Women as wartime rapists: a new book explores 'the impossible'

Academic Laura Sjoberg argues that our gendered assumptions about sexual violence in conflict limit our understanding of these crimes.

Lara Whyte
19 June 2017

A Yazidi woman at a displaced persons camp in Iraq.

A Yazidi woman at a displaced persons camp in Iraq. Photo: Carol Guzy/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Sexual violence in conflict – and the attention it receives – is not new. Every generation grows up with its horror stories. For mine, it has been ISIS; for my mother's, the Bosnian war and the Rwandan genocide; for my grandmother's, World War Two. Wartime sexual violence is understood as a crime specifically against women, by men. Women are overwhelming named as the victims, and men, overwhelmingly, the perpetrators. This focus is also not unique to conflict zones, and it has rendered invisible male victims, female perpetrators, and violence that doesn’t fit within wider patriarchal, heterosexual narratives.

Into this complex area dives academic Laura Sjoberg, in a provocative book entitled Women as Wartime Rapists: Beyond Sensation and Stereotyping, published late last year. While recognising that women who commit rape during war are a tiny minority of perpetrators, Sjoberg’s book puts these outliers under the microscope and makes a convincing case that our gendered assumptions about sexual violence in conflict limit our understanding of these crimes – and how to counter and prevent them.

Sjoberg’s book is theoretically dense and at times deeply distressing. It opens with the monstrous story of Nazi war criminal Ilse Koch – “the bitch of Buchenwald,” who became infamous globally for the sexual abuse, torture and murder of inmates in the concentration camp in Germany that her husband Karl commanded. Among Koch’s “most well-known” abuses, Sjoberg notes, were: “collecting the tattooed skin of women prisoners as home decorations, crafting lampshades and other household goods from the skin of Buchenwald victims”.

Koch was jailed for life, for the murder of prisoners, private enrichment and embezzlement – but not sexual violence. Though the Nuremberg trials heard evidence of mass rape, it did not prosecute these crimes. Ghoulish atrocities were perpetrated on an extraordinary scale in the Holocaust, and up to 10% of SS guards were women. But, as Sjoberg notes, Koch was one of only a handful of women remembered for her role – portrayed as a devil, a sensationalised abomination but also as an affront to womankind; her existence rendered “impossible” by the gendered prism through which we view sexual crime.

...the gendered prism through which we view sexual crime.

Associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, Sjoberg has written several books about political violence and women. She told me that it was seeing pictures of Lynndie England – the young female US reservist who was photographed holding a leash attached to the body of a naked Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib – that prompted her journey towards writing Women as Wartime Rapists.

England was court-martialled and jailed in 2005 for her role in sexually abusing the prisoners. Sjoberg said she “was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in 2003 and I sat staring at the page for 20 minutes, because it didn’t make sense to me. And then I stared at it for another three hours because I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t made sense to me. And I think I have spent the last decade making sense of it”.

Her book presents evidence of women’s culpability in sexual violence from the Armenian genocide to the seemingly unending though consistently under-reported conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where one 2010 survey of more than 1,000 households found that 40% of women — and 10% of men — who said they were subjected to sexual violence were assaulted by a woman.

Sjoberg also dissects the various roles women are ‘given’ in patriarchal narratives of war: as peaceful vessels and innocent civilians in need of protection; as the reason to go to war in the first place (to fight for their virtue or their innocence); or as “available to soldiers”. Sjoberg says the latter of these can consist of providing food, entertainment, shelter — or being sexually “available” as “prostitutes, bush wives or rape victims”.

"if female perpetrators of sexual violence are invisible, then so are their victims"

Sjoberg takes as a case study the Armenian genocide which she says is often described as carried out by men, against men and women. She digs up studies that complicate this and reveal the role of “women perpetrators of genocide generally and of genocidal sexual violence”. She presents testimonies from living survivors who tell how women were involved in beating, killing, sexually violating and selling other women and girls into sexual slavery. When the genocide ended, a practice continued of selling girls who had been orphaned as 'brides'. Women tied up and tattooed other, enslaved, women and girls.

In Nazi Germany, Sjoberg also looks at the role of tens of thousands of nurses who participated in the forcible sterilisation of about half a million people. She acknowledges that this is “different from rape,” but includes it as a large-scale example to further emphasise her point: if female perpetrators of sexual violence are invisible, then so are their victims. “It’s a lot harder to identify women perpetrators”, Sjoberg tells me. “Even from feminist readings of sexual violence in conflict there is this feeling that wartime sexual violence, and sexual violence generally, is really the lynchpin of women’s oppression. It’s kind of one of the last stones unturned”.

"It’s kind of one of the last stones unturned”

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Rwandan minister of family and women’s affairs, was the first woman to be charged with genocidal rape at an international criminal court. In 2011 she was jailed for life for her role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed an estimated 800,000 people. Testimony against her described her openly ordering subordinates, including her son, to “get rid of all the Tutsis”, as well as directly commanding troops to commit rape and establish a system of sexual slavery.

“While most women perpetrators remain excluded from both official and unofficial narratives of the conflicts in which they commit sexual violence, Nyiramasuhuko received a disproportionate amount of attention,” Sjoberg writes in her book. “This attention has combined gendered and racialised exoticism and framed Nyiramasuhuko as “other” to femininity and civilisation”. This allows a double move of distancing her from the “ideal-typical” woman, incapable of the violence she committed, and (similar to how Koch was presented) inviting ugly discussions of supposed flaws in femininity that make the sort of atrocities she committed possible.

The media’s reporting of Nyiramasuhuko’s case was distinctly gendered — as were witnesses’ testimonies at her trial. Sjoberg notes that Nyiramasuhuko was alleged to have said, as a reason to kill Tutsi women, that they were “stealing our [Hutu] husbands”. Sjoberg insists we must see women who commit acts of sexual violence in conflict in a more nuanced and less sensationalised way — and that part of this is rejecting patriarchal views of women as vessels of peace and purity.

“We can all be complicit actually. Sex oppression can be perpetrated by anyone, including women."

The media’s representations of female victims of ISIS sex crimes provide a contemporary example of what Sjoberg is concerned about. Press coverage "has been very narrowly focused on the victimisation, with gratuitous focus on details of the sexual violence they suffered," says Sherizaan Minwalla, a human rights lawyer at the American University’s Washington College of Law and an activist with the Iraq Gender Justice group which has criticised how mainly Yazidi women survivors are routinely presented as ruined and devastated victims.

“This has been to the detriment of the survivors who also have stories to tell about how they showed courage and strength in the face of ISIS militants and when they escaped, and still in displacement", Minwalla told me. The courage of these women and girls has been publicly drowned out amid the cacophony of grisly descriptions of horrors endured — meanwhile the role that ISIS women played their trafficking, enforced captivity and torture has also been largely ignored.

Whilst recording the testimonies of more than a dozen Yazidi former ISIS captives, elements of my own reporting were complicit in this. I did not ask about the role of ISIS women in violence — though I did ask if any women of the families that held captives had helped them to escape. The answer was always the same; no, none of the women helped. Sometimes the women treated them worse than their male captors, they said, describing jealous rage or frightening outbursts if unending domestic chores were incomplete.

“Why do we believe that women will always been on the side of other women?”, Sjoberg asks. “Because this is hard stuff. Really hard”. She warns: “We can all be complicit actually. Sex oppression can be perpetrated by anyone, including women...Women are just people too, and people do bad things.”

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