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Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Monday, 5 May 2008 10:06 UK

Why are girls fighting like boys?

Eastenders - Sonia ambushed by two girls in playground

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The sight of two girls having a post-pub fight still has the power to shock, although it often happens between men. Why are women doing it and why are we so offended by it?

"I've beaten a boy up with a stiletto high heel and left him unconscious," says one 17-year-old.

"I got locked up last year for putting a woman in a coma and she nearly died because I tried to throw her in front of a car," says another. "Then in October I got out from a sentence for nearly running a woman over."

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That these words are uttered by teenage girls is somehow more shocking than if they were said by young men.

According to the annual statistics of the Youth Justice Board, the number of violent offences committed by girls aged 10 to 17 has nearly doubled in three years.

In 2002/3, there were 8,702 girls convicted of violence against another person, a figure that rose to 15,525 in 2005/6. During that period the number committed by boys rose 50% to 39,136.

There have been some high-profile examples. In 2005, there was widespread disgust during the trial of four youths who kicked to death a barman on London's South Bank.

The court was told that Chelsea O'Mahoney, 15 at the time, had filmed the attack on her phone and delivered the last kick "like a football" to Mr Morley's head.

The following year Claire Marsh, 18, became one of the youngest women to be convicted of rape, after pinning down another woman and encouraging a gang to participate in the assault in west London.

In a scrap

These reports still jolt society in a post-feminist age, partly because they are so rare and partly because women are not expected to be aggressive.

Women boxing
It took years for women to be allowed to box

For a group of teenage girls in south London aged 16 to 18, interviewed by Radio 1Xtra, violence is a part of everyday life.

"Girl on girl fighting, scrapping, it's become the norm now," says one.

It's usually based on territory, they say, and happens between their all-female group and other groups of girls from different estates, often preceded by verbal sparring, rumour and gossip.

They usually just use fists, but have known bottles, knives and even pieces of wood to be brandished. Binge drinking and drugs are the main reasons they give for getting physical.

One teenager with 20 violent offences to her name says: "It's only when I've had a drink and I think I'm on top of the world and I think I can take on everybody. I know I shouldn't but I can't help myself when I've had a drink."

A police report last week suggests that the number of women arrested for being drunk and disorderly has increased by more than 50% in parts of the UK in the past five years.

Offenders at New Hall female prison in West Yorkshire say they used to get into fights to impress older boys. And one talks about the adrenaline release of fighting: "Even when I get hit myself I get a rush from it."

'No shame'

But Victim Support says the main underlying reason for this aggression is people growing up in violent homes or suffering abuse at the hands of a partner.

Even when I get hit myself I get a rush from it
Teenage girl

A study by criminologist Susan Batchelor, of the University of Glasgow contradicts previous thinking that unlike in men, for women it's a spontaneous lack of control for which they afterwards felt ashamed.

Her report suggests female displays of aggression have a function within a group.

"Such violence was considered deeply meaningful; it served to maintain group solidarity, reinforce friendships, affirm allegiances, and enhance personal status within the group."

The peer group always plays a large part in it, says consultant clinical psychologist Elie Godsi, author of Violence and Society: Making Sense of Madness and Badness.

"There's a lot more of a 'ladette' culture where young women are aping and mimicking the traditional behaviour young men engage in.

"So there's a small element of that, although I wouldn't put too much [importance] on it."

Many young people feel alienated from their family and community, he says, so the peer group plays a big part in gang culture, causing behaviour that the individual on her own would not contemplate.

But it's important to remember that overall, women only commit 10% of violent crimes, he says.

Young woman in a fight in Eastenders
It's not all scratches and pulling hair

They are innately less aggressive, whether by nature or nurture, which is why society reacts so strongly to it.

"Women are defined in terms of relationships - as mothers, daughters, wives - and men are defined as individuals, in terms of achievements or work status or what they do, rather than how they relate to each other.

"So violent women are perceived in far worst terms and it takes more for them to be violent.

"But you only have to look at how Myra Hindley was treated as an icon. A lot more men are far more violent than her and given far lighter sentences. Generally we perceive women who don't fit into traditional roles in extreme terms."

Mr Godsi believes the increase in female violence merely reflects the general rise in violence since the mid-80s.

And the reasons for it - more destructive households and more alcohol abuse - are not peculiar to women.

So we shouldn't necessarily be looking for reasons behind female aggression, he says, but asking why society as a whole seems to be tacitly encouraging violence.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I witnessed all this in Aberdeen from the early 1980s to mid 90s. Media evidence recently indicated the problem is still there, possibly worse. Factors inlcuded: several late clubs in a small area competing with exceptionally cheap drink; all clubs spilling out at the same time often leading to instant mayhem in the suddenly hectic streets. Another factor was large queues in taxi ranks which acted as flashpoints. The perpetrators had strong working class accents and dressed in revealing High St fashions that might be called 'tarty'. Cheap drink and female economic independence plus confusing being the same as men to being equal to men, are big factors. Plus the young grow up knowing they can disrespect adults with impunity and it may also contribute to a culture of violence.
Keith Mitchell, Dunfermline

"Women are defined in terms of relationships.. and men are defined in terms of achievements" is possibly the most depressing thing I've read in a long time. If that's really true in Britain today, no wonder young women want to punch someone.
Lizzie, London

