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Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Categorized in these topics: Internally Displaced People Rape Women in Collaboration

Response Paper
October 6, 2002

Mass Rape is an anthology offering variable perspectives on the war and how it has affected women. Unlike The Suitcase by Julie Mertus, which bombards the reader with first person accounts of violence, rape, and terror from the very first page, Mass Rape begins with insightful essays that prepare the reader with the background necessary for comprehending the use of rape as a weapon. For me, these essays were the crucial factor in understanding the politics of rape. The tragic first person stories are reserved for the interior chapters; first the reader is introduced to commentaries from authorities on the subject, such as Susan Brownmiller who authored the landmark Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, and Azra Zalihic-Kaurin, a free-lance journalist and refugee from Sarajevo.

One of the chapters that spoke the loudest to me was "War and Rape: A Preliminary Analysis" by Ruth Seifert. Although I was previously familiar with the concept that rape was not a sexual act but rather a violent act carried out by sexual means, I did not fully comprehend the meaning and all the different levels on which this idea touched.
For example, I had always dismissed rape as a necessary evil due to "the nature of men." Seifert is quick to dispel this ideology in her essay. She points out that as one of our most popular and effective myths, the belief that rape has to do with an uncontrollable male drive relieves men of their individual responsibility for their actions and permits them to use sexual violence (55).

Secondly, rape as an expression of rage, violence, and domination over a woman perpetrates the everyday oppression of women. The ever-present knowledge that an attack on her body and mind may happen at any moment, solely because of her gender, alters and restricts a woman's everyday behavior. As Seifert points out, this danger of rape has the "symbolic power to shape a society even when no direct rape is occurring" (57).

Furthermore, as it was implemented in Bosnia, rape is a central element of genocide. It was used to deconstruct a culture, to taint the reproduction of an ethnic group, and to degrade women, thereby humiliating the men that claim them. It is known that the rape of women sends the message to men that they are unable to protect "their" women. The most shocking aspect of this practice is how blatantly women's bodies are used and objectified. Inga Muscio, in her book Cunt succinctly states: "Though rape is viewed merely as a crime, it is the fundamental, primal, most destructive way to seize and maintain control in a patriarchal society. When wars are declared, everyone involved in the declaration assumes women will be raped. Invading soldiers do not necessarily rape women to hurt us, per se. Women are raped to stymie the morale of husbands, fathers, and sons. Women's bodies are considered solely in regard to how they affect men" (emphasis mine, 154-5).

The rape of women in Bosnia has also been used as a tool for propaganda. In Catharine A. MacKinnon's essay "Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide," she discusses how the men's perception of property violation (in relation to "their" women) leads to the publicizing of rapes. The propaganda machines were aware that men would perceive the rapes as a direct insult and it would encourage them to fight more fiercely. Once again, the politics are at the cost of women.

This objective view of women has been demonstrated by the International War Crimes Tribunal. In cases where "rape has been treated as a grave crime, it is because it violates the honor of the man and his exclusive right to sexual possession of his woman as property" (200). Such purposes for rape demonstrate the absolute lack of regard for the female and her exclusive right to her own body.


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