HRS International

When women are at their worst

For over thirty years, feminist and women's studies researcher Phyllis Chesler has studied women's inhumanity to other women. In the present article, written expressly for, she suggests that those who feel obliged to believe that women are softer and kinder than men think again. Women's cruelty to one another, maintains Chesler, is on the rise. The solution, in her view, is to exhibit courage -- and to support heroes.

Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman: Heroism is Our Only Option

Phyllis Chesler

In the early 1990s, Finnish researcher Kaj Borkqvist began publishing his findings about covert or “indirect aggression” among girls. Other researchers replicated and expanded these findings globally. The Second Wave feminist movements in Europe and North America, already committed to the utopian view that girls and women are morally superior to men, more compassionate, more peaceful, did not want to hear about it.

Anti-feminists (and Third Wave feminists) believed that women, including feminists, are bitches who would steal another woman’s job or husband without a backward glance. I disagreed with this acid view but did understand that women do not always behave in “sisterly” ways towards each other—or rather, that they do and that our much longed-for “sisterhood” also has a treacherous, shadow side.

I first began to research this subject thirty years ago. It was deemed politically incorrect in feminist circles. The belief that women are “better” than men, more compassionate, more cooperative, more moral, died hard. My Second Wave compatriots needed to believe this. But the truth is more complicated. Like men, women are as close to the apes as to the angels; they are capable of both cruelty and kindness. To expect all women to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” is ridiculous. And to damn women for being imperfect – human – is equally foolish, even dangerous.

Thus, as I documented in my book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, which has just been reissued with a new introduction, girls and women may be hard-wired, as well as socialized, to compete mainly against other girls and women. In addition, their methods are “indirectly aggressive”; they slander, gossip, and ostracize other girls and women, often with grave and life-long consequences. For example, life-long female conformity is largely due to the traumatizing effects of having been belittled, punished, and rejected by adult women and by other little girls.

Because female-female aggression is usually not as dramatic or as visible as male-male violence, it has, until recently, gotten little attention. That has now changed. Female-female aggression has gotten a lot more savage and visibly so, certainly in developing Third World (especially Islamic) countries but also in the West. Here, grown mothers of teenage cheerleaders shockingly sabotage their daughters’ competitors; female students physically fight each other and, in a pack, physically attack their female teachers. Gruesomely, women attack pregnant women and cut out their babies to keep as their own.

In the developing/Muslim world, co-wives, co-concubines, wives and mistresses fight with each other verbally, psychologically, and physically—often unto death, as do mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, especially in India. Women are globally complicit in the honor killings of their female relatives. Even in North America, some mothers have sweet-talked their runaway daughters into returning home whereupon their husbands and sons promptly killed them for being “too western;” sometimes, mothers have taken a hands-on role in the honor murders of their own daughters.

Women suicide killers often target other women and children, they stand right besides them and then blow themselves right up. Often, older women traffic girls into brothels and join in beating them to break their spirits and all hope of escape. The very beautiful Isoke Aikpitanyi was, unknowingly, trafficked from Nigeria into Italy. At a recent G8 meeting in Rome, she described her ordeal at the hands of both men and other women—but she wept when she talked about the role women had played. Her testimony was incredibly eloquent and moving. And, let’s not forget, it is mainly women who carry out the genital mutilation of girls.

I know: Men won’t marry them otherwise and this will condemn a girl to a life of poverty and prostitution, a fate which no mother wants for her daughter.

The female conformists are rewarded, their lives are safer. And so, the fully-sheeted Saudi princess, Jawaher bint Jalawi, says she must have and will not part with the male “guardian” who accompanies her wherever she goes. She insists that only he knows what’s best for her. The Princess has launched a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.”

The princess’s stand is a perfect example of how a prisoner fears the light and is afflicted by vertigo when she first exits the dungeon. It is also an example of the way in which women internalize sexism and try to enforce the status quo.

We see a similar phenomenon in the newly created female Indonesian Shari’a police. These humorless and self-important ladies go around Bandeh Aceh reprimanding other women for wearing clothing that they view as “too tight”—but these grim girls are also allowed to reprimand men who are not praying at the proper time. .

Is the news all bad? Absolutely not. Women, like men, are also capable of heroic resistance. Thus, for example, the Nigerian-born Aikpitanyi has set up a shelter for similarly trafficked women in Italy. Right now, the brave mother of Tulay Goren, an honor murdered daughter, is testifying against her husband and his brothers in a London courtroom.

On November 6, 1990, 40 brave Saudi women drove their cars in public in Riyadh, the capital city, to demand their right to drive. They were soon detained, their passports confiscated, and fired from their jobs. On the 19th anniversary of this event, Saudi women activists, led by prominent Saudi activist and journalist, Wajeha al Huwaider, launched the Black Ribbons Campaign. They want to move about in the world freely, without a male minder. Al Huwaider has called for the abolition of the mahram (“guardian”) law which requires women to obtain the approval of a male relative for nearly any move they make in their lives. She is also demanding that Saudi women be treated as a citizens, just like their male counterparts; that they be allowed to travel, drive, gain custody of their children, work, study, etc. just like their male counterparts. The Saudi women will not untie their ribbons until they are permitted to enjoy their rights as adult citizens.

Al-Huwaider asks that we all wear a black ribbon from November 6th. I’m doing so. After all, heroism (and supporting heroes) is our only option.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Phyllis Chesler is Emerita Professor of Psychology and the author of thirteen books, including Women and Madness and The New Anti-Semitism. She may be reached through her website.