This piece is an extraction from a book chapter that will feature in the (upcoming) International Handbook of Feminist Perspectives on Women’s Acts of Violence. The chapter meshes a review of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) literature and the findings from a study on female-perpetrated intimate partner abuse and violence (IPA/V) in Zimbabwe. It engages feminism as a theoretical paradigm in comprehending women’s use of violence against men, focusing on critically appraising its utility in this regard.
‘Feminism’ is not and cannot be reduced to a singular or universal theoretical or political position, but rather many positions characterised by pluralistic nuances. Such positions include, but are not limited to, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, and black feminism. I adopt Jibarah’s (2019) characterisation of these categories as ‘meta-feminisms’. While it is not within the scope of this piece to dissect the respective standpoints of the noted different branches of feminism, there is a golden thread that characterises most dominant feminist variants with regards to their conceptualisations of GBV in general and IPA/V in particular and women’s position(s) in the gender hierarchy. That is, violence in intimate relationships is essentially gendered and although women (as a group) may have varied individual life experiences, they are disproportionately impacted (Williams, 2017). Thus, challenging patriarchy as a system is key to the realisation of gender equality.
It is undeniable that there is credence to this thread, especially if one considers the evidence (empirical and or media publications) of women’s oppression and victimisation within prevailing gender configurations. Nonetheless, of all the inferences that can be drawn from the thread, interest in this piece lies in the complete erasure of women’s agency and its (the thread’s) seemingly well-fitting parallels with the patriarchal mythical thought that women are unassertive and incapable of assuming and embodying power. Concerns regarding such theorisation of GBV and women’s power have been raised through the literal works of Kristeva and Roudiez (1991) and Weedon (1997). This piece highlights similar concerns while also advancing GBV conceptualisations that are more inclusive and non-essentialist. It begins with a broad overview of IPA, before narrowing down to a rather overlooked discursive area within feminist literature about women’s violence towards men. It further examines the feminist theoretical narratives on IPA and concludes that, while the primary focus of feminism might not be on the victims of women’s violence, a post-structural feminist explanation of such violence in intimate relationships seems more pragmatic and inclined to social inclusion. A post-structural feminist position offers a more complex view of women and sees GBV, power and victimhood in more complex ways, providing an alternative way to understand GBV perpetrated by women.
IPA, also known as intimate partner violence (IPV), is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) (2002:89) as any behaviour within an intimate relationship by either party that causes harm to the other party in the relationship. It occurs between two people who can be in a homo- or heterosexual relationship or any other form of intimate association. Therefore, the perpetrators and victims can be people of any gender identity who may be dating, cohabiting and/or married (Howe et al., 2012). This type of abuse, which generally occurs in private spaces, typically takes the form of behaviour such as acts of physical aggression (slapping, hitting, kicking and beating); psychological abuse (intimidation, constant belittling and humiliating acts); sexual abuse (forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion and manipulation); economic abuse (financially burdening a partner, denial of financial resources or support to which one is entitled) and other controlling behaviours such as isolating a person from their family and friends, monitoring their movements or restricting their access to information or assistance (García-Moreno et al., 2013). Although IPA is often interchangeably referred to as ‘domestic violence’ and GBV, it is only one subtype of these broad-brimmed categorizations of violence. Essentially, domestic violence occurs among members of the same family or household, whereas GBV generally refers to all forms and dimensions of violence that are aimed at a person by virtue of their gender (McMahon, 2019). GBV also happens in both private and public spheres, regardless of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Some consider these categorizations insignificant because the structural forces that underpin public or private violent behaviours are the same. That is quite correct. What happens in the public often times play out in private spaces. However, I still consider the distinction important especially if one considers that there are certain forms of GBV which may only occur among and between people who share some form of intimacy, for instance, financial abuse, and the varied forms of emotional abuse. It is also important to note that GBV is, in many instances, now viewed as a public issue (an area of interest to governments and policy makers), regardless of whether it takes place in public or private spaces or whether it involves people who are related or not.
