‘How much would you endure before you lose your mind?’: Why we need to talk about women who fight back

Hell hath no fury: Orestes is fought by one of the Furies of Greek mythology, in a relief found on an ancient Greek vase (Shutterstock)
Hell hath no fury: Orestes is fought by one of the Furies of Greek mythology, in a relief found on an ancient Greek vase (Shutterstock)

We don’t like complexity when we talk about violence against women. We prefer it when victims are vulnerable and passive, the crimes against them brazen and straightforward. In a society that is structurally and socially designed to make us blame victims (especially when they’re women), presenting them in these terms elicits empathy and, crucially, credibility. It’s enormously important and helpful, both at a societal and legislative level.

But where does this leave victims who were less passive? Women who, in the face of violence, not only defended themselves but actually fought back. What are we to make of those other kinds of women?

These are the questions posed by Emmy Award-winning journalist and author Elizabeth Flock in her new book, The Furies: Three Women and Their Violent Fight for Justice. In it, she dives into the stories of three real-life women who used violence in the face of violence.

There’s Brittany Smith, a young mother from Stevenson, Alabama, who killed the man she said raped her; Angoori Dahariya, the leader of a gang in Uttar Pradesh, India, who is committed to avenging victims of domestic abuse; and Cicek Mustafa Zibo, who is in charge of a thousands-strong all-female militia that fought Isis in Syria. “I spent a long time being obsessed with female vigilantes in pop culture and mythology,” explains Flock, whose book takes its name from the three Greek goddesses of vengeance who punished sinners in the underworld. According to the poet Hesiod, they were created from the blood that was shed when the son of Gaia and Uranus was goaded by his mother to cut off his father’s testicles.

“I was always consuming stories of women who wielded violence against men who had done something to them,” adds Flock. “It took me a really long time to recognise that was because of my own personal experience. And the experiences of so many women I know.”

Flock begins the book by sharing how, in her early twenties, she went on a trip to Rome with some friends, where they were shown around by a local tour guide. They concluded the tour with a trip to a bar. All Flock remembers next is waking up in the guide’s bed with him raping her. “I have spent the last 15 years not at home in my body, in the skin that I once saw as protection,” she writes. “Often, I’ve wondered how that morning, and my life since, might have been different if I’d had access to a knife or a gun.”

Elizabeth Flock’s ‘The Furies’ looks at women who used violence in the face of violence (Vintage)
Elizabeth Flock’s ‘The Furies’ looks at women who used violence in the face of violence (Vintage)

But this fantasy only yielded further questions. At the heart of Flock’s book is one central issue: these women’s actions may have helped them obtain a sense of cosmic justice, which, in most cases, also saved their lives, but when you consider the long-term ramifications of their actions, it’s hard to know whether it helped or hindered them. “It definitely helped [Brittany and Angoori’s] communities,” says Flock. “There’s more reporting on domestic abuse in Stevenson and Uttar Pradesh, and so many women were inspired by Cicek. As for whether it helps the women themselves? I mean, in the UK, US and elsewhere, if you kill an abuser, you’re almost certainly going to jail. Even if you claim self-defence and have a really strong claim.”

One forensic expert told Flock that 80 per cent of women in these cases end up taking plea deals. “I think all of these women would say they’re glad they did what they did, and feel they have more agency and power,” she adds. “I looked at my own story and wished I had fought back. I’m kinder to myself about that now, but I spent a long time thinking. I just wanted to have done something instead of freezing.”

Out of the three women covered in The Furies, Smith’s case is the most well known, and was even the subject of a true-crime Netflix documentary from 2022. It was a product of Flock’s own reporting – in 2020, she published a long read about Smith in The New Yorker. It detailed how Smith had been drinking in her home with a man named Todd, who’d recently sold her a puppy. He consumed a substantial amount of methamphetamine before getting into an argument with her, one that she says led to him assaulting her. “He told me not to say a f***ing word and if I even breathe wrong he’d kill me,” she told the court. Later that night, after Smith’s brother arrived and got into a physical fight with Todd, Smith shot him dead.

Smith, who has four children she lost custody of in 2013 after her struggles with substance abuse, went on to spend four months in prison and was later institutionalised. She was eventually granted a “Stand Your Ground” hearing, in which she tried to gain immunity from prosecution via a statute that makes it legal to use lethal force as a form of self-defence. However, despite a sexual assault nurse documenting more than 30 injuries on Smith’s body, she lost the hearing and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She served 18 months and was released and placed on house arrest under parole conditions.“She’s back in prison unfortunately,” says Flock, who explains that Smith violated her parole and has subsequently been given her original sentence, which means she’ll stay in prison until 2041.

I looked at my own story and wished I had fought back. I’m kinder to myself about that now, but I spent a long time thinking. I just wanted to have done something instead of freezing.

Elizabeth Flock

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Flock’s book is its examination of female prisoners like Smith. One 2010 study on the female Illinois prison population found that 98 per cent of women said they had experienced physical violence before being imprisoned. Meanwhile, 85 per cent had been stalked or emotionally abused, and 75 per cent had been sexually abused.

