Violent women, is that even possible?

Violent women are not very often represented in society because they are considered to be very few. But is this true? Are women really less violent than men? What do our history and sociological studies show? Is it in the female nature to be less violent?

Charlotte Bienaimé recorded podcast series that consists of 4 episodes for the ARTE’s podcast Podcast à soi. Bienaimé speaks to former female prisoners and few different sociologists that have done an important work on this topic. She demystifies violent women and shows that this is possible and she tries to understand what drives women to be violent. On top of that, Bienaimé makes a research to find out what the situation is like in prisons in France and how women are treated in prisons.

But also, can violent women be? Do they have their place and space within this society the way the violent men do?

what happens in women's prisons

Women in prisons in France

The author of this podcast Charlotte Bienaimé considers that prisons were made for men by men. The women in prisons are the greatly forgotten of the penitentiary system. There are much less incarcerated women which might ‘’justify’’ why they are so underrepresented. They represent 3,8% of the locked-up population. The activities in prisons and the way their infrastructures are thought and made were never thought for women.

But is it true that women commit less crimes? If we look only at the statistics, we will easily draw a conclusion that yes, there are not as many violent women as there are men. But is it maybe that the society does not see women as violent and therefore does not punish them in the same way as it punishes men?

The difference that we see between boys and girls

The causes of why certain women are more or less violent could be found in the early childhood and upbringing. Sociologists explain that we are stricter with girls while virility and violence are valued in boys. Girls always have to behave well, listen to their parents, be obedient, help with the chores. These are not the values that we necessarily appreciate in boys. Even when boys do something silly or when they physically fight at school, we will see it as something almost normal.

He is a boy, that is what boys do, we would have tendency to think. While we would never forgive easily the same fault to girls. Just imagine girls being violent at school. Their violence is much less tolerated and many more questions are being raised.

Consequences for girls

To illustrate better this intolerance towards girls, I will give you a clear example. It has been proven that we behave differently towards women in sports. In soccer, the time has been measured of when the judge whistles after an infraction; how much time after a male and a female soccer player commits a fault. The statistics show that a judge reacts immediately to a woman’s mistake, while it takes longer to whistle when an infraction is done by a man. And be careful here. It is not about men judges whistling to female soccer players… No, these mechanisms are fully embodied in all of us, both men and women as we are all part of a patriarchal society.

Women’s violence is invisible, considered as illness and thus shown as exceptional. But severely punished when demonstrated. Girls’ gangs have always existed and there were always violent women within them. However, we do not speak about them, they are not given the right to exist.

As a consequence of stricter upbringing and more rules imposed on girls, studies show that they are more likely to escape from their home.

Women in prison

Why aren’t violent women sent as much to prisons?

It is demonstrated that women are not sent to prison as much as men for the committed crime. There are two reasons for that. The first one is because there is less space in prisons. Governments do not have budgets for prisons for women. Which, at the first glance, could seem like something going in favor for women. However, the sociologist Coline Cardi explains that another reason why women do not go to prison as often as men is a fear of rupture with the domestic work, care, etc. This work is still mostly done by women and there is a real fear of how the society would function without women being in charge of this such an important work.

Interesting that this house and care work are recognized as important when it comes to a woman being absent… Well, here, going to prison… It is as if women are more valued even as violent women, but doing a free, caring work at home is more important than putting them in prison and complying with justice. This not paid or underpaid work all of a sudden is perceived as crucial and becomes visible. Hypocritical, isn’t it!?

But do not think that all violent women are spared and that the worst punishment women could have for their crime is… housework… No, no. Since society cannot accept that women can also be violent, another way of punishing them has been found… Sending them to psychiatry.


Women are sent to the psychiatry because it is considered that they have never been well educated and someone will have to do it. They do not comply with an image that we have of them… An image of a quiet, nice girl that obeys all the rules.

When I say society, I mean the penalty and crime system, but we need to understand that laws work the way they do because we, people, wrote them. Well, in most of the cases – men. Which brings us to the conclusion that

laws are simply a reflection of patriarchy.

Who are the violent women that commit crimes?

All of this previously said does not mean that there are no women in prisons. Prisons for women do exist all over the world. But who are the women that commit crimes?

