The Worldwide Politicization of Rape
Would justice for Israeli women and girls have been better served if Israel had allowed the UN Women, the UN Security Council, or any other entity to intervene?
On November 4th Israel organized a meeting titled “Hear Our Voices” at the United Nations to address the rape and sexual violence Hamas has committed against Israeli women and girls, as well as the refusal by international organizations to recognize and condemn these atrocities. I was able to attend this meeting online and listen live to the stories and analysis of the Israeli delegation. The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Mr. Gilad Erdan, said in his opening speech about these rapes:
“This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but it was premeditated, this was planned, this was instructed, in order to terrorize us and our families, to drive us away from Israel out of fear.”
As a journalist with over eight years of experience in writing almost exclusively on sexual violence in armed conflict, I recognized what Mr. Erdan had referred to, as did everyone present in the room, listening.
Rape as a weapon of war
During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995), between 20,000 and 50,000 Bosnian, Muslim women and girls were raped by Serbs. In Rwanda (1994) predominantly Hutu men raped thousands of Tutsi women. It was after these two wars that rape was recognized not as a by-product of war but rather as a war crime in itself. Scholars also recognize that there can be a genocidal side to rape, as we have seen with the abduction, rape, forced conversion to Islam, and sex slavery of thousands of Yazidi women and girls by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Genocidal rape is committed against women and girls to destroy or eradicate a people from their land. Fear for what might happen to your daughter, wife, cousin, niece, and other women from the wider community can make people flee, which is what many have done when ISIS jihadis targeted specifically women and children. This is exactly what Mr. Erdan was referring to.
Rape on a mass scale is not only used by Hamas but also by other Islamist terror groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab (Somalia), ISIS, ISWAP, ISCAP and others. This specific group, an Islamist terror group of which Hamas is an internationally recognized part, has been discussed and analyzed in a 2017 report by the United Nations Security Council. The report consists of 33 pages in total, the word “proof” does not occur anywhere in the text, and the word “evidence” only once. However, this is what the UN, the media, politicians, and public opinion demanded Israel to deliver. Proof of rape is always difficult to obtain afterward, but Hamas itself showed video footage of an Israeli girl they took captive who had blood on her pants in the crotch area. A 20-year-old woman named Shani Louk gained media attention when her lifeless body, unclothed, was discovered in a pickup truck. The truck was driven through Gaza, where Shani’s body was spat on and physically assaulted by hundreds of Hamas sympathizers who enthusiastically cheered. These incidents may not provide clear evidence of every single rape allegation the international community demanded, but they undeniably gave us a glimpse of what happened that day. Enough, one should say, to listen with an open mind to what the Israeli government and the victims were telling us.
The UN Report on terrorist groups, mentions that it was based on information the UN had collected, analyzed, and found credible. This report was published a year after the UN Security Council had adopted resolution 2331 (in 2016) in which it added trafficking, sexual violence, terrorism, and transnational organized crime to its already existing definition of conflict-related sexual violence. This broadens the definition, because trafficking, abduction, sexual violence, rape, and sex trafficking not only happen during wars between nation-states but are also used by terrorist groups in many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The resolution mentioned above (UN 2331), explicitly calls upon all UN Member States to:
“To take decisive and immediate action to prevent, criminalize, investigate, prosecute and ensure accountability of those who engage in trafficking in persons, including in the context of armed conflict, in which it is particularly important that evidence of such crimes be collected and preserved so that investigations and prosecutions may occur.”
From what we have learned from the event hosted by the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, “Hear Our Voices,” this is exactly what Israel has done.
Eylon Levy, the official spokesperson of the Israeli government, posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) a statement in which he said that celebrities shared the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls after the terror group Boko Haram in April 2014 abducted over 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria. Levy questioned why nothing similar was done after Hamas took 240 Israeli hostages, including little girls. We now know that Hamas still holds seventeen young female hostages which it has refused to return to their families yet and we have also heard from at least ten recently released witnesses that both men and women were sexually assaulted while held in captivity by Hamas.
Israel taking control
During his speech at the United Nations event “Hear Our Voices,” Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, mentions two letters he had sent to the UN addressing the rape, sexual violence and abduction of Israeli women. According to Erdan, he enclosed evidence of these gender-specific war crimes in both letters to which he received no response. According to Erdan, the UN demanded access to Israel and all the evidence it had gathered up to that point. The purpose was to conduct its investigation into the sexual violence committed by Hamas on October 7th and afterward.
