Essay: The Terrorism that is Intimate Partner Violence

Source: Canadian Women’s Foundation

Trigger warning: femicide, cis male terrorism

Romane Bonnier did not stand a chance. Unlike most incidents of “domestic violence”--private, easy to ignore and deny--her killing by an ex-partner forced the horror of cis men’s violence against women onto public consciousness, literally. As it should. But she still did not stand a chance.

On October 19, in broad daylight on a busy Montreal street near McGill University, Romane’s ex-partner stabbed her to death as many students and passersby watched, too afraid to intervene because of the size of the knife he used to kill her. 

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said he was horrified by the news of the 24-year-old’s death in downtown Montreal.

"I cannot believe that it happens here in Quebec," Legault said.

Why? Because such male savagery against women happens “over there” and not “over here”? Femicide--the killing of a woman or a girl by a man because of her gender, sometimes also used to refer to the epidemic of women killed by men in intimate settings--is not alien to Canada. 

Every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. And Quebec, specifically Montreal, is all too familiar with femicide. On December 6, 1989, a gunman motivated by a hatred of feminists hunted down women on the campus of a polytechnic, killing 14 women and injuring a dozen other people.

Journalist Josée Boileau, who covered the Montreal Massacre, says that right after the slaughter, many wouldn’t acknowledge that all the victims were women—from male editors who did not trust young female journalists on the scene, to politicians who referred to “victims” or “youth” or “loved ones” but never to “women.”

A report by the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA), which tracks femicides across the country, said the pandemic had led to a spike in femicides: 160 women and girls were victims of femicide in 2020, an uptick from the 118 who were killed in 2019. Between January and June of 2021, 92 women and girls were killed, mostly by men.

We know Romane Bonnier because she was killed in broad daylight. And also because she was young and white and conventionally attractive, much like Sarah Everard in the UK and Gabby Petito in the U.S. The sympathy and public attention paid to white women is exponentially greater than that paid to other victims and survivors of intimate partner and male violence. 

Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women in Canada. The homicide rate for Indigenous women and girls in the US is six times higher than it is for white women and girls, and 94% of these deaths  are attributable to former or current partners. 

In the U.S., Black women are murdered by men at a rate nearly three times higher than white women. And the COVID19 pandemic made things much worse. At least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the United States in 2020, according to FBI statistics, a sharp increase compared with the year before.

When Men’s Rights Activists “accuse” me of being a misandrist, my honest answer is “You fucking bet I am. Have you met cis men?”

Almost exactly three years ago, I was in Dublin to attend a gathering for activists from around the world on ways to end violence against women and children. Many of the speakers were themselves survivors who shared their own experience with the violence of cis men. Some talked of how they survived, others of how they barely have. 

After two days of listening to the speakers’ searing and gutting stories, I wanted to kill men. I had to leave the conference hall for some air and as I walked through the streets of Dublin, that’s all I could think: I want to kill a man.

Two intense days of survivor stories left me reeling and wondering ‘How can I not hate men?!’ It is difficult not to hate men. When Men’s Rights Activists “accuse” me of being a misandrist, my honest answer is “You fucking bet I am. Have you met cis men?”

I do not want to be protected from the violence of cis men. I want patriarchy to stop protecting violent cis men. I want to be free of the violence of cis men.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States; in Canada it is November. 

But “domestic” is important only when it hurts men and the State--as in Domestic Terrorism.

Otherwise “domestic”--as in domestic violence--is not taken seriously. It is private, it is hidden, it happens in the realm of the home, that space cleaned and cared for by women, that space headed and ruled by men, that space where women are most endangered. Home is where the hurt is. 

So we call it instead Intimate Partner Violence to shake off the air of privacy and denial, but even that is not enough to convey the horror. 

So let’s call it what it is: terrorism.

Violence against women is everyday; ordinary men commit it.

According to the WHO, one in four women aged between 15 and 24 years around the world will have experienced violence by an intimate partner.

In the U.S. more women are killed by intimate partners--their boyfriends, husbands and exes--than any other type of perpetrator. So much for “stranger danger.” Three women are killed every day in the US by a current or an ex partner.

That is terrorism. 

The U.S. barely uses the word “femicide” to describe the slaughter of women by cis men, let alone “terrorism,” which it is.

