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Exposing war’s attacks on women


Anne Llewellyn Barstow, editor
The Pilgrim Press, 224 pages, $20


War’s Dirty Secret is a book with a mission, “to change the way you think about war.” Editor Anne Llewellyn Barstow along with the contributors to this volume, who represent more than a dozen nations, certainly achieve their goal. Their writings expose a painful irony: “In the last 60 years we have invented the most sophisticated weapons ever known. … Yet in recent years, armies have increasingly turned back to the oldest forms of attack -- rape and sexual torture.”

You may wonder how the “oldest forms of attack” can be “war’s dirty secret.” It’s because the reality of wartime rapes are often omitted from official histories. Even groundbreaking documents, such as the excellent account of the Salvadoran civil war compiled by Americas Watch, includes mention of only a “dozen or so incidents where rapes were involved,” although other accounts indicate that rape was a frequent tactic of the Salvadoran government. Another notable example of this tendency to erase the violence against women is found in Seymour Hersh’s writing on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, which failed to recount the 20 Vietnamese women who were raped that day.

War’s Dirty Secret seeks to fill this silence on the subject of women’s experience of war with a rebellious noise. Along with more academic and sociological studies of the sexual violence of war are first-person accounts of the body as battlefield from the points of view of Bosnian, Haitian, Rwandan, Japanese, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Chinese, Filipina and Korean women. I list the nationalities of the women who share their stories to draw attention to the range of this study, but also to highlight the scope of the atrocities to which the world’s women are subjected when nations seek to destroy one another.

Alphonsine, a 19-year-old Rwandan woman, tells her story. “He [the solider] told me that he knew that even though I was a Hutu that my grandparents were Tutsi and that he would kill them if I didn’t submit to him. He took me to the sorghum and raped me on the ground there. … A few months later, I realized I was pregnant. I was angry about the pregnancy and even thought about getting an abortion but I had no money and no way to do it. I gave birth to twins. … They survived 11 months, but died. I still think a lot about the rape. I wonder if I have AIDS.”

In addition to mass rapes -- cases like the one quoted above in which soldiers systematically rape the women of a town or community -- this study includes “sexual slavery” and prostitution, particularly as practiced in Asia. We hear the voices of Korean “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan in World War II as well as the voices of Japanese women who not only stand in solidarity with the “comfort women,” but also are demanding that their own government compensate the women for the indignities endured.

No doubt there will be readers who will regard the work with suspicion: This is a book with an American author, published on an American press, yet attempts to bring attention to the plight of mostly Third World women, women of color. Barstow anticipates this criticism by beginning the book with the following anecdote: Barstow traveled to Beijing in 1994 to attend the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, where she attended a press conference held by the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations. The room was packed with mostly younger Japanese women who wanted to talk about the Japanese government’s refusal to do justice to the “comfort women” of World War II. The Japanese women were not allowed to ask questions. Finally at the urging of a Japanese friend, Barstow demanded that the ambassador address the issue. The room exploded into angry chanting from the women who had not been allowed to speak.

This book, in many ways, is a further extension of the dynamic in that room in Beijing. Barstow uses her position as a historian, author, feminist and American to secure this safe space from which the women who know firsthand the violence of war and its consequences may speak. War’s Dirty Secret is dedicated “to the women who are breaking the silence and speaking out.” Their voices will change you and the way you think about war.

Tayari Jones is the author of Leaving Atlanta, which will be published next year by Warner Books. Her e-mail address is TayariAJones@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001