The relationship between the United Nations and the state of Israel has been, to say the least, tense for years. In 2019 for example, the then-Israeli ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, criticized the United Nations for blaming Israel for domestic violence against Palestinian women. This was not the first time these accusations were made against Israel. Before 2019 as well, the United Nations blamed the dire situation of women in these territories exclusively on the state of Israel, due to what the UN considers the occupation of Gaza and the Westbank.
Whatever your position in the Israel-Palestine conflict may be, whichever side you identify with the most, one can imagine why Israel did not allow a special UN Women investigation team, which Gilad Erdan during the event called “a blatantly antiSemitic body”. When one state, Israel, is solely blamed for violence committed against women in Hamas-controlled Gaza, but it takes over 50 days for United Nations Women to condemn the sexual violence Hamas committed against your own women, one can imagine you wouldn’t immediately warm to the feeling of relying on the approval of the UN to be allowed to believe Israeli victims of sexual violence. To put it mildly.
The Israeli government, together with many women’s rights groups in Israel and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), decided to do exactly what the 2016 UN Security Council calls Member States to do; it investigated, gathered evidence, listened to and came to the aid of victims, both male and female, but without the United Nations or any other foreign NGO. And here it is where matters can become political.
Politicization of rape
Since the acceptance of rape as a war crime, sexual violence in armed conflict became a question not only of the safety of individual women but is considered an international security matter. To combat and prevent sexual violence during armed conflicts, initiatives have been launched. These include projects aimed at empowering women and victims, supported by UN Women and NGOs that advocate for women's rights domestically. Additionally, there is collaboration between the UN, other entities, and security forces in different countries. In essence, tackling sexual violence in armed conflicts is recognized as an international concern. But according to what Mr. Gilad Erdan told us, the Israeli government is already working together with domestic women’s rights groups and Israel’s security force, the IDF. What Israel wanted, what it needed, was recognition for the suffering of the victims of Hamas and the larger community. That was all, no setting up of UN bodies to investigate or help develop emancipatory movements, thank you very much. Just recognize that we are suffering, as can be concluded from the name of the event “Hear Our Voices”.
To illustrate the way things sometimes go when reformation, women’s empowerment, and equal rights are led by international standards and so-called watchdogs intervene, we can look at what happened in Sudan. In several African countries around 2015 there have been rape law reforms, including Sudan. As Liv Tønnessen showed, on the surface these reforms may seem positive, but, in the case of Sudan, she writes:
“…regime-controlled rape reform is more about the struggle of an authoritarian state to keep an emerging independent women’s movement under control, rather than the protection of rape victims in Darfur.”
Basically, women’s rights groups were framed, Tønnessen writes, as collaborators of the International Criminal Court and as enemies of the Sudanese state because of their critique of the reformed laws, since the law does not differentiate between rape and zina, a crime under Islamic Law (Sharia) which criminalizes sex outside of marriage. When rape is classified as zina without consent, it becomes dangerous for victims of rape to come forward because if they cannot prove they have been raped, they have confessed they had sex outside a marital contract. The reforms do not necessarily always benefit the victims of rape, but a government can claim, at least to the outside world, that it ‘ticks’ all the right boxes of women’s rights, emancipation, just law, et cetera. This has become more and more important, since organizations like for example the UN Women, rate countries on their success in implementing women’s rights laws and gender equality. Sometimes, as the example of Sudan shows, things can look good on paper, but the reality is quite different.
Women’s rights have become an international affair, adding to a country’s esteem or prestige among other nations, and some are eager to receive this kind of international approval for reforming laws, equal pay, girl’s education, and more. The annual ranking is in the hands of international watchdogs such as the UN Security Council, the UN Women, and other human rights organizations. In many cases, this has become highly politicized, for example by giving countries that violate women’s rights on almost every level, a seat at the UN Council for Women’s Rights, which is the case with Saudi-Arabia and Iran to the UN Women’s Rights Commission. When these countries criticized Israel for its so-called violation of women's rights, it sparked a lot of controversy over the past few years.