The number of children who are brought up in either a single parent family or under a sequence of temporary relationships is very large, and the impact is a lack of understanding of what real love is. The greatest love is self-discipline, the ability to stick to principles and standards of behaviour, but to do that we need examples. In the past society - both the church and family - provided a strong moral code and discipline. Today those influences are rare. Today we need self control, moral vision, and compassion. We need to change from giving children the examples of drug and alcohol use/abuse to giving examples of patience, unlimited love, and a home with rules and discipline: discipline, not violence; firmness, not anger; listening, not shouting.
Stephen, Leicester

Post-feminist society? Is that why women are still more likely to live in poverty, on average earn a third less than men doing the same jobs and the aims of the 1968 Women's Liberation Conference still haven't been met?
Joanne Cole, London

Poverty, neglect, boredom, alcohol abuse, lack of positive role models are killing our children's chance of a decent future. Youths resort to violence because few people show they care about them. Teenagers are demonised and labelled as thugs for stupid things like wearing a hoodie. No one takes the time to point out their strengths and encourage them. Youths are expected and sometimes encouraged to grow up before their time and worry about the latest gadget they should have. If we all took more time with our kids and extended kindness to others, society wouldn't have half the problems we have.
Heather, Worcester, Massachusetts, US

It's quite telling that of the three images used in your article, two are from the soap Eastenders. Makes you wonder how many youths see this kind of fighting going on TV and just assume this is the norm.
Wim Hollebrandse, South Wales

I find it no more shocking to see a woman punch someone as a man - it's all shocking. They are all hitting out for the same reasons and they have more to do with the lack of good role models and respect closer to home, than on TV. Not all Eastenders viewers are moved by one or two fake slaps to run someone over - people need to stop blaming the media and start looking closer to home.
Ruth, Swansea, Wales

My daughter has been suspended twice due to her fighting boys. One teacher who witnessed one of the assaults said it was one of the most ferocious she has ever witnessed. It was myself who taught her to fight and I feel proud when she knocks lumps out of boys who taunt and bully her due to being "the weaker sex".
Robin, Glasgow

Women have always fought women, and attacked men. It was just laughed off or covered over. We simply no longer tolerate violence. As nobody is prepared to put up with "oh, that is what their class does, leave them to it" anymore, we hear of more of them in court. Once the punishment is made to fit the crime, rather than outdated gender-bias which gives many women lighter sentences, such brawling will become as unusual as it is amongst men. And yes, it is unusual compared to "the good old days". A fight every weekend night was standard in most pubs used by the industrial working class 50-80 years ago. How many of us expect to see a pub fight these days, or have ever seen a real one ? As the UK has become less violent its population have become more depressed. Is that the real story? Only truly happy when violent?
Jim, London, UK

Those with etiquette cannot survive in Britain. Politeness is viewed as weakness. Applies to businesses & individuals. There is no decorum. I am also surprised by BBC News where words such as "kick up the back side" are used. I am obviously the typical/classical old fashioned type who would label this as uncouth. Sorry, but it is increasingly difficult to mix in society with such differences. British culture is promoting hooligans, slang words & sex, particularly since SEX will be taught to youngsters in school.
Stella H Howell, Wokingham

In general we are really poor at finding outlets for our aggression. It's a fundamental component of humanity, a life saver in the right circumstances, and yet we seem to frown upon it being vented in controlled places (like sports). As long as we refuse to accept that it is an inherent trait, it will continue to burst free at the wrong time.
Alex, Hampshire, UK

I personally believe that girl on girl violence is going to become more common as society continues to feminise, women are told they can do whatever men can, and some feel it is their right to be arrested for some things men would.
Matt, Nottingham, England

Lizzie, are you really condoning violence of this sort? It isn't stereotypes that are to blame but appalling role models from their elders. Oh and here's the bleeding hearts brigade. There is NO excuse for this violence. Stop making excuses for them - maybe one day your bleeding heart will be the victim; will you still think it can be explained away? Doubt it.
Brian, Northampton

Girls fighting? Why? Confusion. Usually from their own mums. Single parents would probably feature quite highly - violent outbursts due to being scared, lonely and angry; and simply can't or won't deal with the problem(s). So it bubbles away until it pops out in an explosion of aggression. It boils down to that cause and effect. By the way, I'm from a very working class background, never had a holiday growing up, my parents, though retired, still have a mortgage to pay. Never owned a car; never had much money. However, myself and my brother have never been in trouble with the law, we've worked hard, been nice; dealt with our own problems in a grown up way. People need to accept that in life you have responsibilities and moral choices. Just because you're scared/lonely/alone doesn't mean you have to do anything and everything to fit in. Be that loner, be yourself. Getting involved in gangs, robbing, fighting... just to feel part of something? Examine what you're part of and realise how pointless and pitiful it is. I wish kids these days the best of luck, and more common sense and a view of the future.
Iain, Romford

We could blame the rise in female violence on television, etc or on how youth is portrayed so negatively in the media, but to me it is due to teaching social responsibility to both boys and girls. We teach them about environmental issues, but not about caring for each other.
Susan C-W, Bridgwater, Somerset, UK

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