Violent women are often the victims of physical and sexual violence. And those around them often underestimate the violence they endure.

When women do commit a crime, and get sent to prisons, they get the worst punishments. Women are sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison when they kill their husbands, while men who kill their wives are sentenced to 7 years on average. This is often because the crime committed by a woman is considered premeditated because women are more afraid and need more time to reflect on their crime and organize.

An interesting thing said in the podcast is that many women in prison do not recognize themselves as the author but as victims. If we think once again about the fact that many women commit crime because they are treated at home in a violent way, then we understand the effect of battered woman that has recently been recognized in France for the first time. It was when Valérie Bacot was released, the very first decision made this way. Judges recognized that her decision to kill her husband was triggered by a lot of violence that she had endured. For her, the only way to survive was to kill and that is in a way self-defense.

Girl, you are a woman now

The guards in male prisons say that they are proud to be guards of thugs, of bandits, but when they talk about women in prisons they say girls. They don’t even talk about women.

That is something we often also hear in the media. Instead of saying a woman, we say girl even if the ‘’girl’’ in question is 40 years old. What makes her ‘’a girl’’? In most of the cases the fact that she is not married. Do you understand that nonsense? When we say girl for a grown-up woman, we disempower and infantilize her. As if she cannot be a responsible woman if she is not in charge of a household and procreation. The fact that she might have a very important function at work is not equally valued and therefore she stays a girl.

Punishment for much less

Women are punished for much less than men in prisons. For example, for making curtains out of sheets, sometimes simply for having fun with other women in prison. For a man to be punished in a prison, he must have done something very serious, like be in a fight or hurt someone. The women that get angry are immediately sent to the shrink to treat their nerves with drugs.

Violent women and men separated

The decision of the non-mixing in the prisons was taken in 1985 in order to avoid rapes and pregnancies. Under the excuse of protection, women in prisons are more closely controlled than men. They cannot go to the prison’s court the way they want to, certain clothes is forbidden, certain behaviors are not tolerated. Women in prison are encouraged to work on the vocabulary they use and also on their self-presentation, the sociologist Coline Cardi says.

They are not expected, once separated from men, to be able to enjoy their freedom and eventually create matriarchy within prison, given that there are only women, guards included. No, the patriarchy is omnipresent even behind the bars uniquely with other female prisoners.

women in prisons in france

A story of a former female inmate

There are few different testimonies of women that were in prisons in this podcast. They are obviously all worth listening to, but I will mention Zaneb’s. A former prisoner, talks about how it was for her when she was incarcerated.

Zaneb considers that women are infantilized in prison, that the other female guards want to train them, educate them, as if they were little girls. She said that it was as if they were in the kindergarten and the guards were kindergarten assistants.

They had to cover themselves when they went out in the yard even though they were uniquely among other women. Shorts and bathing suits were forbidden even at 35 degrees and they had to wear leggings.

With the others from the same cell she cooked, they stayed up late talking, she did everyone’s nails, she curled her roommate’s hair when her family would visit her. They create a society within a society. They learnt how to care differently, so that the time passes. Because life goes on despite everything. Human being’s ability to adjustment is incredible…

can women be violent

Patriarchy even in prisons

Patriarchy is so rooted in our society that it is practiced even when there are only women. As we have seen so far, this is the case even with prisons.
One of the facts that struck me most and something I had never thought about before is that women in prisons are visited much less than men. Since there are not so many women’s prisons, the incarcerated women are often very far away from their home. Statistically, men whose wives are in prison don’t want to take the responsibility of supporting them psychologically, of all the work for their children, to queue in front of the institution to go visit their wife. Very often, they remarry very quickly. They find someone else to replace their previous wife, specially the mother for their children and everything that role traditionally holds.

That’s why women statistically lose the connection with their children much more often and break their relationship with their husbands, while male inmates keep them. It’s the one on the outside who has to make an effort over and over again.

And let’s finish with this thought: Violent women are much more stigmatized because they deprecate their gender norms. Since the society does not expect from them to behave in a violent way, there is a need to correct them and teach them good behavior as if they were little girls.

women in prisons in france

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