Les dames sans merci

Let’s hand it to women: Rarely in history were they in a position to make law and apply it. For every female legislator who ever lived there were ten, probably more, male ones. For every female judge ten, probably more, male ones. Rarely if ever were executioners—those who did the dirty work of decapitating people, burning them at the stake, crucifying them, stoning them to death, and so on—female.

Still there is little doubt that women are as capable of engaging in cruelty as men are. To start, as so often, with Greek mythology. Not, needless to say, because the stories describe real events that actually took place. But because, as their longevity and continuing popularity suggests, they often penetrate deep into the human soul. Perhaps more than any others, they seem to bring out many of the strange and terrible things it is capable of doing.

To punish Acteon for having seen her naked, the hunting goddess Artemis changed him into a stag and had him torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs. To punish Alcmena for having slept with Zeus, the latter’s wife Hera sent snakes to kill the infant Heracles (she failed). For having done the same, she had Io stung by so many gadflies until she went stark raving mad and tried to kill herself. Medea killed her brother, two of her children, and one of her uncles. On another occasion she tricked two young women into boiling their father and eating them. All without being punished, incidentally.

As the saying goes, “no fury like a jilted women.” Not for nothing did the Greeks imagine the Erinyes, the goddesses of vengeance and retribution, as women. So terrifying was Medusa’s visage that anyone who looked at her was instantly turned into stone. But modesty and jealousy were not the only motives that drove some women to commit dastardly acts. As well-known as any of the above is the story of Orpheus. Orpheus was a singer and lute-player. So sweet was his music that the beasts of the field flocked to listen to him. At one point in he lost his beloved wife Euridice, was allowed to retrieve her from the underworld, and lost her for the second time. Wandering about forlornly, he came across a group of Maenads, followers of the wine-god Dionysius. Half-crazed with wine and music, they tore him to pieces.

In the whole of English history, no ruler had more witches executed than “Good Queen Bess” (Elizabeth I). Among some North American Indian tribes, including the Cherokee, Iroquois, Omaha and Dakota, torturing prisoners of war to death was a female specialty. One objective was to inflict the greatest possible pain; another, to humiliate the victims as much as possible. In nineteenth-century Arabia, by one account, bridegrooms had to undergo a bizarre ceremony. Standing naked, they would have the skin of their penises stripped off in front of their prospective bride. The latter assumed a sitting position and watched the proceedings while beating a drum. If he flinched she had the right to reject him.

Referring to Britain’s wars in northwestern India, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

and the women come out to cut up what remains,

jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

and go to your gawd like a soldier.

Throughout history, women have flocked to watch executions just as much as men did. The Vestal Virgins had privileged seats at the amphitheater where they could enjoy, among other nice shows, people of both sexes being savaged by wild beasts and women being made to copulate with animals. Voltaire tell us that, during the torture and execution of the would-be regicide Robert François Damiens at the Place de Grève in 1757, female spectators not only outnumbered male ones but displayed greater insensitivity to the victim’s horrible sufferings. The knitting women (tricoteuses) of the guillotine, as they were known, have remained justly famous. American women, as well as American men, routinely watch as criminals are being put to death. And what is it that the beautiful young woman, with slightly parted lips, in one of Kees van Dongen’s paintings is looking at? A bullfight, perhaps? Or an auto-da-fe?

The list of women who enjoyed other people’s pain and suffering and were sometimes actively involved in inflicting it could be extended at will. Here I shall limit myself to just two more examples. The World-War II German Einsatzgruppen, which between them may have killed as many as a million Jews in Russia and Poland, hardly need to be introduced. Less well known is the fact that the wives of some of the commanders involved visited their husbands and watched the proceedings. At least one spent part of her honeymoon shooting prisoners from a balcony.

Women formed a small minority among concentration-camp guards. But this did not prevent some of them, notably Irma Grese of Bergen-Belsen, Maria Mandel of Auschwitz, Ilse Koch of Buchenwald, and Herta Ehlert of Ravensbrück from gaining a fearsome reputation. Not to mention Herta Oberheuser, also of Ravensbrück. Dr. Oberheuser was a physician who conducted horrifying medical experiments on inmates. Her specialty was to deliberately inflict wounds on her subjects. Next she would rub in foreign objects, such as wood, nails, glass slivers, and dirt so as to simulate injuries received in combat. The experiments, which were very painful, over, she used to finish off her victims by means of lethal injections.

Several of the women in question were married or engaged to their male colleagues, as Frau Koch was. Others were single and, like the men, were exhorted by SS boss Heinrich Himmler to maintain “comradely relations” with the remaining staff. The war over, a few were made to stand trial either at the hands of the occupation authorities or, much later, the German ones. However, only two were executed.

The other example I want to discuss is that of Abu Ghraib, the infamous Iraqi prison not far from Baghdad. Under Saddam Hussein it housed political prisoners many of whom were tortured and executed. Following Saddam’s downfall it was renamed “Camp Redemption”—a nice example of American hypocrisy, that—and used to hold as many as 7,500 prisoners. In charge was a female brigadier general, Janis Karpinski. She commanded a mixed unit of men and women who acted as jailers. The prison seems to have been the scene of much torture, some of it official and inflicted during interrogations and the rest more or less at random by undertrained guards who feared the inmates and hated them. The resulting images, smuggled out and disseminated by the press, shocked the world. The more so because at least one famous artist, the Colombian Fernando Botero, used them to produce a series of paintings. In the end, out seven US soldiers who were convicted, four were female. Karpinski herself was reprimanded and demoted to colonel which meant that her pension went down. But she never stood trial.

Similarly, women have been prominent among suicide bombers. Judging by these examples, women are as capable of committing and enjoying all kinds of terrible acts as men are. If, historically speaking, they did the former much less often, then this was mainly because they did not have the opportunity. As the case of Abu Ghraib shows, now that women are entering every field and profession, including the military, this may very well change.

The question is, is that really what society, and women themselves, want to happen?