On the first day of the latest armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, a video of Islamists driving the apparently lifeless naked body of a young woman through the city of Gaza in the back of a pickup truck, spitting on her and pulling her hair, spread on social networks and mass media. The body belonged to Shani Louk, who traveled from Germany to Israel for a music festival taking place near the wire fence that the Israeli government erected to make a cage out of the Gaza Strip and imprison two million Palestinians. The video shook the whole world deeply.
More than 30 years ago, in the Bosnian town of Foca, members of the Republika Srpska Army captured Bosniak women and held them in sexual slavery. According to the testimony of protected witness FSW-75, at the end of December 1992, one of the soldiers forced her and two other captured women to walk naked with him through the city and took them to the bank of the Drina river, threatening to kill them. At the time, this event went unnoticed for the simple reason that cell phones with cameras and social networks did not exist, but systematic and organized sexual violence during the wars of the nineties was and is known to anyone willing to see the facts. FSW-75 survived, but many of her fellow citizens did not. For example, the twelve-year-old girl A.B., one of the youngest victims of wartime rape in Foca, was sold in early 1993 for 200 German marks and was last seen about two months later.
These two events – from different wars, historically and geographically distant, with protagonists of different nationalities – indicate a frightening fact: that the pattern of violence against women during armed conflicts is similar always and everywhere.
Dehumanization of the opponent is an indispensable part of war propaganda. Its goal is to cause fear of the “other”, kill empathy and present the opponent exclusively as an enemy, instead of as a human being. Thus, on the eve of the Second World War, the Nazis presented Jews as incapable of feelings, and later as rats and the cause of all evil. Just a few days ago, the Israeli defense minister labeled the Palestinians as “human animals.” Obviously, the fact that someone belongs to a nation that was a victim in previous wars does not guarantee that that person will learned any kind of lesson from history, nor does it guarantee basic humanity.
In wars, dehumanization of women is two-fold: as members of an enemy collective, for example a nation or religious community, but also as the property of men from their group. This second type of dehumanization does not bypass women even in times of peace, although it takes extreme shapes, such as mass rape, during times of general chaos and lawlessness. Women’s bodies are treated as a means of humiliation and psychological warfare against the opponent. Thus, sexual violence in war acquires a new symbolic dimension.
No armed conflict in history went without systematic sexual violence. For a long time, wartime rape was considered only a side effect of wars and another form of inhumane treatment. The turning point came only at the end of the 20th century, when the International Criminal Court for Rwanda issued a verdict that found mass rape of women from the Tutsi minority group to be a form of genocide. Just a few years later, the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled in the “Foca” case that systematic and organized rapes are crimes against humanity, which was the first such qualification.
Unfortunately, sexual violence against women during armed conflicts keeps happening. Rape culture has also survived – a discourse that normalizes and trivializes sexual violence and harassment. We have internalized that discourse so thoroughly that it often requires an active effort to become aware of it. For example, few of us have been lucky enough to avoid hearing the “joke” about how men would be happy to give shelter to refugees from war zones, Ukraine or the Middle East – if they are beautiful women. Both men and women laugh at these “jokes”. Anyone with a modicum of empathy would stop laughing when they realize that refugee women and girls are a particularly vulnerable group and are all too often victims of sexual exploitation. But, unfortunately, even the horrors of war are not reason enough for some men to stop objectifying and pornographically sexualizing women. And women often cannot escape this even when they are dead.
Sexual violence, including that committed during wartime, is not a natural phenomenon we must come to terms with – it is a consequence of social norms and practices that turn women into objects, symbols, and property of men. Wartime rape is a war crime, but also a form of patriarchal violence – extreme, given the extreme circumstances in which they occur. Different contexts in which women suffer sexual violence, whether peacetime or wartime, are connected by a common feature – rape culture. In order to never again watch videos of armed men parading naked women’s bodies, it is necessary to fight for peace, but at the same time against all forms of subordination of women.
Translated by Marijana Simic