The adverse implications of IPA on the health and socio-economic wellbeing of the victims and others within the same environments and communities at large, is a global concern (Buller et al., 2014). IPA is also associated with social ills such as the destabilisation of families, isolation, labelling and humiliation of victims (Dewa, 2016). Marital instability, usually resulting in couples separating or unions dissolving, is a common feature among American and South African families and one of the major contributing factors to these higher divorce/separation rates is IPA (Black et al., 2011). Although this may be regarded as a common and general trend in modern family patterns, it negatively impacts on an institution (the family) that is fundamental in the socialisation and identity formation of members of society. Family, regardless of whether it is based around marriage or not, whether it is single parent or child headed, adoptive or extended, plays a part in the socialisation of new members. Until recently, IPA in the global south had largely been perceived as a private matter between two parties. As such, victims would frequently face disbelief, exclusion and lack of protection from families and service providers. Mashiri (2013) notes that IPA victims, the majority of whom are women, often suffer rebuke or are accused by their partners’ families of instigating the abuse. Both men and women who suffer abuse in intimate relationships are faced with problems ranging from disbelief, ridicule and other forms of secondary victimisation if they choose to seek help (Musune et al., 2016; Evans, 2019).
Despite the foregoing widely documented negative outcomes, the phenomenon of IPA remains complex and a subject of huge debate between proponents of the structural feminist movement (meta feminists) and those from the Family Violence School. The debate centres on whether there is gender symmetry in domestic violence perpetration between men and women (Enander, 2011). Gender symmetry entails equal levels of aggression between men and women in intimate relationships (Enander, 2011; Swan et al., 2018). The meta-feminist movement maintains that IPA is essentially men’s violence against women because statistically more women than men suffer abuse at the hands of an intimate partner (Kelly, 2002). Structural feminists are the proponents of the Duluth Model – an intervention method that focuses on changing ‘men’s perception of entitlement’ to women. Their main thesis in this regard is that IPA is largely sustained by the cultural setup of patriarchy (Mullender, 1996). It essentially informs the gender relations between men and women and thus underpins the construction of masculine and feminine identities in societies within which it is present. From the structural feminist perspective, the patriarchal social order gives rise to gender inequality as a result of which men, by virtue of their male identities, wield power to dominate and oppress women, including through violent means (Jewkes et al., 2002; Vetten et al., 2009).
From the Family Violence School (which is based in the United States of America) perspective, violence in intimate relationships is not gendered. It is rather a human issue where any person is capable of instigating it. The Family Violence School draws on Murray Straus’ Conflict Tactics Scale studies (Straus, 2004) which reported equal levels of aggression between men and women in intimate relationships (Gelles, 2016). The Family Violence School is associated with the work of researchers such as Denis Hines, Emily Douglas and Richard Gelles (Hines & Douglas, 2009; Gelles, 2016).
Evidence cross the world indicates that women, in some instances, use physical force and various forms of power (such as reward power, seductive or manipulative power, etc.), both in lesbian (Ristock, 2012) and heterosexual relationships to exercise control over their partners. For Straus (2010), abuse perpetrated by women has existed for almost three decades now since it was first reported after the National Family Violence studies in 1975. In her seminal work on IPA, Steinmetz (1977) coined the phrase ‘husband battering’ to refer to an 18th century British and French phenomenon where men who were known to be abused by their spouses were paraded in the market place on carts while condemning utterances were bellowed at them by the populace (Steinmetz, 1977). This would happen while the husband-batterer received praises for chastising the erring husband that could not fulfil his culturally-prescribed roles of being strong, self-assertive and intelligent (Steinmetz, 1977). This provides evidence to the effect that in Europe, IPA perpetrated by women has existed since the 18th century. In the United States of America, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2015), one in every four men is physically abused by an intimate partner per annum. Furthermore, studies by Hines and Douglas (2010) and Douglas et al. (2012) point to the existence of IPA by women against men and the challenges faced by men who fall victim to it.
In Ghana, as noted by Adinkrah (2012), women abuse their husbands or partners verbally by insulting them using derogatory terms, physically by beating or throwing objects at them and even killing them in what he referred to as ‘mariticides’. These abuses could be executed using such weapons as guns or there could be use of other men as accomplices and the main motive cited was the need to replace the husband with a new lover (Adinkrah, 2012). In Zimbabwe, the Demographic Health Survey (2012-2014) reported that 3.6% of the country’s approximately 9 million women admitted to physically and sexually abusing their husbands whom at that time were not abusing them (Zimbabwe-DHS, 2015). In the same setting and in a recent study on men’s experiences of abuse, participants reported emotional, psychological, and economic abuses through such acts by women as paternity fraud and alienation of children, inter alia. Additionally, as noted by du Toit (2010), men in South Africa reported being abused through institutionalised legal procedures whereby women make false accusations against men and take advantage of the fact that they are often perceived as the bona fide victims of IPA/V and the law enforcement agents often believe them. The phenomenon of false accusations is largely controversial within the domain of GBV.
