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Lack of Consent: Rape and War Pt. 2

Last October, we tackled the issue of rape in war zones, both of civilians and soldiers. Since the beginning of the new year, it seems like articles kept popping up to remind us that with war comes rape. Here is an unhappy collection of news stories about something tragic:

Every week I look forward to The Economist’s International section. They usually have one or two articles that highlight a topic in depth that you just won’t see anywhere else. This article from January highlights their good reporting. Bottom line: rape happens frequently in war zones.

And as if to show that with instability comes violence--including rape--enter Exhibit A, Egypt, where Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a group of men in Tahrir square. As NPR and others have reported, Egypt has a severe problem with misogyny. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are a deplorable part of their culture, and the political instability magnified that.

Then, in Libya, a similar story of brutality by a corrupt regime emerged when Iman al-Obeidi stormed into a Tripoli hotel to tell her story to journalists. The story mixes the unbelievable--but probably true--with the tragic.

Most revolutions are violent, ugly and chaotic, more like war at its worst than democracy. We’ve written about this before; these rapes demonstrate it. Joe Klein elaborates on this idea here.

This Frontline article is a few years old, but we have been on a Frontline kick recently. So as we were gathering articles for this post, we stumbled on this piece that opens with the provocative statement that under Saddam, rape was a rare occurrence in Iraq. Since the invasion--with the widespread deaths of young men, the protectors of women in that culture--rape became a tool of oppression.

Finally, rape continues within the ranks of the US military, as we reported in our last link drop. Yahoo/AP reported in February about a class action lawsuit submitted by 15 female veterans suing over mishandling of their reports of sexual assault. Though rapes within the military are offensive, nee tragic, we want to avoid a false equivalency; the American military is not comparable to the armed militias in the Congo or the mobs in Cairo. In those places, chaos caused widespread rape and violence. War is chaotic; so is revolution.

Though other places have worse problems with rape, that still doesn’t excuse our military.

five comments

Certainly in our time in Baghdad, we would often hear from women that during Saddam’s time women could walk down a street at 2 in the morning and be confident of their safety.

We worked daily with an Iraqi woman while we were shooting the film and saw her treated with nothing but the utmost respect by men during 2003 and into 2004. I believe it’s undeniable that the status of women rose enormously during the Ba’ath period. Indeed, our translator was the first woman in her family to be able to read and write and, in common with many other Iraqi women (of all ethnicities, persuasions and class) went on to graduate from university. But the gains of 30 years were sent into regression by the empowerment of ultra-religious parties in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Worth considering in the light of conversations about our championing of women’s rights in the developing world!

Rape should always be seen for what it is: an expression of power. The most extraordinary depiction of this that I’ve ever seen was “Croatian and Muslim” by the war artist Peter Howson. The painting, created from the testimony of victims – in the immediate aftermath of the crime – shows Croatian militiamen raping a Bosnian woman after having stuffed her head into a toilet. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find a copy to link to and the original is in the private collection of David Bowie. The painting was deemed to brutal to be retained for the collection of the Imperial War Museum, despite having commissioned the overall set of work by Howson.

As an aside, I just had a conversation two days ago with a friend – who is an OIF veteran and activist – in which he was telling me of tensions between the police and returning vets in Denver. One of the underlying factors is the knowledge and exercise of power and how difficult it has been for the vets to transition from being wielders of a virtually untrammeled permission to dominate into the requirement that they once again become controllable members of a society in which authority resides elsewhere. The vets, having tasted the fruit of power feel ever more strongly what it feels like to no longer possess it.

Rape, it seems, takes many forms.


Yeah, Iraq was actually one of the most secular, least sexist Islamic countries when we invaded. They had the highest number of women representatives in government, a high literacy rate.


The assault on Lara Logan wasn’t necessarily in a war zone. It was more a riot. Not to take away from your point at all, that such crimes happen more frequently in areas that are uncontrolled and in turmoil.

With regard to “uncontrolled,” it’s not relegated to areas beyond our border. In my last year at university, the school suspended all fraternity/sorority social events because of the ridiculously high incidence of sexual assaults reported the previous year. At these events there was of course heavy drinking. There were supposed to be sober brothers and sisters from each sorority and fraternity represented, usually an older member. However, when the party goes all night and those sober brothers and sisters want to be fresh to study or go to class the next day, they end up leaving at midnight and the party is left unsupervised.

My point being that assault happen when those perpetrating them feel like they can get away with it. Our response as a fraternity was to make policing these parties a philanthropy. Charge a fee for our service, donate that fee to charity, and we relegated a number of guys based on the size of the location to the party until the party was done. The incidence of sexual assault dropped to near zill the following quarter.

Back on topic, I think it’s sadly ironic that many women were prevalent in instigating change in Egypt, but are now being told to resume activity as normal. Thanks for the help, but you can go back to mopping, I guess.


I agree with Steve about rape as an expression of power. It is a method to a larger end state. And it’s terrible.

I also think that though everyone agrees it should be stopped, getting into specifics is tough.


Good comments guys.

Michael and Marty: the issue, very often, is whether the perpetrators feel that they can “get away with it” – whether from a sense of operating within a broader atmosphere of tolerance to wrongdoing and impunity from punishment or (as is most prevalent in the situations Marty speaks of) there being a cloak of protective secrecy thrown over the proceedings.

Both of these stem from a variety of causes. In universities and some military units, those in authority seek to protect the “good name” of the institution and almost always do so by internal investigation and lower level dispensation of justice. This is simply not equal to the crime.

In a time of peace, rape is one of the most serious crimes on any country’s statute book – often punishable by life imprisonment. In a time of war – and as a part of war – I believe it is now recognized as a crime against humanity. And rightly so. No matter what, such crimes absolutely must be investigated with the greatest skill and probity and the evidence tested at the highest possible judicial level.

Additionally (and this would go a long way toward setting us on the right road) where it is shown that in order to protect individual or institutional reputations, authorities shield such acts from public scrutiny, those authorities should also be held fully accountable in the same upper level judicial process as the criminal.

Eric: watch some joker come on and tell us that these were all totally unforeseeable consequences and were simply caused by inherent defects in the society…..