HerStory: Beware The Furies When They Ascend

HerStory: Beware The Furies When They Ascend

Normally, most women are unable to get the men who attacked or violated them punished, and this rampant injustice leads to glamourising, or even mythologising, women who took to violence and attained their own form of frontier justice

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, February 22, 2024, 10:43 PM IST
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Angoori Dahariya, whose vigilante group came to be known as the Green Gang because they wore green saris | Pic: X/Twitter

When Elizabeth Flock, then in her twenties, went to Rome with her friends, she was roofied by their guide and raped. Like so many women, in that situation, she did not know what to do. There was rage, confusion, helplessness and the near certainty that she would not get justice from the legal system. She writes in the preface of her book The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice, “I have spent the last fifteen years not at home in my body, in the skin that I once saw as protection. Often I have wondered how that morning, and my life since, might have been different if I’d had access to a knife or a gun.”

She did find the man years later, and he was living in the same city as her, she had fantasies of burning down his furniture store. But, she was also aware that it would not help her get over the trauma. “But I was on the hunt now, for answers and for women who had followed their instincts to fight.”

Normally, most women are unable to get the men who attacked or violated them punished, and this rampant injustice leads to glamourising, or even mythologising, women who took to violence and attained their own form of frontier justice.

“Vigilante women,” Flock writes, “ are easy to find in media, fiction , and across cultures: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Kill Bill, Watchmen, Lady Vengeance, Goodbye Earl, the Furies, Kali and Athena. We are drawn to these figures perhaps because we wish we could be them.”

In Greek mythology The Furies, were three goddesses of vengeance and retribution who punished men for their crimes. The three, named Alecto (Unceasing in Anger), Tisiphone (Avenger of Murder), and Megaera (Jealous), lived in the underworld and ascended to Earth to punish evil, or when called upon by a victim’s curse. They are depicted with snakes for hair and weeping human blood. Every culture has a version of these, in mythology or in popular imagination — in India, there are Goddesses Durga, Kali and then the Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi, whose exploits have entered the realm of modern legend.

As a journalist, Flock went out to hunt for “living versions” of the Furies, of women who “took matters into their own hands” and distilled three stories for her book, one of whom happens to be from India.

The three women have very different backgrounds—Brittany Smith belongs to a highly misogynistic pocket of Alabama in supposedly liberal America, Angoori Dahariya is from Uttar Pradesh, notorious for its patriarchy, and Cicek Mustafa Zibo, who is a Kurdish woman from war-ravaged Syria.

Divorced mother of four and reformed meth addict Brittany had the misfortune of befriending the Jekyll-and-Hyde type of character, Todd. At her home one evening, he violently raped her and, when her brother Chris came to her aid, attacked him too. Dazed and desperate, Brittany shot Todd with Chris’s gun. The whole might of the country’s lopsided law fell on her head. Her children were taken away, she was sent to an inhumane mental institution, and the worst, her self-defence plea was not taken into account, despite severe injuries on her body. She invoked the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which “made it legal to use lethal force to defend oneself against threats or perceived threats if necessary with no duty to retreat,” which, as it turned out, had proven inadequate in other cases of women killing their attackers. Flock writes, “Women have long struggled to win cases like Brittany’s since long before Stand Your Ground became law. In part, this is because self defense laws in the US, and Europe were written by and for property-owning white men.”

She cites the 1989 book, Justifiable Homicide, by women’s rights advocate Cynthia Gillespie, “As a result of its origins, self-defense law evolved based on the masculine assumption that the fight is between people of roughly equal size, strength and fighting ability and it’s never acceptable to kill an unarmed adversary. Both assumptions have made it difficult for women to win self-defense cases because women and men are often different sizes and strengths and women are more likely to defend themselves with guns or knives, while men more often use hands and fists…”

What made it worse for a woman like Brittany, who was immediately judged and found wanting by the judge and jury because of her past transgressions — she was not the passive “ideal victim”.

Angoori Dahariya had her Dalit status coming in the way of her hopes of advancement — educating her children and making a home for herself. She was driven out of the land she had legitimately purchased, because the upper-caste villagers did not want a Dalit family living next to them. Inspired by Phoolan Devi and using her own experience of the might-is-right behaviour she experienced, when she got no help from the law Angoori picked up a lathi and formed her gang of justice-dispensing vigilantes, who came to be known as the Green Gang because they wore green saris — their work quite similar to the better known Gulabi Gang formed by Sampat Pal.

Angoori allied herself with the then reigning Samajwadi Party, and slowly acquired followers and a kind of cult status for her ability to dispense justice to wronged women. She made it possible for oppressed women in the backward region to understand that all it took was courage and a lathi, to make men retreat with their deflated egos. There was, of course, strength in numbers, but her real power was her ability to mobilise women who had never stepped out of their homes.

India is a democracy, even though it often fails the weak, but Syria, in a country torn by violence and civil war, where women have no rights, Cicek Mustafa Zibo and others like her emerged to join YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units, an all-female militia that had been created alongside male-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), to fight for the cause of oppressed Kurds left without a homeland. That Cicek was fearless and up against the vicious ISIS militants is a mark in her favour.

These women have nothing in common but their ability to fight violence with violence. That changed them, sometimes changed the society around them — or, as in the case of Cicek, she retired because her “soul was tired.” Flock has compared these three women to The Furies, but also in her epigraph quotes the Mexican feminist protest slogan: “Neither saints, nor whores, only women.”

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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