Wartime sexual violence: a gender issue in terrorist clothing

Claire Akkaoui


Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court speaking at closing plenary of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Photo Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr All Creative Commons.

“The body of a raped woman becomes a ceremonial battlefield; a parade ground for the victor’s trooping of the colors. The act that is played out upon her is a message passed between men – vivid proof of victory for one and loss and defeat for the other”.

Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

Once confined to the taboo box for all the wrong reasons, the issue of domestic sexual abuse is slowly but surely becoming one that is frowned upon, and for the right ones. Once taken for granted as an inevitable occurrence of warfare, the seriousness of wartime sexual violence is today out of the ghetto and never too far from collective consciousness. And how could it be?

An examination of the increasing use of systematic rape as a weapon of war by contemporary extremist groups reveals a shocking, yet not unexpected or even unprecedented trend of sexual violence as an intrinsic and premeditated component of their war strategy, one that essentially consists in spreading terror and exhibiting raw power. Rather than positing themselves as the higher vanguard of religious righteousness across the Muslim World, ISIS and Boko Haram use the shock-effect, deprived of any moral justification, as an attention-drawing mechanism and a successful recruitment vehicle. When painting a picture of these allegedly religious groups, we could not be further away from Al-Qaeda’s efforts to project a moralistic image. What Boko Haram and even more, ISIS are proud of promoting is this raw savagery that no religious conservatism or cultural mores can begin to justify.

Yet it is one thing to be aware; it is another to act.

On the policy-making side, for all the controversy surrounding mass wartime sexual violence, outrage rarely translates into resolve and forceful action. More often than not, the brutality of the act remains little more than an uncomfortable hence avoided topic of conversation. In the midst of execution videos and weekly bombings, rarely do sexual violence crimes make the cover page of policy-makers’ security briefings or intelligence evaluations and even the industrial scale at which extremist groups have institutionalised this culture of systemised abuse seems to be relegated to be unworthy of a strong focus.

In comparison, wartime sexual violence typically does not receive the same attention other war crimes have, and we can hardly feign surprise. It is a well-known fact that sexual violence thrives on the reluctance of its victims to come forward with their experiences, thus the difficulty of keeping count of incidents and the fact that wartime sexual violence often goes under-reported should not come as a shock. Add to that that sexual violence data, even if correctly monitored and compiled, seldom features in government policy reports simply because it is rarely considered a useful enough metric to evaluate a counterterrorism agency’s effectiveness.

Arguing that this relative silencing of wartime sexual brutality is only due to natural and inconsequential technicalities would be wrongfully falling into unfounded determinism. Surely, other factors come into play and a discussion of the agency behind these choices reveals itself to be quite telling. When compared to what is known as ‘hard’ terrorist threats, airstrikes and beheadings for example, sexual violence seems in times of war to inevitably fall into the ‘softer’ humanitarian category, one seen as secondary, more restrained in interest-grabbing and  less likely to stay trending. Another reason, and one strongly related, has to do with the target. Because women are quite predominantly the victims of wartime sexual brutality, policy-makers and analysts have this tendency to compartmentalize the issue in the women drawer, seclude it in gender studies away from conflict or war studies, and thus contributing in making the overlap between the two – strongly linked for that matter – harder to see.

Although typically relegated to a backseat, the relatively recent momentum the sexual violence exhibited by extremist groups has been gaining in the media has inevitably made policy-makers blink. Gender-based rape is today a universally recognised weapon of terrorism, one impossible to remain indifferent to. Between the April 14, 2014 abduction of 276 secondary schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram and the chilling accounts of returning teenage girls narrating their experiences, these past two years have been particularly alarming. And twitter hashtag campaigns and viral YouTube videos do not seem to be nearing an end. It is now common knowledge that the institutionalised resort to sexual violence promoted by these groups fits into their broader tactical strategy. Now the question is: what are the implications of looking at wartime sexual violence from a terrorism perspective?

The terrorism lens, compounded with the far-reaching tentacles of social media, have undoubtedly allowed the media to draw attention to issues that would have otherwise remained marginalised and overshadowed by others, deemed higher on national priority agendas. In other words, the terrorism factor has lifted gender-based violence up the national priority ladder. But now that the private nature of rape has been publicised, we can’t help but ask: when it comes to women empowerment, to what extent is this really a step forward?

