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1 May 2024

When women fight back

Three accounts of women who met male brutality on its own terms reveal the limits of justice – both within and outside the law.

By Megan Gibson

In Greek mythology, as in life, there is no shortage of stories in which women are raped and brutalised. After Tereus rapes his wife’s sister Philomela, he cuts her tongue out so she can’t tell. Zeus takes the form of a bull in order to abduct and impregnate Europa. When Apollo chases the nymph Daphne, she is so terrified that she begs to be transformed into a tree.

Yet there are also myths about women seeking vengeance, notably the Furies: three goddesses, with writhing snakes for hair, who together, as the American journalist Elizabeth Flock writes, “punished crimes against the so-called natural order”. Years after her own rape – by a tour guide in Rome who spiked her drink – Flock found herself obsessed with the second type of story, where mythical women followed their instinct to fight. “It was only later I realised there were so many living versions.”

Deeply reported and lucidly told, The Furies traces the stories of three such women. Though living in very different cultures and circumstances, these women have been raped or abused, or threatened with both and far worse. And, in the absence of any official path to justice or even protection, Flock writes, they “took matters into their own hands”. Why do women choose violence? When it’s a matter of survival, The Furies suggests, it’s not really a choice.

The book’s first subject is Brittany Smith, a 30-something mother of four in Stevenson, Alabama, whose story is the most detailed – and agonising – of the three. After struggling for years through divorce, addiction and losing custody of her children, Brittany thought she was turning her life around; she had a new job and believed she would soon be reunited with her kids. Then one night in January 2018, Joshua “Todd” Smith, a local acquaintance from whom she had just purchased a pit bull puppy, called her asking for a ride and a place to crash after he was stranded in a snowstorm. Brittany was reluctant to say yes – Todd was a heavy drug user, known for his temper – but felt too guilty to say no. Back at her house, a seemingly minor argument swiftly turned gruesome: Todd, high on meth, beat, strangled and raped Brittany so brutally that medical examiners later recorded 33 injuries, including bite marks, to her neck, chest, breast, arms, legs and feet.

After the assault, Todd lingered, threatening to kill her and her family. Though terrified, Brittany managed to get a message to her brother Chris and he arrived at her house with a gun. After the two men began to fight, with Chris seemingly on the losing end, Brittany grabbed the gun and shot Todd three times, killing him.

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Brittany’s nightmare was only beginning. After a grand jury indicted her for murder, she encountered “the good ol’ boys club” – a justice system built by men for men. Few were sympathetic to her claim of self-defence, even after her legal team invoked the “stand your ground” law, which allows the use of lethal force to protect oneself from threats, real or perceived. Local police are dismissive of the assault (“Honestly, I mean, I would have thought there would be more,” the chief investigator sniffs when asked about her 33 documented injuries); the prosecutor argues that Todd was unarmed as “hands and fists do not qualify as a deadly weapon”.

In many US states, Brittany’s story is not unique. In Alabama it is depressingly common. Flock cites research that found no women in the state had won justifiable-homicide rulings between 2006, when Alabama passed its “stand your ground” law, and 2010 when it stopped reporting its homicide data to the FBI. Even Todd’s ex-wife, Paige, reported that he had previously “duct-taped and tied [her] to a chair” before throwing the chair in a river; a local police officer tells Flock that Paige is “a handful”. Men are praised for standing up and protecting themselves in the South, Flock learns, but women aren’t viewed in the same light. As a researcher puts it to Flock, a “woman capable of violence needs to be pathologised: is she angry or is she crazy?” Brittany is treated as the latter: on flimsy advice, a judge orders her to be institutionalised in a mental hospital prior to her self-defence hearing, which she goes on to lose. Rather than take a risk with a jury in a murder trial, Brittany accepts a deal, pleading guilty in exchange for serving seven months in jail.

Like Brittany, Angoori Dahariya also faced an indifferent justice system. A Dalit housewife from a small village in India’s north, Angoori found herself without recourse after she was evicted by her higher-caste landlord in 1999. Though she and her sons were badly beaten, the police were unbothered. Furious and humiliated, Angoori took inspiration from India’s famous Robin Hood-like female bandits and formed an all-female gang of vigilantes. The women donned green saris and brandished bamboo canes, which they used to beat abusive men and intimidate police who ignored the complaints of lower-caste women.

Lastly, we meet Cicek Mustafa Zibo who, as a defiant Kurdish teenager in northern Syria, longed to drive a car and schemed to avoid marriage. Yet after the country’s descent into civil war in 2011, Islamic State threatens the autonomous Kurdish-majority region of Rojava where she lives. Appalled by news reports of their murderous ideology and systemic brutality towards women, Cicek, at age 17, joins the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), an all-female guerrilla militia. She soon becomes one of its more renowned, battle-hardened fighters, racking up so many kills they begin to blur together in her mind.

Flock doesn’t romanticise any of the women, but leans in to the messier aspects of their stories. Brittany is a former meth addict who relapses multiple times and Flock makes it clear it’s not always apparent when she does. Angoori becomes increasingly power-hungry and corrupt as her gang grows, and then is widely denounced after she turns her vigilante violence on a teenage bride having an affair, beating her and then forcing her into a second marriage. The chapters devoted to Angoori’s story are also notably more vague than the others; I was left with the distinct impression that she was the least reliable narrator out of the three women. Cicek, meanwhile, remains devoted to the YPJ and its political ideals, yet tries to obscure the fact that the militia recruits young girls, claiming they’re not asked to fight until they are 16. There are no perfect victims here. “Their individual failings,” Flock writes, “caught up to them and complicated their stories.”

All three women are freed in many ways by the violence they chose, but in other ways they become trapped. After completing her sentence for Todd’s death, Brittany finds herself stuck in a cycle of incarceration: a fight with a new abusive boyfriend drives her to set fire to his mattress; she is sent back to jail for arson, and then later once again for several days after failing a drug test while on probation. Angoori finds that once her gang disbands her influence wanes but not her aspirations; Flock writes, somewhat pitifully, that “she hoped the government would recognise her in some belated way for all the work she’d done to help women”. And while Cicek had been committed to the YPJ, she “abruptly retired” in 2023, aged 27, fighting suicidal thoughts: the “stress and trauma of war had finally caught up to her, replacing her bravado with a kind of madness”.

Though clear-eyed, Flock refrains from judging her subjects, ultimately concluding that these three women were left with few options to defend themselves that didn’t involve violence. She portrays their choices, morally fraught though they might be, as acts of resistance, which “added up to something worthy, setting events into motion that very well may change the world after them”.

There is a reason stories of justice and redemption, whether they are from myths or real life, resonate. As Flock notes, we are drawn to women who fight back “perhaps because we wish we could be them”. Flock never reported her own rape to the police; she spent years wondering what would have happened the next morning had she had a gun or knife. Though she developed “chronic fatigue and stomach pain” while researching The Furies, Flock attempts to dispel the notion that she had anything personal at stake by reporting on domestic and sexual violence, writing in the preface, “I felt the guilt of knowing I wasn’t healing anyone only by listening.” That may be true. But in a less thoughtful writer’s hands, these women’s stories might not have retained their power. Writing, too, can be an act of resistance.  

The Furies: Three Women and Their Violent Fight for Justice
Elizabeth Flock
Viking, 304pp, £18.99

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[See also: From Epsom College to David Carrick, we’re trying to unsee male violence against women]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March