Back to Israel
As I mentioned above, Israel took matters into their own hands by trying to get hostages back, defeating Hamas, seeing the perpetrators and their accomplices punished, and investigating and collecting evidence of gender-based violence committed on October 7th by Hamas. It did not wait for the UN or any other organization to step in and it has been highly criticized by many for what some call “disproportionate” violence in response to the Hamas atrocities. Would justice for Israeli women and girls have been better served if Israel had allowed the UN Women, the UN Security Council, or any other entity to intervene?
After the ISIS genocide of Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, there are still over 2,600 Yazidi women and girls missing today. Last week, on December 7th, I attended an online briefing by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the situation of Christians, Yazidis, and other ethno-religious minorities in Iraq. What became clear from the witness stories is that in Iraq, but also in other countries where jihadis came from such as the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany et cetera, there have been very few convictions for the rape and sexual slavery committed against Yazidi women and girls. What some have been charged and convicted for was their partition of a terrorist group, not for what they had actually done against the Yazidi communities from Iraq and Syria. This was also highlighted by Dr. Ewelina Ochab, an internationally recognized researcher and human rights advocate, specializing in religious minorities during an interview with CBC Newsroom’s Natasha Fatah. One witness during the USCIRF briefing also mentioned that the Iraqi government has not engaged in any saving operation yet to release the Yazidi women and girls who were abducted, raped, and trafficked by ISIS.
Since they were abducted by Boko Haram in 2014, there are still more than a hundred Chibok girls in their captivity. In February 2018 Leah Sharibu, a young 14-year-old Christian girl from Dapchi, Nigeria, was abducted with her classmates by the terror group. Five girls were killed, while all others were able to return home. Leah was not released because, being the only Christian girl, she was forced to convert to Islam, which she refused. She is, almost six years later, still in the hands of extremists. Under international pressure, then-President Buhari promised he would do everything he could to get Leah back home, but without any success so far.
Narratives of war
Ranking lists, international intervention, and projects are not always very effective and the international community has failed many minority communities, such as the Yazidis and Christian women and girls from Nigeria and Pakistan, on many levels. Geopolitical strategies often go hand-in-hand with our supposedly neutral standards as the appointment of Iran and Saudi Arabia to the UN Women’s Rights Council and Committee have shown. Apart from the fact that these advocacies do not always respond quickly enough, and evidence can get lost as time goes by, which is exactly why the UN in its 2016 resolution calls on Member States to investigate and collect evidence as soon as possible.
As a journalist, writing specifically on gender-based violence in armed conflict and by terror groups, I have seen many times that countries or communities engage in a form of “competitive victimhood” as Çağla Demirel analyzes in her highly recommended work “Analyzing Competitive Victimhood: Narratives of recognition and nonrecognition in the pursuit of reconciliation”. We have seen this phenomenon right after the crimes Hamas committed when throughout the world, sympathizers went out on the streets in Sydney, London, New York, Amsterdam, and elsewhere to condemn the Israeli response but were reluctant to blame Hamas, or as some Ivy League professors claimed we had to view in its “context”.
Israel has also been involved in such instances, such as when they asserted that Hamas is affiliated with ISIS. However, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, does not officially acknowledge the gender-specific genocide carried out by ISIS against Yazidis and Christians. Their rationale is based on the argument that since the United Nations doesn't recognize it, they believe they are not obligated to do so either. The same UN Women Israel now wants to recognize the sexual violence Hamas committed against Israeli women and girls. And when government spokesman Eylon Levy suggested Hollywood celebrities have double standards, supporting the case of the abducted school girls from Nigeria but remaining silent after 240 Israelis were taken hostage, I too, criticized this on 𝕏. It took weeks before the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls went viral, and only after people on social media started to connect the abduction of Nigerian girls to the American internal division over race-related issues highlighted in chapter 8 of Parkinson & Hinshaw’s, “Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls”. This is a case of identification with victims, as I highlighted in my previous article here on Wrong Speak and during my speech at the United Nations General Assembly in October this year.
But, regardless of all politics, shaping narratives, and everything else I have tried to deconstruct here, can we at least agree that when you take turns raping a young woman with at least eight men and then, while you are still inside of her, shoot her through the head is wrong? If we ever want to claim women’s rights are measured according to a neutral, uniform standard, we must at least be able to agree on that.
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