Recognising Rape – In War and Peace

Deeyah Khan, 17th of March 2015


Noor (not her real name), a 14-year-old girl from a small village in northern Iraq, was sold 15 times, passed from one Islamic State (Isis) fighter to the next. Each time, she was raped... "The worst moments," Noor said, "were when one man would sell me to another. And I would have to hear them debating what my life was worth." - (from The Guardian)

The Islamic State have commercialised rape, trafficking non-Muslim women in slave markets. The abduction and rape of conquered women has been part of conflict from the very inception of our species: from intertribal wars to the Sabine women, from Armenia to Nanking to the Congo. Women's bodies are used to reward soldiers and to humiliate opponents. The symbolism of the protection of demure women from bestial strangers is a common theme of wartime propaganda. Symbolically, the community becomes coded as feminine and vulnerable, in need of protection from brutal outsiders by courageous and loyal men. Wartime rape can have the goal of the impregnation of captive women s part of an attempted genocide. The mass rapes committed by Serbian soldiers in order that women bear 'Serbian' babies express this idea clearly. Women's bodies become spoils of war.

As a documentary maker, I told the story of Banaz Mahmod, a young woman of Iraqi Kurdish heritage, killed by her family in the name of 'honour' ten years ago. Her tragedy was intimate: a furtive kiss in a London tube station, a family meeting, a suitcase buried in wasteground. But the doctrine of 'honour' makes no distinction between a tender kiss and a violent rape: the victim, and her family, remain 'dishonoured' whether the 'shaming' act was consensual or not. The industrial scale of wartime rape has repercussions on the same scale: the mass rape of Bangladeshi women in 1971 led, in some cases, to the rejection of these unwanted women and children, with repercussions from exile to murder to suicide. In societies where women are primarily valued as mothers, the loss of virginity and the potential for illegitimate children, this means that unmarried women may well become liabilities to their families and married ones may face repudiation from their husbands. Where marriage and motherhood remain the only acceptable life for most women, the effects of this can have a devastating potential.

It is a strong indication of the invisibility of violence against women that rape was not recognised as a war crime by the UN until 1993. This it not the only double standard in sexual violence: in peacetime, the majority of rapes go unreported and unprosecuted because they do not fit the stranger-in-the-bushes image of 'real' rape, because the rapist was a husband, an ex-boyfriend, an acquaintance; because the victim had been drinking, was unchaperoned, was not a virgin. Rape, in peace, is most likely to be recognised when it resembles rape in war. Rape is not consistently understood as a woman's right over her body: it is also understood as the sexual use of a woman's body by a person who is an outsider to her group, whether he be an enemy soldier or a lone rapist.

Yifat Susskind argues that the very ubiquity of rape in Iraq is leading to new understandings of rape as a crime: the fact that the Islamic State vaunt their exploitation and brutalisation of women's bodies and that there are strong feminist voices in Iraq to support and share the stories of survivors makes the victim-blaming narrative harder to sustain.

These voices need to be amplified, and as Elder Mary Robinson says, included in the peace process in order to ensure that rape is not rendered invisible, so that "rape is no longer deemed a warrior's accepted privilege". Nor should it be a husband's. Rape needs to be understood as a crime of violence against women as women, not as offences the property 'rights' of husbands or families nor a symbolic assault upon the identity a the enemy. In order to do so, we need to involve women in the political process, and stimulate civil society actors who support victims, work against forced and child marriage and violence against women in general. A world without rape must start from the respect for women's rights over their own body: in war and peace.

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