Another study estimates that nearly half of the women in maximum-security prisons in the southeast US said their crimes were committed after they’d been abused. Meanwhile, a 2020 report published in The Appeal and The New Republic found that at least 30 per cent of women serving time for murder or manslaughter in 22 states said they’d been protecting themselves or someone else from physical or sexual violence.

“The hard data doesn’t exist beyond that,” adds Flock. “But when I looked at a review of why women are violent versus men, it found that men wielded violence for control and women in self-defense and sometimes in retaliation. It really makes me think about how effective incarceration really is. Our original motivation for incarceration was to rehabilitate people and we’ve come so far away from that.”

Smith aside, there’s no paucity of high-profile cases in this arena. Flock details them at length. There is Nokubonga Qampi, dubbed the South African “Lion Mama” in the press, who was charged in 2017 for stabbing to death one of three men while they were raping her daughter. Only after public outcry were the charges dropped. There is Yakiri Rubio, in Mexico, who cut her rapist’s throat after he abducted her. She was imprisoned until international media coverage led to her release. In the UK, there is Sally Challen, who beat her abusive husband to death in 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison. She stayed there until 2019, when nationwide outrage and a historic appeal led to her freedom.

There are other, more disturbing, stories that detail the thousands of other women who spend their lives in prison for killing their abusers. Flock also recounts stories like Tuti Tursilawati’s, an Indonesian housekeeper living in Saudi Arabia who killed her employer in 2011 – she accused him of sexually and physically assaulting her. Shortly after, she was sentenced to death; drug trafficking, rape, murder, apostasy and armed robbery are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia’s legal system. In 2018, Tarsilawati was executed.

All of the women Flock writes about are a far cry from what society would deem the aforementioned “perfect victim” – someone harmed in a way that is non-negotiably violent, and responded in the “appropriate” manner to elicit cultural sympathy. Anyone that dares respond differently, or claims to suffer a form of abuse that is more complex, let alone one involving drugs and alcohol, is demonised, denigrated and not believed. Perhaps the most recent high-profile example of this is Amber Heard.

Amber Heard during the civil defamation trial brought to court by her ex-husband Johnny Depp in 2022 (Getty)
Amber Heard during the civil defamation trial brought to court by her ex-husband Johnny Depp in 2022 (Getty)

“As humans we crave simplicity and things that are easy to characterise,” says Flock when I bring up Heard, who became a viral laughing stock during her 2022 US defamation trial against her ex-husband, Johnny Depp. Scenes from their marriage were reenacted by TikTok users and layered with audio of Heard alleging domestic and sexual abuse by the actor, who ultimately won the trial. The jury found Heard guilty of defaming her ex in an article in which she claimed she was a victim of domestic abuse, meaning that they did not believe her. This followed Depp’s loss in a UK trial over an article that called him a “wife-beater” – the judge ruled that the allegations against him were “substantially true”.

Flock was most rattled by the misinformed discourse around abusive relationships that the Depp v Heard trial sparked. “The term ‘mutual abuse’ kept being thrown around,” she recalls. “If you talk to any domestic abuse expert, they say mutual abuse does not exist. There is always one person who wields power and control and then someone else is reacting to that. And that was so clear to me and to so many people who’ve covered domestic abuse.”

She remembers a podcast she once appeared on, which explored the story of a domestic abuse survivor in Alabama. “Sometimes, her partner would have a bruise on him because he would beat the hell out of her and she would fight back,” she recalls. “Or maybe on a given day when he didn’t do it, it was one of 100 days when she did initiate. But in these cases, one person is still controlling the finances, and has all of the power and public opinion [on their side].” It’s why she felt the response to Heard was “so damaging”. “There are toxic relationships where people can be mutually toxic to each other, but when it comes to abuse, it’s very different.”

It’s hard to know where to look for optimism. In the UK alone, one in four women will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime, while the same proportion have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. Legislation in both areas is lagging behind – it was only in 2015 that coercive control was recognised by the government. The conviction rate for sexual assault in England and Wales is also so low that, in 2020, former victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird claimed we were witnessing the effective decriminalisation of rape.

I’ve been covering domestic abuse for a long time and it was only when I started writing about women like Brittany that people started showing interest

Elizabeth Flock

Books like Flock’s certainly help, if only to get people talking more about the issue at hand. “I’ve been covering domestic abuse for a long time and it was only when I started writing about women like Brittany that people started showing interest,” she says. “I will get people to show an interest in any way that I can.”

She continues: “In a depressing way, people do not read stories about abuse survivors who just sit there. They read stories about women who fight back. Because when you tell someone a domestic abuse story, you think, ‘that’s horrible, I would never let that happen to me.’ But when you talk about a woman who killed and shot her abuser after a decade or more of abuse, then you’re saying, ‘OK – why did she do that?’ ‘Was this justified?’ You’re asking a lot more questions. And you’re willing to dive into the details and wrestle with what happened.”

And perhaps only then, as you get further along in that process of interrogation, do you find your preconceived, socially conditioned ideas around abuse and victimhood changing.

“Once you dig into these stories and you actually consider the full history of what went on, these women’s actions do not seem so crazy,” says Flock. “How much would you endure before you lost your mind?”

The Furies: Three Women and Their Violent Fight for Justice by Elizabeth Flock is out now with Viking