Even when wartime sexual abuse receives attention, it often is the wrong kind. What we often fail to acknowledge is that, publicity and awareness aside, sexual violence gaining coverage is a problem in disguise.

On one hand, isn’t only mentioning sexual exploitation, namely rape, abductions and so forth, within a wider terrorism framework and only when tied to specific radical groups coined as terrorists and high on a government’s blacklist opening the scope for contextualisation, justification, in other words de-politicisation of the gender issue at the core of sexual abuse? Whereas focusing on the terrorist agent of the act and the terror context surrounding it can prove helpful in understanding the wider terror strategy pursued by extremist groups, the mere act of contextualization has controversial effects on sexual abuse as it tends to undermine the seriousness of the act in question. Passing a judgment on the perpetrator of an act does not say much about the moral validity of the act itself. Rather than providing the act with a moral judgment deeming it inexcusable in any circumstance, the focus on the perpetrator and the modalities of occurrence as the centrepiece of analysis seem to blur the accusation’s target, shift the blame from the act itself to its terrorist perpetrator.

On the other hand, when terrorism becomes personal, how much of the personal element actually remains? The mere fact of publicising what was previously constrained to the private and unspoken of sphere might very well be beneficial from a counterterrorism perspective, yet it is casting aside the wider gender discussion as secondary in a war on terrorism context, taking the women element out of gender-based violence and turning it into a counterterrorism issue rather than a gender-specific and recurrent society problem.

And this is where the double-edged sword at play becomes obvious: whereas choosing to turn a blind eye to the issue is both a direct cause and a consequence of it being walled-off in gender studies, speaking about it as a terrorism-specific weapon is stripping it of and overlooking its intrinsic gender-based dimension.

Before being a weapon of war, gender-based violence is a reflection of asymmetrical gender power relations. The fact that it has languished for so long off the radar is only a by-product of the normalisation of women subordination.

Gender-based violence is exactly that. It is not the result of the pent-up energy of soldiers, neither is it individual occasional acts, nor is it an accumulation of unfortunate yet unavoidable incidents.

An examination of the rationale behind wartime rape reveals that rather than being the inherent and inevitable pre-determined consequence of anarchy during heightened militarisation, gender-based violence is one way perpetrators exert their power and concretise their dominance in an essentially patriarchal setting. If violence is intensified in conflict, then sexual violence in war is related to that in peacetime and is the product of previously established gender norms enhanced in times of conflict.

Essentially a tool for men-to-men communication, wartime rape is such a popular and recurrent tactic of war as it serves to bolster one man’s virility through forcible subjugation of the woman and the corresponding erosion of the enemy’s masculinity. And in that scheme, women are used as spoils of war, as sacrificial victims, as mere pawns whose exploitation is deemed necessary for one man to symbolically wound and castrate another.

To say that nothing has been done on sexual violence as a tactic of war would be unfounded.  Wartime sexual violence has in recent years benefited from a law enforcement focus: international standard-setting developments and civil rights activists have succeeded in shifting priorities and in 2008 UNSC resolution 1820 identified sexual abuse in conflict as a threat to international peace and security requiring forceful response. Language advocating wartime sexual abuse is not about gender and sex, but simply about war may have very well convinced the Security Council of the ‘hard’ dimension at the core of the issue and in that, has been a good strategic asset to secure consensus. Yet today its costs are proving more noteworthy than its benefits and the focus on security solutions is coming at the expense of gender equality efforts.

Perpetuating such an understanding of gender-based violence is only redrawing the ‘hard’/’soft’ security distinction, one that is at best unproductive because its limits paths of action to either not talking about it or using the wrong words to do so.

Nigerian schoolgirls abducted, women enslaved and exchanged, girls forcefully married, and cultures of female genital mutilation are all part of the same spectrum. Compartmentalizing and making wartime sexual abuse worth the debate only when looked at through a terrorist lens is encouraging the notion that the issue can be addressed and contained without working on the political feminist project, is downplaying the crucial importance of emancipatory women initiatives in empowering survivors and is dismissing the idea that it could deserve international action on its own.

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