Daily Telegraph, 10 September 2015
Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy
When Angelina Jolie speaks, people listen. Earlier this week a House of Lords committee was transfixed as the Hollywood star talked about the rape of girls as young as seven in war zones. Jolie is campaigning on the issue of sexual violence and peers listened intently as she accused Islamic State (Isil) of deliberately using rape as the ‘centrepoint of their terror’.
She described Isil as the ‘most aggressive terrorist group in the world today’ and said it’s aware that sexual violence is a ‘very effective weapon’. She recalled meeting a 13-year-old girl in Iraq who had been kept in a room with many other girls and raped repeatedly; even worse, according to the girl, was that the fact that she and her friends were forced to stand in rows and listen as potential buyers argued about what how much they were worth.
Harrowing stories about the sale of women from the Yazidi religious minority have been emerging from Iraq for some time. So has the fact that Isil has openly embraced rape as part of its ideology, encouraging followers to sexually assault non-Muslim women. Last month it emerged that the organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, repeatedly raped the American hostage Kayla Mueller before her death and personally kept Yazidi girls as ‘sex slaves’.
Jolie’s call for a ‘very, very strong response’ to these horrors is welcome. She says the way in which Isil has made rape central to its policy is something quite new – it goes ‘beyond what we have seen before’. But history tells us otherwise: Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy.
The distinction Jolie tried to make is between rape as a by-product of war and its conscious use as a means of humiliating a defeated group or population. The mass rape of German women as the Red Army advanced at the end of the Second World could be said to fall into the first category; the Russians even raped women inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp, including communist prisoners and women who had themselves fought in the Red Army before capture.
For centuries, this kind of behaviour was tolerated by senior officers, even if some of them disapproved of it. But there have been plenty of instances of rape being officially sanctioned: according to Amnesty International, the Japanese army forced up to 200,000 women and girls into military brothels during the Second World War, where they were known by the appalling euphemism ‘comfort women’. Many were Chinese or Korean, and around three-quarters died as a result of multiple rapes and beatings.
The nature of war has changed markedly since the Second World War, moving away from conflicts between states to ones between religious and ethnic groups. It is this factor which accounts for an increase in the use of sexual violence as a deliberate policy. When people who have lived alongside each other for centuries go to war, they deliberately exaggerate differences between themselves and rival groups; it’s a method of dehumanising erstwhile neighbours who are suddenly recast as ‘enemies’. Rape is a method of ‘ethnic cleansing‘, terrifying civilians into fleeing from their homes and ensuring that they’re too scared to return. That is what’s currently happening to Iraq’s Yazidi population.
The second purpose of mass rape in civil wars is if anything more dreadful. It is a way of humiliating the enemy, using women’s bodies to undermine entire societies; in conservative cultures, women who have been raped are often rejected by their families. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Bosnian Serb units set up ‘rape camps’ where thousands of Muslim women were systematically assaulted.
In 1993, a European Council report accepted that rape was being used in Bosnia ‘with the conscious intention of demoralising and terrorising communities’. Rape has been used for similar reasons in other recent conflicts, including those in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. But it was the Bosnian war that brought about a change in the law; in 2001, mass rape was finally recognised as a crime against humanity.
Against this background, the behaviour of Isil towards women and girls is horrible but familiar. What’s different isn’t the organisation’s deliberate use of rape but the extent to which members enjoy boasting about it. It’s an indication of the way they have embraced mass media, whether they’re publishing execution videos or telling would-be recruits that they’re allowed to rape non-Muslim women. Rape is central to their propaganda, but it doesn’t make them different.
‘Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times,’ the American feminist Susan Brownmiller wrote in Against Our Will. The book was published in 1975, anticipating Isil by four decades. I’ve no doubt that Angelina Jolie means well, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s anything novel or unique about the use of sexual violence by Isil.