Rape is rape. We say this often, and when it comes to wartime rape, the primary meaning that this primordial form of violence has taken on in history never changes. First of all, because it’s a phenomenon that is perpetrated only by the male part. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to stress this whenever we come across the erroneous notion that there are different kinds of rape.
Sexual violence can take different forms according to the context, but it is fundamentally the subjugation of one sex by the other. In the case of this particular intersection, i.e., wartime rape, about which there is a lot of literature, ranging from the Rape of the Sabine Women to the World Wars and the more contemporary conflicts, rape is practiced in all parts of the world to show the subjugation of roles that become reduced in the subalternity caused by the conflict – the latter, as a rule, wanted and enacted by men in the first place.
On this issue, a useful paper was published by Maschile Plurale entitled “Maschi e guerra“ (“Males and War”), in which, among other things, we read: “The image of war as rape has returned. People have wondered why pacifism is ineffective. War still remains an ‘arousing game.’”
It is precisely a woman’s body that becomes the field of battle; of colonization, not at all merely lateral, and of maximum desecration. It becomes a territory, often exoticized, on which one can set off the climax of ownership and, at the same time, disintegrate one’s own impotence. This topic is the focus of the authors who contributed to the collection Stupri di guerra e violenze di genere (Wartime Rape and Gender Violence, edited by Simona La Rocca, published by Ediesse in 2015), in which the various contexts and scenarios are fleshed out, historicizing and adding more pieces of the puzzle to realities that have already occurred.
There is no data on this issue that can claim completeness, for a number of reasons: the enormous scale of abuse that has been and is being perpetrated, even limiting ourselves to the post-1945 world; the difficulty of victims to denounce such abuse, many living in self-imposed oblivion generated by a sense of shame; and the lack of institutions in the field that would be independent from those who are the perpetrators of violence.
Over the years, the United Nations has put forward tentative estimates that are enough to demonstrate that wartime rape is a major weapon used by both regular armies and militias, with a primitive immediacy of male action engaging in a practice of subjugation: between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, over 60,000 in the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002), up to 50,000 in Bosnia in the 1990s, at least 200,000 in the Congo from 1996 onward.
Two million women were raped in World War II Europe. The stark revelations of this data are merely one piece of the global phenomenon of male abuse, as the UN stresses that in conflict zones, for every reported rape there are at least 10 unreported ones.
The common denominator is the absolute sense of justification brought forward to exploit and oppress the people in a war-torn place through the enslavement of the female part. Not because of what the feminine represents as an abstract element of an identity, but rather by virtue of a targeted action of wearing out, aimed at destroying the so-called enemies.
Revealing in this regard is the most ideologically theorized mass abuse of the current millennium: that of Yazidi women in the Shengal region of Iraq at the hands of militiamen of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. More than 6,000 were abducted, enslaved and passed from man to man, for years, according to a definite and intentional plan of action. It had a goal publicly declared by ISIS-affiliated media and legal scholars: to disintegrate and wipe out the cultural and social networks of a community, violating the women, occupying their bodies, dehumanizing them through collective, systematic and repeated rape.
Nullifying their will meant nullifying that of the whole community, erasing family and social ties, and imposing ethnic or religious superiority on a people considered subordinate, inherently inferior (the same collective male process as in the rapes perpetrated by white, Western UN peacekeepers against African women in the 1990s, or by European settlers at the turn of the nineteenth century in Africa and the Middle East).
The same objective can found in local histories as well as in wider events, at every latitude, as well as inside prisons and political jails, where rape becomes the main means of torture in a context aimed at removing the victim from the outside world.
There, rape is no longer an “impromptu” act on the battlefield in the context of the violation of villages and communities, but a structural and intentional strategy acted out within a closed and impassable space, in which the prisoner is deprived of all control over herself, the times and organization of her daily life, but above all over her body. In prison, rape is political punishment, individual humiliation, the annihilation of an idea.
The women thus become both the symbol of a defeat that has occurred and that of a wrathful arrogance to be acted out in order to definitively level the enemy. The fact that it is used “methodically” in every war, as in other otherwise coercive contexts, only reiterates its ultimate meaning: rape is rape.
It may be a constant across the centuries, but that doesn’t make it in any way an acceptable “side effect,” given that it mimics and, if anything, amplifies the systemic violence of a society during peacetime. Nor does it mean that there are any degrees of mitigation in all this evil. Every such story should be heard and told.