Networks and Labyrinths
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
Revenge or self-defence? Considering the role of gender in the legal application of these arguments, and the urgency of their review in instances of domestic abuse
Trigger Warning: domestic abuse, male violence against women, sexual violence, emotional abuse, murder
In 2009 and 2012, two widely reported domestic abuse cases shook the French and international public spheres - those of Alexandra Lange and Jaqueline Sauvage. Both their husbands subjugated them and their children to decades of domestic and sexual abuses. To save their lives, both women killed their husbands. While Lange killed her husband as he tried to strangle her, Sauvage killed him hours after he beat her. However, only Lange was acquitted by the French judicial system; Sauvage was sentenced to ten years in prison. In 2016, and only after 430.000 people signed a petition asking for “la grâce présidentielle” (presidential pardon), François Hollande, at the time French president, overrode the court’s decision and suspended Sauvage’s sentence (Morenne, 2016). Both cases opened and fuelled controversies surrounding the justified, or legitimate conditions of “violence as self-defence” to resist or escape domestic abuse.
The World Health Organization defines domestic abuse against women as a major public health concern. Indeed, the violence committed by intimate male partners on women accounts for most acts of sexual and physical abuse. Between the ages of 15 and 49, 27% of women reported that they are or have been in an abusive relationship (WHO, 2021). However, the numbers are estimated to be much higher due to the lack of reporting and convictions of such crimes.
The repercussions of domestic abuse on women can be compared to that of “victims of torture or war, and their symptomatology likened to a post-traumatic disorder” (Kirkwood, 1993). Moreover, many boys, raised by an abusive father figure, may perpetuate the same abuse owing to this being their sole experience of a family model. Yet, despite the dangers for women and children of all genders, domestic abuse, and violence against women more broadly, continue to be misunderstood and tackled as a “women’s issue”. This leaves perpetrators of such violence out of the discussion and enables them to forgo identification. Although all genders can be victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, the focus in this article remains on the heterosexual relationship, in which the husband is the abuser and the wife the abused. This perspective allows me to address the broader issue of how gender norms and patriarchal stereotypes of behaviours make the concept of self-defence ill-suited to application in instances of domestic abuse. Why should Lange’s defence be applauded while that of Sauvage be condemned? How does this condemnation rest on antiquated understanding of domestic abuse and unfair gender dynamics?
Consider the case of Alexandra Lange for instance. Lange, a French woman, was married for seventeen years to an abusive man who perpetually beat and humiliated her and their children. On night, in June 2009, he attempted to murder Lange by strangling her. She was able to grope for a knife near her and kill him with one stab (Lange, 2012). Lange was later acquitted as her violent resistance was recognised as an act of legitimate self-defence rather than that of a murder. Her actions fulfilled all the conditions required by the French law to justify the killing and officially label it as an act of self-defence.
Indeed, self-defence can only be argued if there is a legitimate threat of the attacker inducing harm, if the defence is in direct response to aggression, and if the attack did not come from state’s authorities. In Lange’s case, since her then husband was strangling her, she was the subject of real and unjust aggression - qualifying her retaliation as self-defence. Besides, the fact her defence was immediate to the aggression disqualified all accusations of premeditated murder, an aggravating factor that neutralizes all claims of self-defence in France.
The resistance must also meet inextricable requirements in the context of domestic abuse. A disproportionate use of force undermines any claim of self-defence (Uniacke, 1997). This means that the circumstances of the event must be such that a reduced use of force would not have been effective to preserve the defendant’s safety. Self-defence, and especially the use of lethal force is justified only if no other option was available, such as escape or help from competent authorities. The action must also be necessary. Prior to the event, Lange did report her then husband to the police, however, they refused to record her complaint as the abuse was deemed to be “insufficiently violent”. Besides, as the aggression happened at night, when only Lange’s children were present, she could not ask for help or escape due to being mostly physically immobilised. Only when actions conform to all the above-stated conditions can a claim of self-defence be recognized.
While in principle the set of conditions that qualify self-defence arguments, delineated above, seem eminently fair and sensible, they fail to account for the gendered dynamics of domestic abuse.
For example, one major limitation is the immediacy component of the requirements, as this eclipses long-term abuse contexts and the power relationships between an abusive husband and an abused wife.
At three p.m., on the day of her husband’s death, Sauvage alleged to have been violently awakened by her husband before he ravaged her with blows and threatened to kill her. She recalls that following his last punch, she went into the bedroom, took a hunting rifle, and shot him three times in the back. While Sauvage maintains that all these actions were carried out in rapid succession, the neighbours vouched that they did not hear the gunshots until 7pm. For the French jurisdiction, this four-hour time gap belies any possibility of self-defence, laying the grounds for premeditation. Subsequently, the prosecution classified the act of violence as revenge rather than self-defence (Fitz-Gibbon, Vannier, 2017).
As argued by Houel, a French psychologist specializing in crimes of domestic violence, a female victim of violence kills not to seek revenge, but rather prompted by “her own perception of the situation, her subjective experience of degradation, isolation and terror” (Houel, 2017). She also contends that the so-called “Syndrome of the Battered Woman” leads to a “dehumanising context” in which women are not themselves anymore (Ibid). This is indeed evident in Sauvage's direct statements; she was “no longer herself” after the assault, it was as if “no one could control” her anymore. She described the last punch as a “spark” that made everything “explode” (SeptÀHuit, 2017).
