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Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law

Published on Nov 30, 1995 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for On The Issues

What is Justice for a Rape Victim?


There she was, on the front page of the American newspapers, a 20-year-old Bosnian Moslem girl, hanging from a tree, a suicide, dead by her own hand, her death a cry for help. Our silence, deafening.

We cannot say: "We didn't know, no one told us." We know. We've seen it on TV, read the detailed reports, seen the photos. I knew, feminists knew what was going on in Bosnia. True, we had trouble sleeping over it, and some of us sent money, gathered evidence, drafted lawsuits, petitioned the U.N., counseled and consoled the victims, quietly helped rape-refugees to leave the country, but, as a movement, we failed to mount even one Israeli-style Entebbe-raid, even one mass "pacifist" action on Bosnian soil. We wrung our hands and waited for the patriarchal governments to "do something": convene a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, bomb Sarajevo, lift the arms embargo, fight it out, man-to-man.

We are the Good Feminist Germans. We—and our respective governments—did even less in the matters of Rwanda, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Liberia, New Guinea, East Timor, Jammu, and Kashmir, Haiti.

In 1971, when I first heard that retreating Pakistani soldiers had begun to gang-rape Bengali women in what would become Bangladesh, I called for the rescue of "our own." I had once lived in the Moslem world, I knew what would (and did) happen to those raped and raped-and-impregnated women. "Many will kill themselves," I said, "if their brothers and fathers don't kill them first." I called for immediate feminist airlifts of the raped women.

The assembled feminists cheered, thought I was being funny, grandiose, metaphoric: unrealistic. As feminists, we had no place on earth to which we could bring our raped Bengali sisters—assuming they'd agree to leave certain death for uncertain freedom.

Well, it was only 1971, we weren't yet organized, we had no Feminist Air Force, no sovereign territory, not even a parachute to drop behind enemy lines. It's 1996, and we still don't.

While the war in Bosnia raged on, millions of women, worldwide, endured rape. Moslem women in Bosnia were not the only Moslem women to be systematically raped by soldiers. In fact, rape has consistently been used as a political weapon against Moslem women by Moslem men for the past 15 years in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Iran, and Pakistan.

According to attorney Karima Bennoune, from 1992 on, Algerian fundamentalist men have committed a series of "terrorist atrocities" against Algerian women. Bennoune describes the "kidnapping and repeated raping of young girls as sex slaves for armed fundamentalists. The girls are also forced to cook and clean for God's warriors... one 17-year-old girl was repeatedly raped until pregnant. She was kidnapped off the street and held with other young girls, one of whom was shot in the head and killed when she tried to escape." As in Iran, "unveiled," educated, independent Algerian women have been seen as "military targets" and increasingly shot on sight. According to Bennoune, "the men of Algeria are arming, the women of Algeria are veiling themselves. As one woman said: 'Fear is stronger than our will to be free.'"

I heard no outcry on their behalf—did you?—neither in the United Nations nor among Moslem nations. Of course not: These Moslem women "belong" to the Moslem men who are raping them. In Bosnia, however, men (Serbian Christian, mainly, but not exclusively) have been raping the wrong women: women who "belong" to other men.

The information coming out of Bosnia defies belief, confirms the worst nightmares of Second Wave feminists. The former Yugoslavia has been re-balkanized, cursed really, by paramilitary fascist/nationalists, virulent racists, misogynists. No matter who the aggressors were, their victims were mainly civilians. Male soldiers attacked civilians (who were often their neighbors) with a ferocity and hatred that was surreal. Male soldiers treated female civilians the way "kinky johns" treat whores, the way psychotic batterers treat their wives.

Perhaps this is what some men think is "manly" in the Balkans.