Studies from the global north (Silvers, 2014; Gelles, 2016; Hogan, 2016; & Lien & Lorentzen, 2019) and south, (Barkhuizen, 2010; Kumar, 2012; & Botha, 2019) show that although men also fall victim to IPA, there seems to be continued controversy on whether any parallels can be drawn between their victimization and that of women. Hooks (2000) and Cook (2009), (while noting abuse of men by women), contend separately that there is no question that domestic violence directed against women is a serious problem and it is for this reason that it has been the main subject of research across the global divide. This view is shared herein. Nonetheless, it is also crucial to point out that, although women constitute the majority of IPA victims, the male gender does not guarantee men immunity to such abuse and that the gender-violence nexus is more fluid than stable. A call can, therefore, be made for theoretical insights that are inclusive in scope and reflect the nuances and multiplicity of realities within the GBV discourse.
The question regarding whether women’s use of violence in intimate relationships is a feminist issue, is one that can, prima facie easily be answered in the negative. It may also be convenient or easy to dismiss reports of abuse by women merely as efforts to reverse the gains of the feminist movement and by rightfully claiming that feminism owes no moral obligation to victims of women’s violence, especially men. Berns (2001) notes that theorising violence perpetrated by women outside of feminist thinking is often dismissed as a form of political resistance and counter-movement to feminist constructions of IPA, and thus, not a serious concern about men who may find themselves in victimhood positions.
Nonetheless, evidence indicates that even in the absence of provocation or prior violence, women can be abusive to men, and it is a gendered issue. If the description of a feminist by Adichie (2015) as anyone who acknowledges that there is a problem with gender, is anything to go by, then indeed men who fall victim to women’s violence and patriarchal oppression would be accorded space within the feminist theoretical discourse. Persuasive reasons for such an argument can be forwarded. Firstly, violence against or by men often points to the contentious issue of identity and particularly to masculinity, which in itself is one of the major discourses among feminists. Secondly, violence (irrespective of its perpetrator) is an afront to the basic tenets and interests of feminism which revolve chiefly around egalitarian gender relations. Violence in intimate relationships negatively impacts gender relations therein, hence, it might be of importance for feminists to understand such violence regardless of who the perpetrator is.
Adichie’s (2015) above noted depiction of a feminist and Hooks’ (2000:1) definition of feminism (as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression) all amount to the portrayal of feminism as grounded in social inclusion coupled with awareness of and challenge to the patriarchal gender hierarchy. Such views of feminism are crucial for many reasons which include the fact that feminism poses as the rightful and appropriate tool to fight patriarchy and to give “space” to all those who are oppressed by it. As has since been noted and theoretically proven, the gender hierarchy does not indiscriminately bunch all men in levels above those of all women (Demetriou, 2001). Some men, as a result of various idiosyncratic factors as class, age, life experiences (including victimhood), sexuality, physical build, race and/or ethnicity may occupy lower ranks of the patriarchal gender hierarchy.
Conversely, some women may find themselves occupying ranks of power on the basis of various factors such as their intellect, political and or business connections, professional or occupational positions and networks. This may entail that, men who become victims of women’s violence, although they, (in terms of gender classification) are men with inherent patriarchal privilege, may find themselves on the receiving end of violence within the very system that ought to privilege them. The question that arises is: would it not be theoretically enriching and in the spirit of social inclusion, to conceptualise their experiences within the feminist paradigm? This piece answers the question in the affirmative, for the reasons outlined in the succeeding discussions.
It is an established fact and is noted in this account that there is no single ‘feminist’ perspective but rather pluralistic ‘feminisms’. Recent feminist theorising leans more towards being reflexive and critical of the meta feminist narratives associated with the enlightenment era, whose tendency has been to universalise and totalise reality. This new crop (although not so new) of feminists is aligned with the views of post-modernists and post-structuralists and offers culturally-contextualised accounts of women’s diversity and non-essentialised conceptions of gender identities.
