16 Days Campaign Theme series: Women’s Bodies as Men’s Playgrounds, by Akanksha Mehta

Akanksha Mehta

Women’s Bodies as Men’s Playgrounds:
Rape and Sexual Violence in Discourses of Violence and Conflict

Political violence is intricately linked to a surge in gender-based violence. Conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia etc. have all seen the use of mass rape and sexual assault as a weapon. Moreover, approximately four-fifths of war refugees are women and children, many of whom face sexual violence in refugee camps.[1] More recently, since the beginning of the war in 2003, Iraq has seen a rise in domestic violence, rape, female trafficking, and economically coerced prostitution.[2] Feminist scholars have rightly identified wartime sexual violence as symptomatic of the gendered nature of nationalism and violence.[3] Discourses of both nationalism and violence revolve around women’s bodies, appropriating rape and sexual violence as discursive and often propagandist tools, neglecting the actual role, struggle, victimization, and agency of the women involved.

In ethno-nationalist conflict, negotiations of ethnic identity are often carried out within discourses that use rape and sexual violence as ethno-markers. Boundaries based on cultural/ethnic/religious differences are further affirmed by the portrayal of one group’s proclivity to rape. For instance, in the discourse of the Hindu nationalist movement in India, the ‘Muslim’ man is identified as a ‘lustful rapist (polygamist)’ and the ‘Muslim’ woman is either seen as an ‘unchaste prostitute’ or a victim of ‘patriarchal Islam.’ This construction not only justifies physical violence against the Muslim community as means to protect the chaste Hindu women, but has also been used to justify rapes of ‘Muslim’ women as corrective and ‘purifying.’ In the 1998 Kosovo conflict, Serbian discourse constructed Albanian men as perpetrators of rape, interrupting economic and social channels that previously saw working-class Serbian women regularly interacting with Albanian men and deepening the ethnic divide in Kosovo. In both cases, women’s bodies transform into playgrounds of masculine conflicts that condemn the women to the discursive realm, ignoring the several ways in which they ‘live’ the conflict and its physical, emotional, and economic consequences.

Sexual violence and rape also play a crucial role in discourses of insurgency and counter-insurgency. In the 1990s, in conflict-ridden Kashmir, rape and sexual assault by the Indian security forces was appropriated into propagandist militant discourse that used raped bodies as public bodies- encouraging women to give testimonies of rape and appropriating these narratives to further its agenda. However, little was down on the ground to de-stigmatize rape and prevent social ostracizing of raped women. On the other hand, ‘saving’ women from sexual violence leashed by militants became a justification for the state’s heavy militarization of the region. Furthermore, in India’s current Maoist movement, counter-insurgency narratives construct female Maoist cadres as either ‘immoral’ and  ‘sexually unclean and polluted’[4] or victims of sexual violence by male Maoists. These narratives not only justify incidents of sexual violence against Maoist women by paramilitary forces but also justify counter-insurgency’s larger ‘civilizing’ mission.

Discourses of conflict and violence establish an instrumental relationship between rapists, raped women, and the political entities surrounding them. The notion of the ‘dishonored’ woman and the woman who must be ‘protected’ from ‘dishonor’ remains central to this relationship. While women and their bodies are deeply embedded in these discourses and propaganda battles, concepts such as honor and dishonor remain politically unchallenged in these narratives, reaffirming and reinforcing patriarchal structures. It is therefore essential that beneath these discourses that portray women as detached self-sacrificing mothers, daughters, wives, and victims, we uncover women’s roles as agents, nationalists, insurgents, breadwinners, refugees, as well as their struggles as sufferers of gender-based violence- during and after conflict. Narratives and experiences of women in times of war and violence are not only crucial to understanding conflict but also to understanding systems of patriarchy that breed gender-based violence.

Akanksha Mehta is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. Her research is on gender, political violence, and nationalism. She can be found at www.twitter.com/SahibanInExile

[1] Hauchler, Ingomar and Kennedy, Paul. 1994. Global Trends. New York: Continuum Publishers.

[2] See Iraq: The Human Cost – http://mit.edu/humancostiraq/

[3] Enloe, Cynthia. 1993. The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[4]The official website of Bastar district, Chhattisgarh (http://bastar.nic.in/) previously mentioned the following- “The Gonds tribals of Bastar have their own ‘Ghotul’ system in which the unmarried young mature boys and girls live together in separately made huts and copulate. During this time they enjoy themselves by participating in dancing, music, local story telling etc. in a drunken mood….” Retrieved on 20 October 2010. The website is “under renovation” since early 2012.