According to Alexandra Stiglmayer, the editor of Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbian male soldiers made their entrance cursing, often drunk; broke into houses where frightened women huddled; taunted, shoved, punched, slapped, beat the women; put cigarettes out on their flesh; cut them with knives; called them "whores"; demanded they "smile"; ripped their clothes off; raped them right there, where their children or mothers could see it; then herded the "terminally dishonored" half-naked or completely naked women away to rape-camps where many other soldiers repeatedly gang-raped the starving, naked, soiled women. Bosnian women were also kidnapped off the street, blindfolded, held in cellars/gymnasiums for one to three months, and repeatedly raped. Afterwards, they were often killed, although many were released, especially if they were pregnant with "Chetnik" babies. The men gang-raped 7- and 8-year-old girls to death, but did not allow the grown women to comfort them as they lay dying.

The rapists did not use condoms. They beat women if they thought they were using birth control. They filmed some of the rapes and they aired some live, both on radio and television.

Many—certainly half—of the rapes were committed by men whom the women knew. When the rapists were co-workers, neighbors, former teachers, they were harder, not easier, on their victims—especially if the women called them by name.

The rapists were not out of control; they were implementing Serbian military "ethnic cleansing" policy. They were only following orders. Yes, fascist/nationalist Croat and Moslem male soldiers raped women too, with as much ferocity, although on a smaller scale.

Some people say: "You see, both sides did it." No, "both sides" did not do it. Only men raped women, women did not rape men; only men, not women, did the killing.

What did Bosnian Serb Christian soldiers do to civilian men between the ages of 16 and 60? In a ghastly replay of World War II, the soldiers ordered the men/Gypsies/Jews out of the house, lined them up, shot them in the street, or marched them out of town and shot them down into mass graves. Those men "lucky" enough to survive endured beatings, starvation, and hideous tortures in concentration camps. Serbian soldiers sometimes castrated and killed those Serbian men and boys who refused to systematically rape women.

The soldiers slaughtered the able-bodied men outright and they sentenced the women to living deaths.

This is the behavior of ghouls, not men. Ah, the ghouls are men. What conclusions are we to draw?

A number of jurists and intellectuals are eager to see rape tried as a war crime and as a human rights violation; I am too. However, I am more convinced than ever that all rape is a political crime against female humanity, not just in Bosnia, but everywhere; not just in times of civil or national war, but also in times of so-called peace; not only when it occurs between strangers, but among intimates. At the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, some feminist lawyers wanted to amend the Geneva Convention to say that "any rape, not just mass rape in war, is a crime."

Rape is "gender cleansing." The intended effect of rape is always the same: to utterly break the spirit of the rape victim, to drive her out of her body and out of her mind so as to render her incapable of resistance. Rape has been systematically used by men of every class and race to destroy their own women and the women of enemy-men. This terrorist tactic, coupled with childhood sexual abuse and shaming, works. Most women do not resist, escape, or kill their rapists in self-defense. When women do, they are often killed by their rapists, jailed for long periods of time, or executed. (In the fall of 1995, Sarah Balabagan, a Filipino maid, was condemned to death for having killed her employer-rapist in Abu Dhabi.)

In Beijing, the Bosnian Ambassador to the U.N. said he "could find no [raped] woman in condition to speak." Alexandra Stiglmayer found the (Bosnian) raped women "broken," "intimidated," "withdrawn," "crying," "afflicted with nightmares," "insomnia," "depression," "panic disorders," "suicidal." Stiglmayer says: "Most of the rape victims [in Bosnia] are broken, not thinking about revenge, for the horror of their rape and expulsion has also taken away whatever power of resistance they might have had." In addition to these typical peacetime Rape Trauma Syndrome symptoms, Zagreb psychiatrist Vera Folnegovic-Smalc also noted "anxiety, inner agitation, apathy, loss of self-confidence, an aversion to sexuality. Rape is one of the gravest abuses, with consequences that can last a lifetime."

According to Karima Bennoune: "Terrorist attacks on women [in Algeria] have had the desired effect: widespread psychosis among the women; internal exile—living in hiding, both physically and psychologically, in their own country." In Bennoune's view, "the collective psychosis" is due to the "escalation of violence" by the "soldiers of the Islamic state." According to Michael Curtis, M.D., an American volunteer-physician for Doctors Without Borders, "In Bosnia's Tuzla camp, the leading cause of death is suicide, probably the only refugee camp in the world where that is the case."