Post-structuralism represents a range of theoretical positions developed from and influenced by the work of Nietzsche (1977), Derrida (1997), Foucault (1997) and Baudrillard (2001), among many others. These theoretical positions, in their heterogeneity, share a common polemic stance to the positivist conceptions of power, universalised and essentialised truth; and static categories of identity, which are mainly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment Age (Graff, 2012; Weedon, 1997). The shared principles among post-structuralists include, firstly, the notion of subjective identities. Post-structuralists conceive people’s identities as subjects of cultural and social constructions i.e. they are always being produced and cannot have an essential or core nature. Thus, in post-structural circles, identities are subjective and in flux, as opposed to being generic and stable. Another defining principle of post-structuralism is that of ‘deconstruction’. ‘Deconstruction’ is a term coined by Derrida (1997) to refer to the opening-up of universal ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ to scrutiny. As such, there is no single reality or subjectivity, but rather multiple explanations for social phenomena. Lastly, most post-structuralists share the Foucauldian conception of ‘power’, viewing it as multi-centred as opposed to being a position held by a certain constituted group of people.
Post-structural feminism is a branch of feminism which draws from the above-mentioned principles of post-structuralist thought. It is also associated with many divergent theoretical positions, but of interest in this account are those of Kristeva and Roudiez (1991), Weedon (1997), Halberstam (1999), McHugh et al. (2005) and Butler (2011). The contribution of feminism to post-structuralism is the ability to examine the ways in which gender subjectivity interacts with power in its multiple manifestations, including violence and abuse (Weedon, 1997). As noted above, the most significant contribution of structural feminism, i.e. radical, social and liberal feminism inter alia, to the conceptualization of IPA has been to ‘conceptualise it as a problem of men’s violence in the context of gendered social power relations in terms of male dominance and female subordination’ (Itzin & Hanmer, 2000, p. 360). Thus, IPA becomes a binary phenomenon of men’s violence against women (McHugh & Frieze, 2006). While this is largely correct because of the endemic patriarchy that informs the construction of identities among men and women, this notion obscures other forms of violence within families, including sibling abuse, elder abuse as well as violence by women.
In a study from which this piece is extracted, men (from Zimbabwe) reported having been abused by women who were either their spouses or partners. Yet, in other studies cited above, instances of women enacting violence in heterosexual and same-sex relationships are reported. IPA/V has, through research, been proven to be more complicated than something that can be pinned down as a male-perpetrator and female-victim (binary) conception. Individuals (regardless of their gender identity) transcend this divide in multiple ways and at different points in their lives. While it is undisputable that the gendered narrative of IPA/V has been successful in foregrounding the social and structural forces underpinning violence between men and women, there may be some gaps in the explanation of IPA/V resulting from idiosyncratic sources within this narrative. Gender is an important aspect in IPA incidences. However, age, education level, political association, economic position inter alia also play a significant role in the instigation of abuse. IPA/V may thus, result from multiple sources and this conception should not be viewed as rendering gender insignificant. The main objective is to highlight the nuances associated with violence that occurs in intimate relationships and the shortcomings of perceiving such violence in binary terms.
This calls into relevance theoretical explanations which accommodate nuanced conceptions, such as the post-structural feminist framework. The post-structural feminist perspective presents a more disaggregated than a unitary depiction of IPA/V. This contributes to its relevance in theorising the use of violence by women because it locates women as actors rather than acted upon. As an advantage, the post-structural feminist approach enables the examination of the range of non-essentialised gender practices which operate in relationships between women and men and the contradictions or tensions between them.
Gender essentialism leads to polarisation of genders (pitting men against women) which on its own poses a danger to inclusivity and may logically result in the dismissal of feminism as a men-hating movement. Narratives of victims among either men or women are not always coherent, tightly knit. Rather, they tend to be characterised by contradictions, divergences and nuances often with very loose ends that may be difficult to reconcile. Theoretical perspectives which acknowledge such nuances, as opposed to those that are essentialist, are thus ideal in conceptualising such and one may not need to search beyond post-structural feminism.
