She let out an agonizing cry each time she plunged the cleaver into her husband’s chest. Then she dragged his stocky body from the bed to the bathroom and cut his corpse into bits.
The gruesome scene from a new movie, “The Woman and the Cleaver,” is based on a true story and reflects growing violence in crimes committed by Egyptian women against their husbands or male partners.
Such frenzied violence showed up in more than half the cases in a study of 387 murders of men by women from 1983 to 1992.
“In the past, women used poison and killed quietly,” said Fadia Abu Shahba, who worked on the study. “Now, they resort to extreme violence, using sharp weapons--like knives, cleavers and axes--and then they mutilate the body, take out the eyeballs, pull out fingernails or teeth.”
Most husband-killers were victims of rape and other abuse, often throughout marriage, said Abu Shahba, a criminologist.
Others were faced with losing their husbands--who provide their only livelihood--to another woman.
One woman murderer--dubbed by newspapers “Nadia the gas cylinder"--crushed her husband’s skull with a metal gas canister as he took an afternoon nap. She had been forced to have sex during her menstrual period, a practice condemned by Islam.
Jawad Fattayer, professor of sociology and psychology at the American University in Cairo, said the women see murder as their only defense against a life of cruelty in a male-dominated society.
“They say, ‘I’m not going to accept this anymore, I’m going to defend myself. I’m not going to wait for my brother to come to my help,’ ” he said.
In Egypt’s traditional society, women commonly rely on male relatives to take care of them, including resolving marital disputes or taking revenge against unfaithful husbands.
Abu Shahba said a woman’s feelings of inferiority toward men often begins as a child when boys are treated as the privileged ones.
“When she grows up and marries, she feels the same inequality,” Abu Shahba said. “She resorts to such crimes in order to get out of the miserable situation she is in.”
Whereas in the old days when women shared in a crime--as accomplices to husbands, lovers or other men--they now kill on their own without anybody’s help, he said.
The majority of the women who murdered their husbands were illiterate or little-educated, came from poor families or were abused as children, Abu Shahba said.
“Society has not equipped [these] women to take care of themselves,” Fattayer said. In the case of women losing their husbands--meaning social stigma as well as economic hardship--divorce is a form of “social execution,” he said.
The lives of poor Egyptian women remain much the same, but now they see television shows about other females with jobs and freedom who have happy, romantic relationships.
The killers are emboldened by violence in other films or graphic news coverage of husband-slayings, Fattayer said.
“While in the past they used to kiss their husbands’ hands, now they are cutting them into pieces,” said Abu Shahba.
In many cases, the murder takes place while the husband is asleep. In the cleaver-killer movie by popular filmmaker Said Marzouk, the victim had been drugged before his wife attacked him.
Marzouk’s movie is based on an Alexandria widow whose second husband turned out to be a con man who squandered her inheritance, repeatedly raped her and sexually assaulted her teenage daughter.
The case sparked nationwide sympathy, and a dozen lawyers came to the woman’s defense. She got 15 years in prison.
Marzouk’s personal comment at the movie’s end was telling: “Not all murderers are guilty and not all victims are innocent.”
All 387 women in the study were convicted of premeditated murder. Three were sentenced to hang but had their sentences commuted to life because they were judged mentally unstable. Others were given jail terms of five to 25 years.