Many raped women do go on with their lives; they have to, there's no alternative. Many raped women dislike, intensely, the idea that they have been "diminished," victimized, wounded, by a hateful assault. During the Gulf War, U.S. Major Rhonda Cornum was raped by her Iraqi captors; they broke both her arms too. Admirably, Cornum says that this is what war is, and that worse things can happen. Maybe her training as a soldier and her clarity about rape being an act of war is, indeed, a useful frame of reference. However, this doesn't mean that one is the same, untouched.

Many survivors of rape, torture, and genocide say that the most lasting and haunting harm resides not only in the atrocity itself, but in how others, afterwards, have dealt with it. Survivors are haunted by those who heard the screams but turned their backs; those who blamed the victim and collaborated with the rapist/torturer/killer; those who minimized, or exaggerated, or merely misunderstood what rape or torture is about; those who preached, authoritatively, righteously, against revenge, but envisioned no justice.

Women and men can survive the rape/torture: if they are believed; if others are outraged on their behalf; if others denounce and attempt to stop the atrocity. Thus, the victims of rape and torture are more upset by what "good" people fail to do than by the crimes actually committed by the "bad guys." Sins of omission are psychologically experienced as greater than sins of commission. (The mothers who stood by and did nothing as their daughter or son was being incestuously abused are "hated" even more than the abuser.)

Women's hearts, men's hearts, are irretrievably broken when "good" people default on the dream of a common, moral humanity (we are all connected; what happens to one happens to all) and do nothing, or promise to help, then do nothing. At the Beijing conference, Bosnian Munira Hadzic said: "It's the shame of the world. We were promised U.N. protection and we were abandoned." New Yorker writer David Rieff quotes a Bosnian: "For me, the U.N. is worse than the Serbs. At least, the Serbs admit they are our enemies... Don't write any more books about us, you bastard. Give us back the guns the U.N. took from us."

Everyone watches, no one stops the male violence. It's the Kitty Genovese phenomena. It's also something new: namely, rape as spectacle, entertainment, warning. For example, the gang-rape on the pool table in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the male onlookers cheered the rapists on. As City University of New York Law Professor Rhonda Copelon writes: "War tends to intensify the brutality, repetitiveness, public spectacle, and likelihood of rape."

When I was young, I believed that if "good" people only knew about the atrocity-in-progress, surely they'd stop it; that reason, sanity, justice would prevail. I'm older now and I understand that stopping the atrocity is rare, miraculous, difficult; that "good" people—you and me—have our own sorrows, limitations, crushing responsibilities to contend with; we earn our daily bread, fall in love, fall ill, reach for joy, die, while Auschwitz smokes, Rwanda hacks itself to death, Bosnia surrealistically destroys itself.

Indifference is worse than hate. Evil flourishes when it is ignored. If we each do what we can do it will make a difference.

Because stopping the atrocity-in-progress is so difficult, it is crucial that women learn how to defend ourselves, not wait for others, men, to "protect" us. How many women (and men) need to be raped and killed before women and/or feminists are ready to start thinking strategically, militarily, planning ahead for the rape-free survival of the coming generations? There is no point in waiting for the "good" men to rescue us. The information is in: they can't. We may even have to rescue them. There is no point in baring our throats to the rapists as a way of showing them that we won't "stoop to their level"; our self-sacrificing example fails to educate them.

I think of Phoolan Devi, the real-life Indian Bandit-Queen who, in 1980, was gang-raped for three weeks by 22 higher-caste men who then paraded her naked through the village; Phoolan became a bandit and killed all 22 gang-rapists. Phoolan: We need your fighting tiger-spirit! As yet, not a single raped Bosnian woman is known to have picked up a gun to defend herself—although many have wanted to. (Also, there is an arms embargo on.) Some Bosnian women have joined the armies, but most have children and aging parents to take care of. One woman said: "I cannot pick up a gun but I can tell about what happened." This is a very brave thing to do.

More important: Not a single feminist organization has organized a military and/or a pacifist raid into Bosnia (or Algeria, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Korea, the United States) to rescue raped women being held hostage in rape-and-death camps and brothels.

