Think of prison populations and you think of men. Indeed, men make up the greatest numbers within the system. Yet, the population of women in U.S. Prisons has more than doubled in the past 10 years. How a woman will be punished when she violates acceptable norms reflects the common view of that woman’s role in the greater community. Customary influence by family and community, for women, has traditionally been effective and much more violent than for men. The promise of formal controls, which for women carries a heavier toll than for men, seems intimidating and could account for the lower female prison population. The fact is, though, that across the world the percentage of women confined in prison is only a fraction of the total prison population, yet their sentences are generally longer and harsher. The question should be, Why this disparity when it comes to women and law?
Recent studies challenge the stero-typical thinking that women who are imprisoned are “bad”, or “whores”, or unnecessarily “tough”. Universally harsher and longer sentences illustrate a partiality. The issues of gender role and patriarchal culture must be understood to comprehend the relationship of women to law. Women in Kabul, have been targets of intense repression and victims of fundamentalist interpretation of religious law. Recently, a young woman wanted to marry a boy she had chosen and rejected by her parents’ choice. When she appealed to the Taliban for help, they sentenced her to five years in jail for violating Islamic law. Her two female cousins, 14 and 15, were taken to be married by force in exchange for a fee paid to their families. While the Taliban authority exemplified extremism, it is common for the Afghan family of the groom to pay a fee for his bride, diminishing the woman to property of a patriarchal society.
In the United States, the disparity of incarceration rates for men of African or Hispanic descent is well documented. For women, Black, Hispanic, or White, the disparity is even sharper. The percentage of women under correctional supervision had risen to almost 10 percent by 2006 compared to 1.3 percent increase for men. The disparity in incarceration rates for women may in part be attributable to the claim frequently made by women prisoners that they were incarcerated for crimes that were coerced, or even committed by their male partners, for whom they took the fall under the mistaken belief that a woman would get a more lenient sentence. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice also reveal that prior to their own imprisonment, the majority of these women prisoners had been victims of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, or coerced drug abuse involving older men; in other words crimes committed against them by men presaged these women’s incarceration.
It has been my experience that men commit homicide as the result of extreme rivalry and competition,, and committed the act in public and outside of the family. This indicates to me that men are conditioned from infancy to see their role outside of the family core and into the world arena. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to remain within the family unit. Most women that commit homicide share a commonality of similar background experiences of abuse. Maybe it is time that homicide be examined as a “social issue and cultural phenomenon”. Additionally, society is critically unforgiving for women who are believed to have betrayed their maternal attributes. While men who commit homicides are viewed to have momentarily lapsed into uncontrollable anger, women are seen to have violated their nature. The behavior of a man in this situation is seen as an extreme exhibition of his masculine nature, even at times more firmly establishing his masculinity, but a violation of this nature for a women overturns her identity and leads to her ruin.
Whatever the violation and wherever the country, the population of women in prison continues to grow. Logic would say that women are committing more crime. Are they really? Or, has society, through the utility of formal and informal law, changed the intensity of its response to women?
“The advancement of women without a doubt is a pre-condition for the establishment of a humane and progressive society”
A society reflective of that goal can only be measured by the maturity and benevolence of its citizenry and a complete respect for human life.