The Role of Women, Sexual Violence and War
By Jo-Ann Rodrigues
September 14, 2012
Most mornings, I read 5 to 6 newspapers from North America, Western Europe and the Middle East (including Israel). In the past month I have noticed a theme emerge from these news sources. Violence against women is being reported in a new way as well as violence women commit.
Rape is a word more often published in the newspapers and explored in terms of its definition. I guess it’s difficult to avoid this when politicians like Tod Akin, an American candidate running for election for the Senate states, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
It is also difficult to avoid the comments of a relative of a controversial Toronto Mayor (his niece) who recently tweeted: “Stay alert, walk tall, carry mace, take self-defence classes & don’t dress like a whore.”
What’s interesting to see is the response to such statements. While there are indeed those who make distinctions on rape (legitimate, forcible – for example) and accept forms of sexual and gender-based violence, what I am beginning see in Western media especially is more space given to discussion and exploration of another voice, a voice with no tolerance for sexual and gender-based violence.1
Over the 34 years of my existence it is only relatively recently that women are coming out in widely circulated and readily available media, identifying themselves as victims and survivors of sexual assault and taking on the task of engaging in dialogue about it.
Take for instance Mona Eltahawy, an American-Egyptian journalist who was violently beaten and sexually assaulted by riot police in Egypt. She used social media, in the form of twitter to give up-to-date accounts of what was happening to her. She then wrote a newspaper article about it in addition to appearing on CNN to give her account. Pushing the uncomfortable discussion forward she published an article in the Foreign Policy journal titled, “Why do they hate us?”
In Toronto a woman sexually assaulted in a well-known, downtown neighbourhood, wrote an open-letter after reading Krista Ford’s email, identifying herself as one of the women assaulted in a series of attacks that continues, at the time of writing this.
In her letter posted on Facebook and Twitter she wrote, “I believe you have a right to your body and regardless of how you do or don’t dress it I believe you have a right to respect and personal security.”
I am pleasantly shocked to see such statements, articles and testimonies. It is one of the important and necessary steps to eradicating sexual and gender based violence. It must be acknowledged that it exists and it must be acknowledged how it affects women and communities. I am eager to see how they catalyze conversation around gender and women’s rights.
In stark contrast I am also reading about the militarization of women. Although this reality is not a new one, what is new is that social and new media offer an intimate perspective into the role of women in armed conflict which we have rarely had documented in this way in the past.
The articles debunk myths of “the weaker sex” as photos of women in niqabs brandish Kalashnikovs or are reported to be imprisoned for their role in communal violence or that their military presence are in some of the most active conflict zones.
The impact of these roles that women take on is not as widely discussed or acknowledged. Moreover, the impact on women who engage in violence and the impact it has on their families and the community is also not documented or discussed. 2
It would be a valuable endeavour to talk about this as an attempt to understand the perspectives of these women and comprehend the impact their engagement in armed conflict has on the stability of communities and nations.
As these images emerge and women voice their points of view on SGBV as well as their role in armed conflict it makes me pause to reflect on women’s rights, gender rights and human rights. It also makes me wonder how does violence committed by women affect the ability for everyone to live in relative peace?
I leave it for all those that read this to take up the conversation and explore it further.
1 Provocative articles on rape have run, for instance in the Guardian – a UK newspaper – recently. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/09/reape-abortion-fight-womens-rights-turkey,
2 Unfortuntately women not only face violence hostile territories and countries but within their own military ranks: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/14/culture-coverup-rape-ranks-us-military