The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Douglas, Carol Anne

Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina

edited by Alexandra Stiglmayer, translated by Marion Faber, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1994, $14.95 paper.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has raised consciousness about the use of rape as a tool of warfare. International feminists have called for war trials and the recognition of such rape as a war crime. This book, produced by German feminists, presents the evidence that the Bosnian Serb paramilitary and military forces have used rape, torture — and, indeed, genocide — as instruments of war against Muslim and Croat women.

from Troy to El Salvador

Essays from German and U.S. feminists discuss the use of rape as a weapon in this and other wars. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, points out that rape was similarly used as a weapon against Bangladesh women by Pakistani soldiers when Bangladesh fought for its independence in 1971. Those also were called “unprecedented,” she notes. “As in Bosnia now, Bengali women were abducted into military brothels and subjected to gang assaults.”

“There is nothing unprecedented about mass rape in war when enemy soldiers advance swiftly through populous regions,” Brownmiller writes. Nor is there anything unusual about male national leaders using these rapes symbolically as a rallying point. After wars are over, the leaders no longer use the women as rallying points, and they are left alone with their pain. She reminds the reader of U.S. soldiers’ rapes in Vietnam, which because of the predominant position of the U.S. never received much attention.

German feminists note that the Soviet Union used mass rape as a tool when it occupied Germany after World War II.

German feminist Helke Sander, who produced a film about the rapes by the Russian soldiers, contributes an essay pointing out that women also were systematically raped in recent decades in Bangladesh, the civil war in Uganda, and in Iran, where fundamentalists observed the Koran’s ban against executing virgins by first raping women, then executing them. But now, for the first time, it is women who are forcing public awareness of rapes in war, she notes. She also points out that wars continue in Afghanistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and other countries, and that those undoubtedly also involve rape and torture of women. For those of us whose cause is violence against women, our cause will last a long time, she writes.

From the history of ancient Greece to the mass rapes of the Japanese army in Nanking, China to recent struggles in El Salvador and Sri Lanka, men in war have raped women, notes Cynthia Enloe, a writer who has focused on criticism of neo-imperialism. What is new is not rape in war or attention to it, but the fact that rapes in war are now being documented by women, by feminists whose primary concern is the welfare of the women who have been raped, Enloe says. Women in El Salvador and Sri Lanka also tried to get out news about rapes in their countries’ fights, but feminists in Bosnia and Croatia have been more successful in getting heard. What is new is that women are finally getting international attention to women’s human rights.

Women from around the world are getting together to discuss what rape means, and how it is connected with all forms of exploitation of women, Enloe writes.

Catharine A. MacKinnon, who has been particularly active in working to assist Bosnian and Croatian women in fighting against genocide and genocidal rape, writes that some of the gang rapes have been photographed by the perpetrators for use as pornography, and notes that is yet another devastating experience for the raped women.

MacKinnon points out that women’s human rights have never been recognized. They have been seen either as too specific to women to be human rights, or too generic as rights to be seen as particular to women. If we believed existing approaches to human rights, we would not believe we had any, she writes. “We have learned to look at the reality of women’s lives first, and to hold human rights law accountable for what we need, rather than to look at human rights law and see how much of what happens to women can be fit into it.”

MacKinnon emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the rapes perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb paramilitary and military are genocidal rapes. She points out that rapes are committed by individual men, supposedly not by governments; international organizations have been reluctant to see rape as a human rights violation because they see human rights violations as being committed by governments and have not recognized government collusion in crimes perpetrated against women. Every country in the world has a legal obliation to stop the Serbs, but none tried to until the government of Bosnia went to the International Court of Justice charging the Serbs with genocide, she says. (They still haven’t done much.)

As a result of pressure, particularly from feminists, the United Nations Security Council in 1993 set up the first international war crimes tribunal since the tribunal that judged the Nazis in Nuremberg. A December 7, 1994 New York Times reported that officials at the tribunal said they needed more money from the United Nations to do their work. Only three of the tribunal’s 18 investigators were women; feminist groups note that it is important to have women investigators to take testimony from the women who have been raped.

indictments issued

On February 13, the tribunal charged the Serb commander of a concentration camp in Bosnia with genocide; 20 other Serb commanders, guards, and visitors at the camp were charged with war crimes. The court said that prisoners at the Omarska camp were “murdered, raped, sexually assaulted, severely beaten, and otherwise mistreated.” At the camp, the Serbs eliminated the Muslim leaders and upper classes of the surrounding towns.

Rhonda Copelon, who is codirector of the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic at the City University of New York, says the women should be allowed to testify without having their identities made public, unless they consent to that, and that evidence about their prior sexual histories should not be permitted, a point that seems obvious with genocidal rape, but may not be apparent to male international lawyers. She notes that intentional impregnation by rapists seems not to be scrutinized except in the context of genocidal rapes; from a feminist perspective, forced pregnancy is an assault on women’s reproductive self-determination, “it expresses a desire to mark the rape and the rapist upon the woman’s body and the woman’s life.”

Feminists have called attention to the rapes in Bosnia, but the chances that the higher-level war criminals will actually pay any penalty don’t seem good. Jimmy Carter, the supposed saint of peace, had friendly talks last December with Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs who had been served with a subpoena (by MacKinnon) demanding that he appear before an international tribunal as a war criminal, and Carter even suggested that the Bosnian Serbs’ “side” had not been given enough of a hearing. The world has pretty much abandoned Bosnia, apparently out of fears of aiding the revival of nationalism in Russia, which supports the Serbs, and bringing Russia into war on the side of the Serbs. The fear is certainly understandable. But how can you really punish war criminals — or at least those who are giving the orders — if you don’t defeat them militarily?

But there is more to the story than crime and punishment. The women will, in most cases, go on living, being pressured either to marry or not to marry, trying to cope, Enloe notes. Even after wars are over, women are left to cope, and who will listen to them then, she asks.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Mar 1995

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