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Rape’s political import not restricted to Bosnia


After taking my uncle’s gold and money, the Serb paramilitary took my hand and told me to get in his car. He told me not to refuse or there would be lots of victims. … He told me not to scream and to take off my clothes. He took off his clothes and told me to suck his thing. I did not know what to do. He took my head and put it near him. He started to beat me. I lost consciousness. When I came to, I saw him over me. I had great pain. I was screaming and scratching the ground from the pain. Another man got over me. … I was crying from the pain, and he was laughing the whole time.… I begged [the first rapist] to kill me, but he didn’t want to.

This testimony is taken from a Human Rights Watch report documenting 96 cases of rape by Serbian and Yugoslav forces against Kosovar Albanian women. Recent evidence suggests that Russian soldiers in Chechneya are also raping women and girls on a mass scale. The fact that rape is a war crime under the Geneva Convention does not deter the perpetrators, primarily because international enforcement mechanisms are still very weak. In other words, soldiers are not afraid to violate women because they know the chances they will be punished are slim.

These incidents are shocking not only due to their brutality, but because the rapes are sanctioned by the military authorities. They are a political form of violence used deliberately to terrorize the civilian population. In contrast, rape committed in the United States is considered an isolated crime, and as such has no broader political importance.

Is this distinction accurate?

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, 95,769 rapes were reported in the United States during 1996; that is, one rape every six minutes. The incidence of rape is actually much higher, according to Linda Ledray from the Sexual Assault Resource Service in Minneapolis. She says that many victims do not report the crime because they fear the assailant, whose parting words in 76 percent of the cases are: “If you tell anyone (or report anything to the police), I’ll come back and kill you ... rape you again ... rape your child.” The fact that so many women are afraid to walk alone at night, even in seemingly safe areas, points to the power rapists wield in our society.

If legal and cultural structures in the United States did not encourage rape, albeit in a more covert way than in Kosovo and Chechneya, there would be less of it.

The mass media’s incessant portrayal of women as objects to be used and enjoyed by men has far-reaching implications for gender relations in our society. But this is only one aspect of the institutional support offered to rapists. Distrusting the rape victim’s testimony is another: Whereas 8 percent of all rape cases are considered “unfounded” by police, only 2 percent of all other crimes are regarded “unfounded.” Put differently, the raped woman’s testimony is not deemed to be as trustworthy as that of a man whose wallet was stolen.

Another disturbing form of institutional support involves the low rate of incarceration. Of reported rape incidents in the United States, over 50 percent of the perpetrators are arrested, yet only 4 percent end up in jail! The fact that rape is seldom punished not only provides a clear message to the rapist, but also to his victim. Her feeling of powerlessness is aggravated by an awareness that her attacker is likely to walk free even if arrested, which also explains why many women choose not to report the violation. In this way, a vicious circle is established.

The distinction made between rape in Kosovo and Chechneya, on the one hand, and in the United States, on the other, is misleading insofar as it suggests that rape in the United States lacks political encouragement. The portrayal of rape as a set of isolated incidents free of institutional support is detrimental because it diminishes the public’s drive to demand social change. On an even deeper level, it renders rape tolerable.

If stopping rape is the objective, it is crucial to recognize that here, too -- as in Kosovo and Chechnya -- rapists terrorize women without fear of being penalized. In the United States, too, rape is a politically sanctioned practice.

Neve Gordon, a former instructor in political science at the University of Notre Dame, teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000