Borrowing from Foucault et al. (2012), post-structural feminists generally portray a nuanced conception of power whereby it is not available only to people of certain defined gender categories to the exception of others. In an intimate relationship, power is determined by the nature and circumstances of the relationship itself among other aspects. Any individual therein can embody it, but not constantly so. It is characterised by instability, fluidity and multi-centredness (Weedon, 1997). According to Foucault et al. (2012), people use tactics and strategies available to them to negotiate power based not only on gender but on other idiosyncratic factors such as their social location, political position, age, physical capacity, class or economic position, as well as intellectual capacity, among others. Individuals may also derive and exercise power from the intersections of two or more of these aspects to produce identities that are fluid and multiple as opposed to those determined by the gender-violence dichotomy or gender stereotypes (Cannon et al., 2015). Using post-structural feminist lenses, women are not perceived as a homogenous and constituted group. They are recognised as active participants in the construction of their subjective identities. Thus, women and men as individuals are capable of being victimised as they are capable of resisting victimisation and enforcing abuse themselves (Cannon et al., 2015; Weedon, 1997). However, the exercise of power by individuals in intimate relationships cannot be understood outside of the structural forces. The different socio-cultural positions of men and women should be considered for a realistic understanding of IPA/V.
For McNay (2018:39), ‘agency’ (which is inseparable from the analysis of power) is the ‘capacity of a person to act or intervene in the world in a manner that is deemed relatively autonomous.’ She further notes that agency is not the same as people’s automatic responses to structural forces. Rather, it indicates actions that are reflective and strategic, and which are undertaken by individuals in their everyday lives. It should be noted that individuals (regardless of gender) have the ability to exercise power, however, such ability is dependent on one’s position in the social structure. Agency operates within structural constraints and it should be understood in the context of its duality with structure (Giddens, 2013). Despite having some power or agency, women generally face social constraints in their everyday lives. Women, like men, are held to certain gender standards and stereotypes and non-adherence often results in social marginalisation. Therefore, women’s power cannot be envisioned as absolute. Rather it should be conceptualised as one which is exercised within social constraints of patriarchy, but it is still power and can be appropriated to harm others. Hence conceptualising such power within the post-structural feminist framework gives a closer-to-reality perspective of individual actions within IPA/V situations.
Post-structuralist-informed approaches to conceptualising ‘gender’ and IPA/V are known to be flawed in a number of ways, including in some cases, a denial of the need for gender categorisation, (which some view as an attempt to de-gender individuals in intimate relationships) (Monro, 2005). As its tenet among many, post-structural feminism advances the deconstruction of phenomena including binaries (as has been noted above) and language. Labels that represent women are deconstructed to portray multiple representations of individuals who cannot coherently constitute a group due to the differences in their everyday experiences. Such deconstruction has been viewed by some scholars as an attempt at invisibilising women’s experiences and disrupting the progress made in challenging patriarchy. These are notable concerns especially considering that women, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, encounter higher levels of IPV/A than men. As such, they may be considered to constitute a group regardless of the differences among them.
Closely related is the criticism against the post-structural feminists’ notion that power is fluid and can be embodied by anyone. Based on this notion, focus is then placed on how women exercise power at a micro level by resisting and in some cases instigating violence (English, 2010). Such emphasis on the micro or individual aspects of power results in the relegation of the social and structural underpinnings of power and control in intimate relationships. It is important to note that women’s power and or agency cannot realistically be understood outside of the structural constraints of patriarchy.
These concerns cannot be wished away as they are cogent. It would be important, therefore, when adopting such relativist theoretical stances to not be oblivious to the realities resulting from patriarchy which ostensibly have gendered implications on different people of different genders. Whether or not post-structural feminism is the best theoretical vehicle to use in a journey to a clearer academic understanding of IPA is a matter of opinion. However, it is important to highlight in conclusion that both structural (meta) feminism and post-structural feminism provide rich academic insights into the academic discourse on GBV and are both also significantly informative in search for pragmatic solutions to the social ill.
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Justice joined the CSA&G and the Department of Political Sciences as a Postdoctoral Researcher in July 2020. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Pretoria. His thesis focused on the nexus between intimate partner violence and male identity. Prior to enrolling at the University of Pretoria in 2017, he worked for the Government of Zimbabwe in the Ministry of Justice. He has research interests in broad interconnected areas of family sociology, gender-based violence; identities (masculinities and sexualities); gender inequality and vulnerability. He values and identifies with the advancement of social inclusion as a policy or everyday life approach.