Most white middle-class women I know, myself included, have been carefully taught to prefer being hit to having to hit. We'd rather die than kill—even in self-defense. Worse, some of us are convinced that our inability to defend ourselves somehow constitutes a free choice, a moral virtue, a political philosophy. We don't know the first thing about how to hit, disarm, or kill someone who's attacking us; we'd have to be carefully taught.

Only someone who lives in her body, who occupies it fully, who knows how to fight—but refuses to do so—can freely choose to practice pacifist politics. That's not most women, feminists included. We're possessed, colonized. They've chased most of us right out of our bodies; we're nothing but bodies, but "we're" not in there anymore; we're elsewhere, in a fog, in a fugue state, disassociated: Hitler's Housekeepers, Stalin's Sweeties.

Pacifists are not passive; they put their bodies on the line, actively, aggressively; they risk poverty, illness, jail sentences, beatings, even death, in unarmed political confrontations. They are physically very brave. Gandhi's followers chose to stop the British trains with their bodies, not with bullets. They acted vigorously and collectively and hoped that the train engineer's humanity would, at the last moment, compel him to stop the train.

Three million pacifists did not converge on Bosnia, lay their bodies down, refuse to move until the men put the guns away, their penises back in their pockets, their heads in their hands, and a terrible lamentation was heard in the land....

Given how prevalent rape is, in both war and peace, why do we resist teaching women how to defend themselves? In Bosnia, not only are Serbian soldiers raping women, Moslem, Croatian, and U.N. soldiers(!) are also raping vulnerable "enemy" women. Attorney Catharine A. MacKinnon noted: "This pointedly poses a problem women have always had with male protection: Who is going to watch the men who are watching the men who are supposedly watching out for us? ...the U.N. [male] presence [in Bosnia] has apparently increased the trafficking in women and girls... Perhaps intervention by a force of armed women should be considered." (Ah, Shannon Faulkner, where are you when we need you? What women are up against, worldwide, is precisely the kind of macho-maniac men who froze Faulkner out of The Citadel and celebrated her departure.)

A note of realism: OK, let's think globally, act locally. Bosnia really is far away. But here in New York where I live, why don't feminists, both male and female, form neighborhood patrols against rape? Why don't we help the police keep Central Park and Prospect Park rape-free for joggers?

It is up to us to stop the rapists. I am not suggesting that feminists form illegal vigilante "revenge" squads. I am suggesting that women begin to understand—really understand—that no one will rescue us but ourselves. And we don't know how to do that. And we'd better start thinking about it. And about what constitutes justice in the matter of rape.

Let the Criminal and Civil Tribunals begin. For the first time in history, rape is being defined not as the "spoils" of war but as a weapon of war and a war crime. An International Criminal Tribunal, convened by the United Nations, is meeting in the Hague to hear evidence of the mass rapes, rape-impregnations, and other genocidal atrocities in Bosnia. Some people hope that our global perception of rape may shift, radically, once it becomes known that rape is not merely a "personal misunderstanding" between a rapist and his victim but is, rather, a crime against humanity and a war crime.

Even though the U.N. Tribunal does not have the power to impose the death penalty or to ensure that those who gave the genocide and rape orders do not remain in power, it's crucial that the U.N. Tribunal indict and convict rapists as war criminals. Rhonda Copelon noted that "the recognition of rape as a war crime is a critical step toward understanding rape as violence." Harvard Law School professor Nancy Kelly said: "If we can get an international body to recognize rape as an act of torture, that could change things for women all over the world."

Clearly, the evolving legal status of women may influence our global views of rape. Women were once expected to marry their rapists; this is no longer true. Women were once advised to "keep quiet" about being raped; this is no longer true. In the past, when women attempted to have their rapists prosecuted, they were rarely believed or treated humanely in the courtroom—where most were "raped" again, this time legally. This is somewhat less true today.

Some people believe that the entrance of women into military, religious, athletic, corporate, and blue-collar trades, i.e. into previously all-male arenas, will either inspire more fear or more respect for women as a class or caste; and that this, in turn, might decrease the incidence of rape; others have said that "backlash" rape is upon us precisely because women are daring to enter previously all-male professions. Some say there is no "backlash," only more reports of rape and better record-keeping.