Femicide kills 10 times more women in the U.S. than in France. Adjusting for population size, the problem is twice as bad in the US than it is in France. 

Femicide is worse in the U.S. than in Turkey, that “over there” place where cis men’s murder of women is called “honour killings.”

“Honour killings” like “intimate partner violence” fails to focus the horror on where it should be. So let’s call both forms of violence what it is: terrorism.

If terrorism means political violence intended to scare us into changing the way we behave, then surely femicide is terrorism. Patriarchy is the ideology; cis men are the terrorists.

Clearly, the daily terrorism of girls and women is akin to the air we breathe – we take it as granted and we rarely think about it.

If feminism is the F word some hesitate to use, I rarely use the T (for terrorism) word because I recognize the ways in which it is used to describe the violence of enemies versus the violence committed by allies. But if terrorism means politically-motivated violence intended to scare us into changing the way we behave, then surely femicide is terrorism. Patriarchy is the ideology; cis men are the terrorists.

When acts of militant violence claim the lives of senior politicians, security chiefs are fired for failing to do their jobs. Who do we fire for their abject failure at stemming the terrorism that women and girls - cis and trans - are subjected to? 

Because unless we impose on societal consciousness just how quotidian violence against women is and how it is ordinary men who commit it – and not some rare Minotaurian beast – it will continue to benefit ordinary men. It does. 

Say it.  Violence against women is everyday; ordinary men commit it.

Denial of that, enables men to distance themselves from the violence. Whether any individual man has ever beaten up or raped a woman is besides the point at this stage because such violence--enabled and protected by patriarchy--helps maintain a social construct (women’s fear of men, and subservience to them) that privileges all men. All men benefit from some men’s violence against women.

They are beneficiaries of that violence because that violence upholds patriarchy. It is foundational to patriarchy.

And so if we stand a chance of ending femicide (and these “awareness” months that seem to do little but put the burden and onus on victims and survivors) the very destruction of that patriarchy must be acknowledged as the way to end the terrorism of cis men against women. 

The ways patriarchy enables and protects cis men’s violence against women must be recognized for the ways it undergirds their violence. A hotline in Bogotá, Colombia is doing just that by not only seeking to prevent violence but also addressing its root cause in the nation: machismo. It is the first time that a platform in Latin America seeks to put the responsibility in the hands of the aggressor and not the victim, trying to dismantle the ingrained belief that men “must be dominant.”

The anti-machista hotline aims to push men to analyze how machismo harms their lives, and the lives of those around them, with the goal of being part of the cultural shift taking place.

All men benefit from some men’s violence against women.

They are beneficiaries of that violence because that violence upholds patriarchy. It is foundational to patriarchy.

If we are to stand a chance of liberating women and girls from the noose of patriarchal violence, our goal must be for the very elimination of patriarchy and the dynamics that it turbocharges.

Instead of asking a woman “Why did you stay?” ask her partner “Why did you start beating her?” for example.

Instead of focusing on women, the hotline “puts men at the center of the conversation, in an effort to teach them to understand their emotions and control their actions.”

When we put the onus and focus on patriarchy--the root of the violence--rather than its victims, we start to acknowledge that it is not enough to simply stick on a band-aid and expect the places broken by that patriarchy to heal and move on.

I do not want to be protected from the violence of cis men. I want patriarchy to stop protecting violent cis men. 

The 7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

I do not want to be protected from the violence of cis men. I want to be free of the violence of cis men. Protection is conditional--the further you are from patriarchy’s “perfect victim,” the less likely you are to be protected from its ravages.

Robert Pickton, one of the most notorious serial killers in history, targeted mostly sex workers and Indigenous women, some dealing with addictions or mental health issues, in Vancouver, Canada. He admitted to butchering 49 women and feeding them to pigs.

When mothers, fathers or other relatives would go to Vancouver police to report their loved one missing, they were dismissed.

"And their response invariably would be: 'Well, we don't have time to look for hookers. Your daughter is a drug addict. What do you expect us to do?“

If it has become routine to ask “Who radicalized them?” about violent armed militants, be they Muslim or white supremacists, that question is even more imperative to ask of men who commit femcide. 

We deserve to be free of the terrorism of cis men.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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