The fact that Sauvage shot her husband in the back, in a position of vulnerability, was held as an aggravating factor, as the aggressor could not have hurt the victim. This seems, however, a flawed understanding which ignores the outdated but ongoing power relations between Sauvage and her husband, between women and men. From a legal standpoint, lethal resistance is justified as it “befits the paradigmatic case of a one-time fight between two men of equal size and strength where one, acting in self-defence, injures or kills his assailant” (Fitz-Gibbon, Vannier, 2017). Yet in most, if not all, domestic violence situations there is an imbalance of power within the couple. Women tend to be “more often than not less strong” physically than their husbands, and escaping is rarely a possibility (Houel, 2017). Thus, the husband retains the monopoly of force. If a woman tries to defend herself, she risks escalating the violence from the opposing party and thereby suffering further, more serious repercussions (Bradfield cited in Hubble, 2009). Hence, the immediacy component for self-defence utterly excludes the dynamics of domestic violence.
A further issue with self-defence as it is, is the disregard for the inadequacies of states’ structures to prevent these abuses and the incapacity of authorities to sympathise with abused women. Like many abused women, Sauvage had never filed an official complaint or taken the initiative to leave her husband, fearing she would not receive adequate support from the authorities for her and her children. This was held against her and undermined her appeal for self-defence in the trials. The courts argued that she had other alternatives to the use of violence. These claims reflect the extent to which the French legal system remains oblivious to the wider dimensions of domestic violence situations.
As stated by Sauvage’s daughters, the court did not and could not understand their mother’s “distress” and the fact that she genuinely did not think she had another choice. To claim domestic abuse, the French law on self-defence requires medical proof of the abuse, which is not a simple task, especially if the abuse is of a psychological nature. Abused women are often reluctant to consult a doctor and if they do, they may find other excuses for the injuries; consequently medical records documenting physical abuse are non-existent or at least not accurate. Abandoned by the institutions that were supposed to protect her, and trapped in an abusive hellscape, after forty-seven years of nonviolent resistance Sauvage believed she had no other choice but to kill her husband to stay alive, yet the courts gave her a ten-year sentence.
The necessity for the immediacy component and the state’s failure to comprehend and address domestic abuse are affected by an underlying gender bias on self-defence.
This concept and the system that supports it were made for and by men to the extent that they can often result in a “site of re-victimisation and injustice for women victims of domestic violence” (Fitz-Gibbon, Vannier, 2017). The case of Sauvage is nothing but the embodiment of the gendered nature of self-defence, and that of the “largely silenced victimisation of women victims of domestic violence” (Ibid). Sauvage’s act of murdering her abusive husband, was viewed by the court as an irrational act of revenge. Whereas from the battered woman's perspective, whose life was under constant threat of death and violence, knowing that fleeing was not a realistic option, Sauvage’s act was one of self-defence, nothing else.
Finally, considering Foucault’s concept of bio-power and Butler’s interpretation of this allows us to better understand the underlying gender bias which has led to the current ill-suited idea of self-defence in domestic abuse cases. The term bio-power refers to an internalised power that is legitimised via uncontested assumptions of social norms. It is wholly part of the nature of the modern states’ power structures. It manifests itself by the subjugation and domination of the population. In other words, normative assumptions, become "scientific truths" to which everyone is expected to comply. Butler applies this conception to gender norms, arguing that gender binary norms of patriarchy or heteronormativity are so widely accepted and recognised at the social, political, and economic levels of power structures that they become inescapable to one's identity and way of thinking. Gender norms are infused in state’s structures.
When an abused wife kills the abusive husband, Butler’s interpretation of bio-power is particularly evident through the inversion of the “ideal victim” stereotype (Christie, 2018). When victims of domestic abuse fall out of the typical gender norms of submissive victims, they are deprived of all empathy and are criticised for not properly fulfilling their traditional gender role.
Sauvage's strong and determined character, for example, described by her entourage, and confirmed by the fact that she did not shed a tear in court, was outside the archetype of the “submissive battered woman”, a prescribed gender norm (Fitz-Gibbon, Vannier, 2017). The fact that she was described as a “modern woman” was taken to mean that she put herself into that situation. The implication being that a “modern woman” cannot be a victim of domestic abuse, as she is independent enough to escape or report her husband.
The concept of self-defence, as it stands, ignores the dynamics of domestic violence, the power relationship between men and women, and reinforces gender biases. The same pattern is also found in the wider context of sexual violence and male violence against women as similar power relationships and gender bias apply. While Canada has made an abstraction of the necessity for the immediacy component in the plea for self-defence, recognizing the “Battered woman syndrome”, this is just a start. The aim should not just be that of rectifying the law but that of deconstructing the gender bias in states’ structures to resist antiquated gender norms.
Christie N. (2018) , The Ideal Victim, Policy Press.
Code pénal, Article 122-5 “Des Causes d'irresponsabilité ou d’atténuation de la responsabilité (Articles 122-1 à 122-9). https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/codes/article_lc/LEGIARTI000006417218/ (08-04-2022)
Fitz-Gibbon, K., Vannier, M. (2017) “Domestic Violence and the Gendered Law of Self-Defence in France: The Case of Jacqueline Sauvage”. Fem Leg Stud 25, 313–335. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-017-9358-8 (08-04-2022)
Houel A. (2017) « L’homicide conjugal à l’aune de la différence des sexes », Champ pénal/Penal field.
Hubble G. (2009) “Self‐defence and domestic violence: A reply to Bradfield”, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law Vol. 6.
Lange A. (2012) Acquittée – je l’ai tué pour ne pas mourir, Michel Lafon.
Morenne B. (8 Dec 2016) “François Hollande Pardons French Woman Who Killed Abusive Husband”, The New York Times.
SeptàHuit (24th Feb 2017), Jaqueline Sauvage, TF1. https://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/jacqueline-sauvage-raconte-pour-la-premiere-fois-le-meurtre-de-son-mari-26-02-2017-6712692.php (08-04-2022)
Uniacke S. (1994) “Permissible Killing: The self-defence justification, Cambridge University Press.
World Health Organization (2021) “Violence Against Women”. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women (08-04-2021)