As Karadzic is finally brought to justice, I hope we take into account all the dimensions of the mass killings he and Mladic ordered, so that we can finally begin to make sense of what happened in Bosnia, and prevent it from happening again.