Rape & War in Syria: let’s frame sexual violence as a tactic of war, not a tragedy of it.

*Trigger warning*

In civil war, when groups of people with conflicting identities are forced together by imaginary political boundaries, women’s bodies become inevitable tools for humiliating the enemy. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the former Yugoslavia, where sexual violence played a critical and strategic role throughout the nine year war. After 50,000-60,000 systematic rapes were reported, the United Nations finally declared rape “a tactic of war and a threat to international security.”

Over a decade later, sexual violence plagues the Syrian civil war: thousands of systemic rapes have been reported and thousands more, I imagine, befall in silence. Women Under Siege has fought hard to keep sexual violence in Syria in the media’s forefront. Yet most stories discuss “war in Syria” separately from “rape in Syria.” Narratives of rape are told as a product of conflict, rather than as an active weapon of attack.  According to  Syria Tracker, nine percent of reported causalities are of women. Women and girls are targets in this war, but we hear very little about why.

If rape is a threat to international security, shouldn’t we discuss it as an deliberate war crime, rather than a natural result of chaos?  How can we made an effort to conceptualize why rape is used during battle, and how to effectually report on rape as a war crime?

What does it mean that rape is a “weapon of war?”

Rape plays a unique role in wars of national and political identity because ubiquitously across borders, the female body is a symbol of the nation. Discourse feminizing the land transpires naturally: The motherland. Lady liberty. The land’s fecundity mimics a woman’s own fertility; “mother earth” progenerates life just as women progenerate the nation.

Yet, the nation does not historically belong to women. It rather belongs to those who build it and protect it, and who does this, if not the military? Men have been taught to protect the land, just as they must defend their own wife or mother. In the creation of a nation as a state we thus see that nationalism – or even a simple sense of patriotism – is built from the masculine desire to preserve and control the land, which is linguistically and conceptually deemed female. Gender roles of power and weakness are literally embedded into stories of national origin: women’s bodies become the possession of the collective nation.

Controlling women’s bodies consequently emerges as pragmatic agenda of nationalism. In war, whether or not soldiers are cognizant of their intent, sexual violence is not about women, nor is it about sex. Rape is used in conflict to incite a masculine reaction: it is a robbery from a father or a husband, used to create masculine humiliation, masculine desire and masculine fear.  Rape destroys the patriotic desire to control women at its very core: it shakes up nationalism, enrages the men and rips apart their ability to control their nation’s women.

Sexual violence holds additional power in its ability to suppress the future of a nation. If women do not die during rape or kill themselves after, they are frequently exiled from their families or left by their husbands. The result of death or alienation assures that these women will not reproduce and create either another mother or, more importantly, another soldier for their nation. We saw this in the Yugoslavian civil wars, where women were raped in attempt to diffuse a national identity. We continue to see this in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one of the greatest tragedies of our lifetime, over 1.8 million women and girls in the DRC have been raped in extremely violent and horrific ways, according to a 2011 study by The Guardian.

Women’s relationship to nationalism ensures they play relevant roles in conflict. If we understand the power of rape to shame and humiliate a woman, her family and her nation, why is the discourse on rape framed as an emotional trauma, rather than also an important, quieter, deliberate sort of war?

How should we talk about women’s experience?

When we do not talk about the way women are props of war in Syria, we promulgate rape as simply another necessary evil of human existence. It’s hard to report an exact number of causalities in Syria, since the United Nations stopped counting deaths over a month ago. The accepted number seems to be “over 40,000.” Syria Tracker does a phenomenal job of reporting rapes as they occur. But, as with any war crime, it seems almost impossible to hold perpetrators accountable: How are we to punish rape? Should we accuse all soldiers of taking part in sexual assault? Or should we let it all go unpunished?  In Yugoslavia, according to the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, twelve rapes were prosecuted out of over 50,000 . Twelve.  Is there, somehow, a better option?

Sexual violence gets notoriously silenced. It is painfully hidden away, whether it occurs in Steubenville, Ohio or in a war zone. We are conditioned to blame victims and perpetuate a culture of indifference. Rape becomes another icky thing for women to simply accept, like menstruation or Brazilian waxes. We ignore the power within a culture, within policy makers and within men to actively stop rape. If we treat rape as an inevitable part of war in Syria – or in the DRC or in Yugoslavia – we dangerously force women into a role. If women are symbols of the nation, it is logical that their bodies will continue to be used as tools for furthering the national agenda; unless we put stories of sexual violence at the forefront of reports on war, and point at it and say, “Look what is happening! Let’s protect these people!” we deny women of agency.

Rape is so embedded into warfare that almost all reports of conflict must mention rape, and most do. Various media agencies have run emotionally-driven stories, sharing details of rapes that are truly difficult to read. One involves a mice being forced into a woman’s vagina. Yet these harrowing stories seldom expose the crux of why sexual assault occurs and what can be done to prevent it. While it is critical for major media organizations to report on rape in Syria, it must not be told exclusively from an emotional perspective.

I want to hear a narrative that describes women as part of the war in Syria, not victims of it. I want to hear a narrative that describes the active use of rape as a tool to destroy the future of a nation, one potential mother and bearer of tradition at a time. I want to hear about the way these rapes are deliberately tearing apart families and communities. We need to give Syrian women support, to empower them to seek refuge and to help them understand their experiences as an active part of war. These women have fought a battle. Their stories are not accidental tragedies of conflict, nor should they be framed as such.

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