Rape as a gendered weapon of war is as old as war itself. Susan Brownmiller, in her groundbreaking study Men, Women, and Rape described rape as “a common act of war.” One only needs to examine history to confirm this.
When Japanese forces
captured the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, more than twenty thousand women were raped. As many as a million women were raped when the Soviet army entered German-occupied territory near the end of World War II. During the same war, around two hundred thousand Korean women were raped as “comfort girls” in service to the Japanese army. More than two hundred thousand Bengali women were raped by Pakistani soldiers in the 1971 Bangladesh war
of independence. During the Vietnam War, countless Vietnamese women were raped by U.S. soldiers, but these incidents have mainly been silenced. In the 1990-91 war against Kuwait, Iraqi troops reportedly raped about thirty-two hundred women. An estimated two hundred fifty thousand Tutsi women were raped in the genocidal war in Rwanda in 1994. In the notorious “rape camps” created during the conflict in the Balkans in 1992-94, between twenty thousand and fifty thousand women were victimized. Some historical cases, such as Jewish women raped during the Holocaust, have never been fully explored.
Why is rape such a common act of war? How does an ordinary young-man-turned-soldier become a brutal serial rapist? In understanding rape as war crime, it is important to keep in mind that military conflict is a highly-gendered process in which exaggerated qualities of both male and female are used to mobilize nations and individuals. A oung man trained to be a warrior is “hypermasculinized.” He is validated for using aggression and violence, which includes
learning to despise women. Brainwashed as a killer and misogynist, he is well-disposed to become a rapist. Women are raped because they “belong” to the opponents, but they are also raped because they are women. When rape is systematic as it was in Bosnia, it is part of a larger program of genocide whereby one group attempts to obliterate the ethnic, racial, and national identity–or complete existence–of another group. Such motivation can only take root in cultures with a patriarchal ethno-nationalism that assumes ethnic identity is passed on by the father. Croat and Muslim women impregnated by rape were thus seen to be carrying “Serb” babies.
Wartime rape has many consequences. It is demoralizing and humiliating for those societies and groups whose omen are targeted. Indeed, this is why it is part of military strategy. In highly patriarchal societies that view women as men’s property or place significant value on female purity, a raped woman is frequently ostracized and considered dishonored. Many women therefore choose not to reveal experiences of rape. Aside from the physical and emotional pain inflicted on women, wartime rape also has the societal function of restoring hierarchical gender relations that may have been destabilized during wartime.
While I believe that addressing wartime rape from a feminist perspective is important, I have mixed feelings about telling women’s stories of rape, which can serve to replicate the pain and shame while often feeding a cultural voyeurism. The media obsession with the rapes in Bosnia verged on making the events pornographic and were exploited by ethno-nationalist propaganda on the part of the Croatian people. Women’s personal experiences of violence became less important than the victimization of a nation, and victims of wartime rape outside of accepted parameters–such as Serbian women raped by Croats–went largely unheard.
Christians who want to offer a healing voice to this legacy of violence must first grapple with our complicity in the legacy itself. The Bible is full of stories of violence against women. The famous tale of David and Bathsheba is commonly thought of as “adultery,” but is, in fact, more a case of rape backed by political power (1 Samuel 11). The rape of Dinah is part of a blood feud between the Israelites and the Schechemites (Gen. 34). The brutal rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Benjaminite woman is part of war and feeds cycles of further violence against women (Judges 19-21). We must critically discern how these texts function to subtly validate rape, and instead use them to sensitize us to the cries of history’s many victims.
In the end, wartime rape is as much, if not more, about the war on women than war between nations and states. The rape of women is the longest war in history. Like all war, it confronts us with the challenge to follow Christ’s example of peace and justice-making to bring healing to a hurting world.