Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Books: "The Furies" By Elizabeth Flock


The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice

By Elizabeth Flock

Harper; hardcover, 304 pages; $32.00; available today, Tuesday, January 9th

Elizabeth Flock is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who has spent the past five years covering women in the criminal justice system, especially those imprisoned for defending themselves against an abuser. Every month, she speaks to dozens of women behind bars, and she has studied hundreds of criminalized survival cases. She is the host of the Blind Plea podcast, which is about a black mother in Alabama who killed her white abuser, filed a Stand Your Ground claim, and was instead given a blind plea, an option to take an unknown sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. It was #1 on Apple Podcasts and is the first journalistic look at the practice of blind pleas. 

The Furies is Flock's new book, an incisive account of three real-life women, in three different parts of the world, who have used violence to fight back against rape, domestic abuse, and the incursions of war. This brings about questions of whether women's actions fighting back help or hurt them, and if women can truly hope to effect societal change by pitting their own brand of violence against the systemic violence afflicted on them by their oppressors.

Flock reports that the public's view of such women is often distorted by the media and pop culture, which either castigates or exalts them as heroes or rebels. The truth is a bit more complicated, as she discovered.

The first story Flock examines is that of Brittany Smith, who was the subject of a New Yorker piece that went viral. Smith is a young woman from rural Stevenson, Alabama, who killed a man she said raped her but was denied the protections of the state's Stand-Your-Ground law. The second story takes place in Uttar Pradesh, India, where Angoori Dahariya, is leader of a gang dedicated to avenging victims of domestic abuse. Then, the reader is introduced to Cicek Mustafa Zibo, a fighter in a thousands-strong all-female militia that battled ISIS in Syria.

Each woman chose to use lethal force in order to gain safety, power, and freedom when the institutions meant to protect them, including police, government, and the courts, failed to deliver. Each woman has faced criticism for their actions by those who believe that violence is never the answer.

Flock conducted research on the ground, as she embedded with families, communities, and organizations in America, India, and Syria, and tells their stories with the necessary nuance to give the complete picture. With a topic this complex, and with subjects in three vastly different societies, it is fascinating to see where there are similarities in their experiences.

A Conversation With Elizabeth Flock (provided by HarperCollins):

Elizabeth Flock.

Why have you chosen these three stories, in particular; what links them together? "As a culture we are obsessed with stories of female vigilantes (what the BBC in 2022 dubbed the 'ascent of the violent-and-yet-relatable female anti-hero'). I believe we are obsessed with these stories because we wish we could be them, due to the global epidemic of gender-based violence that exists in our homes, largely behind closed doors. Using that as a premise, I went looking for real-life stories of women who fought back against domestic and sexual violence, to better understand what happened when they did. Did their actions help stop the violence, or only breed more? And what happened to the women?

I spent years researching stories of women who defended themselves all over the world, from Senegal to Mexico to the UK to the Ukraine. I landed on the three stories I did - in the rural US, India, and Syria - because they took place in 1) deeply patriarchal places with 2) cultures of honor where 3) institutions are often inadequate and so individuals must stand up to protect themselves 4) in this case women and 5) I had access to study these women.

I wanted to look at the problem in both a macro and micro way (from the battlefield to the community to the home). It was important to me to report on this subject in my own country (the US), as well as far afield (India, Syria), to show how the problem of gender-based violence plagues us everywhere, from far-flung places to the reader's own backyard. It was also my intention to follow an individual (Brittany Smith), a group (Angoori Dahariya's Green Gang), and a larger system (Cicek Mustafa Zibo and the YPJ) of women who fought back, to understand female self-defense at multiple levels.

In all three stories, women violently fought back against gender-based violence perpetrated against them and/or their communities - at great personal cost to themselves.

What impression do you want to make on the reader upon finishing The Furies? As a society, we pretend to be peace-loving, but a closer look suggests a state - and a masculine - monopoly on violence. This is clear any time the police use excessive force, a corporation destroys the land, or we carelessly drop bombs abroad. When a violated woman fights back, however, it is another story. Women's claims of self-defense do not get the same treatment as men; in many places around the world, for example, women are twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if they defend themselves with lethal force.

The central argument of this book is really a series of questions: If there is a global epidemic of gender-based violence, yet women are not able to defend themselves against it, have women really made true progress? Why, if we profess to be pacifists, do these women's uses of violence feel so necessary? Is an insistence on nonviolence really just the purview of the privileged and the safe?

Why are we so shocked when women are violent? It is one of the oldest steretypes or myths in the world that women are peacemakers. As political scientists Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg put it, 'Gender and development and even feminist discourses suggest that women are necessarily more nurturing and peace-loving than men - and that, by extension, there is something especially troubling about women whose behavior transgresses these.' As a result, we feel uncomfortable with women who are violent. We want them to pacify, to mediate, to nurture, to rise above."

Are women and girls becoming more violent, or is it just that we've never confronted it before? No, I don't think so. Despite the fact that we have long assigned women as the more peaceful gender, our mythologies and histories are rife with tales of violent women, from the goddesses Athena, Kali and Inanna to the biblical Judith to the ancient queen Boudica, from the paintings of Artemesia Gentileschi to the contemporary Lorena Bobbitt. I just think we have not, in our modern era at least, confronted the idea that female violence may be necessary.

Would you agree that in each of the three stories, each woman becomes powerful, without gaining any power? Each woman in the book gives agency by actively instead of passively responding to the violence perpetrated against them and their communities. They also gain a voice. But I wouldn't say they became more powerful. In fact, while they arguably gain more power for the women around them (Brittany for other Alabama women, Angoori for her Green Gang members), and Cicek for her fellow fighters), they do so at great personal costs to themselves. They are victims of the systems they tried to challenge - but not for nothing.

Can you expand on what you mean by the book's last line, "If only we could all fight so hard"? We are living at a time of many crises: from the epidemic of gender-based violence to rising income inequality to religious wars to environmental catastrophe. Many of us feel that we cannot do much to change these circumstances. I believe this is fundamentally untrue, and that these women and their challenge to entrenched systems are a testament to that. Fighting back is often damaging personally but can have a large impact systematically. I wish this book to be a call to arms to all of us to, in response to these crimes, do something.

Can you expand on what you mean around "their failings are, in part, a response to living within damaging cultures of honor"? Do you think these are very specific cultural stories relating to female violence, or are there broader more universal themes that can be applicable to women's (lack of) status everywhere? Brittany Smith struggled with addiction in large part because of the domestic violence she endured. Angoori Dahariya searched for power because she had none as a poor, low-caste woman. Cicek Mustafa Zibo was looking for an ideology to grab onto because being relegated to the home as a housewife made no sense to her.

But of course these cultures of honor don't just damage women. They damage men as well, who feel they must be violent to be powerful. 

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