Let's look at the historical record: Neither the Nuremberg trials nor Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem made the world genocide-free. At a 1995 conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, Walter Rockler, a former Nuremberg prosecutor said: "The principles established at Nuremberg had important symbolic value, but no substantial impact." Henry King, Jr., pointed out the "value of finding that slaughtering Jews, Gypsies, and homosexual and mentally retarded people was not an internal matter for the German government. National sovereignty was no defense."

Simon Wiesenthal, in Justice, Not Vengeance, has written: "Hitler not only murdered millions of Jews and millions of his adversaries, he also morally destroyed millions of Germans and millions of Austrians—what's more, for generations to come. To belong to the victims is terrible—but it is even more terrible to belong to the victim-makers." In addition to the civil and criminal prosecution of war criminals, Weisenthal recommends a "constant coming to terms with the past, and learning from it."

What do raped women experience as essential to their survival and dignity?

Bearing witness is important; being supported, not punished for doing so, especially by other women, is also important. Putting one's suffering to use—educating and supporting other victims—is important; drafting, passing, and enforcing laws is important, as is continuing to hope that law is indeed a civilizing force.

Some say that there can be no justice without honor, and no honor without memory—without the literal creation of memorial monuments both to women victims and heroes. More than a decade ago, grassroots feminists tried to found a Rape Museum; for a number of reasons, the attempt foundered. Nevertheless, many artists have begun and continue to explore this subject.

Some victims of rape and torture want to see their tormenters die; after all, these are men who, quite literally, enjoyed their victim's pain and suffering; that's precisely what they were after. Perhaps irrationally, some raped women want their torturer or rapist to understand the meaning of what he did—and admit it, apologize, repent.

Some raped women want to see their attackers/rapists go to jail, whether or not they're repentant. In addition, some raped women want to sue for money damages, for both symbolic and practical reasons (e.g. as a way of paying their medical and psychiatric bills). Some raped women, especially survivors of serial and gang rape or prostitution, have begun to arm themselves with mace, knives, and guns. Some have even saved their lives this way.

To sum up:

We need ongoing, well-funded, international feminist criminal tribunals on crimes against women, with enforcement powers. The Hague Tribunal is in urgent need of additional funding. In August 1995, Dr. M. Sherif Bassoni, a leader of the U.N. Commission on War Crimes, told a U.S. Senate hearing that once they testify, the "privacy" of Bosnian rape-survivor witnesses "will be shattered" and their "safety seriously compromised." The survivors have requested "relocation" and other "support services." Bassoni stated that the "Tribunal needs more resources to protect the witnesses properly."

We also need: compulsory self-defense training for girls; compulsory military training for girls; swift, effective prosecution of rapists; civil suits, for money damage, in addition to but separate from criminal prosecution. (I suspect that cities and countries may begin to do something about rape when they are sued, successfully, for money, for having failed to prevent the rape.) We also need rape victims or would-be rape victims exonerated for killing their rapists in self-defense; rape prevention education. What can this be but the most radical of feminist educational and political agendas?

Where are our freedom fighters, our resistance heroes ready to be dropped behind enemy lines? We are too few in number to make much of a difference. Are women so disassociated from our bodies and from each other that simple resistance terrorizes us more than our daily dose of humiliation and death?

Are most women so opportunistic, so cowardly, that we are willing to die for our Masters but not live for ourselves?

What have they done to us? What have we done to ourselves? Each woman knows that if she sides with another women against a man or against men's laws, eventually the king's men on their high horses will drag her away; imprison, interrogate, rape, and burn her to death as a witch; she knows no one will save her.

A women is brave when she knows what can be done to her but despite such knowledge resists, helps other women anyway. A woman is brave when she resists the "good little girl" within; the voice that tells her to mind her own business, tend her own garden, don't do anything that will get you in trouble, you'll get caught, you'll be sorry, you'll be punished, no one will like you...

Women are safe if I am brave; I'm only as safe as other women are brave.

Otherwise, it's open season on us all.


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