Rape was proclaimed a gender-related crime, and given its proper separate place in the prosecution of war crimes, only in 1996; when the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague announced the indictment of eight Bosnian Serb military, and police officers, in connection with rapes of Muslim women in the Bosnian war. Until then, rape was treated as secondary, and tolerated as soldier’s misbehaviour.
What triggered interest and attention, as judge Richard Joseph Goldstone stated when serving as first chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, was evidence on the magnitude of rape in Bosnia. In fact, the European investigators calculated that during the Yugoslavian wars all parties committed sexual abuses; however, 20.000 Muslim women and girls were raped by Bosnian Serbs as a strategy to terrorize people in 1992, and the number in itself was alarming. Hence, only shocking numbers persuaded the court to focus on sexual assaults and organized rape, and to give it a place in international laws as a crime against humanity.
At the present time, the news talks about the use of rape in Syria, where government forces and pro-government militia members assaulted women and girls during home raids, and use rape as a form of torture on people detained in prisons. As a result, questions arise about the contemporary use of rape – a weapon able to hit its victim on several levels, and for a prolonged time.
It is a fact that rape has historically been used as a weapon of war, but also of intimidation. And if rape is always appalling, it is damaging in a very specific way within conservative communities, where women who have been raped are cast aside as socially unfit, and often murdered to ‘clean’ what is perceived as dishonour to their relatives. This tragedy hits many families, within and outside the borders of Europe.
In the Middle East, rape often seems to be a tool of social repression, and it is hardly considered an act of warfare, or a crime against humanity. For example, rape was used excessively during Moammar Qaddafi’s attempt to remain in power in Libya, and it was hardly spoken of. Only the desperate act of Ms Iman Al-Obeidi, the lady who walked into a Tripoli’s hotel filled with foreign journalists and revealed she was raped by government authorities, brought the Qaddafi regime’s use of rape as an instrument of political repression to international attention.
In another case, when in January 2011 activists began to call for democracy in Khartoum, Sudan, rape as a weapon to intimidate was not far behind. Safiya Ishaq, a 25-year-old fine arts student, attended the rallies and handed out flyers on campus. A couple of weeks later, she was kidnapped by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) agents. She was tortured and gang raped multiple times as a punishment for her activity, and a message to others. The fact that a Sudanese woman spoken publicly about being raped shocked the country’s conservative society. As a result, Ishaq was forced to flee Sudan for her own safety.
In another case, on March 2011, when Egyptian protesters returned to Tahrir Square and expressed frustration with the slow pace of reforms, the Egyptian military not only arrested several women, and charged them with prostitution since they mingled with men in the crowd, but forced them to submit to ‘virginity checks.’ The same authorities, in November 2011, arrested Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, broke her left arm and her right hand, and sexually assaulted her. Another case of soldier’s misbehaviour, or an act of war against freedom?
Often people assert that sexual violence is a natural part of any conflict situations, and rape springs from a wish of men to humiliate enemies by raping ‘their’ women, implanting sperm, and wiping out the enemy’s ethnicity. This kind of thinking do not consider women as autonomous human beings; on the contrary, it focuses on their bodies as commodities. It justifies violence, and the tyrannical wish to control women, humiliate them, and violate them. What is more, it confines women to a condition of submission dictated by men’s functional necessities, which is hardly conceivable or acceptable today.
Thus, in the end, the proclamation of rape as a gender-related crime in 1996 was a great step forward, but it can not put our hearts at rest.
What about countries like Yemen, where rape is felt as irrelevant, almost natural? Before the uprising of February 2011, violence against women was not a public issue, and it was the norm. Women’s role in society was clear, and it still is; article 32 of Yemen’s Constitution describes women as ‘sisters of men’, subsidiary to men rather than persons in their own right. An Amnesty International report in 2009 found out that violence against women was heavy, persistent, and socially acceptable. Therefore there existed no provision in Yemeni law covering any kind of violence against women. Fortunately, when the uprising began, issues of gender-based oppression were forced to the surface, and taken into account, due to the presence of women among the activists.
More attention to woman’s condition in Yemen might be paid in the near future due to the fact that in 2011 Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The female Yemeni activist has been jailed many times, faced repercussions after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill to make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17, and narrowly escaped with her life when a female assassin tried to stab her.
To her, and to many women, the key to the problem seems to be what people are educated to consider natural before any social riots, or war destabilises their world. For example, it’s true that men rape in groups out of social pressure to prove their masculinity, and that this conduct can be anticipated in case of war; especially if officers order men to rape as proof of loyalty, or to share culpability. However, it is profoundly horrid that nowadays a human being can still feel the need to hurt another one, to prove himself to others.
As for the victims, in between the helpless expression of men who love them and the fact that men hardly understand what happened to them, the hardest thing seems to be the doubt women read in their men’s eyes on a daily basis. Even if these men understand the women’s intention to take the case to court, and make it a matter of principles and justice, they still remain somehow detached, somehow partisans of a male comradeship hard to crack.
It is arguable that society, no matter the country, crashes against rape as if against something rather ineffable; silence dominates, indifference covers what goes unseen and surfaces in the victim’s life only with time. Sometime for a victim of rape, there is only the consolation of knowing she is not alone: as for some women survivors of brutal rape in Congo, who were rejected by their families, and resolved to emigrate to Italy. There they met some Italian women victims of rape, who were divorced by their husbands or left by their boyfriends since they became socially unfit; the sharing of rage and pain made them feel better.
As a woman, I find no pity in my heart for the man who rapes, no justification, or pardon. As Christy Leigh Stewart stated: “You keep the title of ‘president’ even if you served only one term. The same goes for rapists,” and there is no prison, or punishment, able to take off them the shame of being so disgustingly weak.