Mass Rape: War on Women


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accessed November 11, 2001

Mass Rape: War on Women

Dahlia Gilboa


This is not rape out of control. It is rape under control. It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is rape to be seen and heard and watched and told to others: rape as spectacle. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people. It is rape as genocide (MacKinnon 190-1).

The world has recently learned of the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia. Stories of torture, prison camps, and Holocaust-like conditions emerge daily in the news. One of the most unique aspects of the war in Bosnia, the methodical rape of women and girls, remains largely unknown, however. Why and how did these mass rapes occur? What propelled soldiers, UN troops--ordinary men--to rape their friends, neighbors, and co-workers? The mass rapes in Bosnia were part of a campaign against women, which included genocide, pornography, and ethnic cleansing. This "war on women" has important implications for all of humanity.

Women have never been regarded as the equals of men in Balkan society. Girls often marry at a young age, bear children soon after, and receive only minimal schooling. They are perceived as "lower" than men, and are expected to act meek and obedient in their homes and workplaces. This subtle and ingrained disrespect of women paved the way for the mass rapes that occurred in Bosnia. Women were easy targets for male soldiers because they were perceived as defenseless. A man’s status in Balkan society therefore became his excuse and weapon for sexual violence.

This male dominance is also evident in the way that rape was used to instill such fear in women so that they, nor their families, would ever return home: "They did it to humiliate us. They were showing us their power. They stuck their guns in our mouths. They tore our clothes. They showed the ‘Turkish women’ they were superior" (Stiglmayer 92). The rapists’ goal was to humiliate the women to such a great extent that their memories of home would automatically be associated with rape and extreme fear. These memories acted as a buffer zone, keeping the women from returning to their homes and villages. In this way, rape was used as a form of ethnic cleansing. The women’s fear, shame, and humiliation following the rape would assure the (usually) Serb perpetrators that they were on their way to establishing a "cleansed" Greater Serbia, free of Muslim women and their relatives.

The male aggression in Bosnia manifested itself in a way unique to most other wartime rapes, however. In this war, rape was used as a tool for ethnic cleansing through the forced impregnation of women:

"There is a difference between the kind of genocidal rape that ends in murder

and the kind that ends in pregnancy: victims of the second kind of genocidal

rape must be able to become, and remain, pregnant. Being a female,

therefore, is a necessary condition for receiving this kind of treatment."

(Allen 121)

Men are therefore automatically excluded from this particular type of rape. One of the main goals of the (mostly) Serb rapists was to create an ethnically "clean" Greater Serbia, wherein the babies of raped Muslim women would be raised as Serbs. As long as the father was Serb, the child would be considered Serb. Even though half of the child’s blood would be Muslim, the Serbs discounted this, thereby suggesting that Serbian blood was superior and dominant. Furthermore, since no great religious differences existed between the mostly secularized Muslims and Serbs of Yugoslavia (see Religion and Racialization: The Manipulation of Hate), the culture and belief-system under which one was raised was more important than one’s specific "religious blood-line." Therefore, the Serbs believed that, since the children born of the rapes would be raised in Greater Serbia, they would identify with the Serb culture; thus, they would be Serbs, just like their fathers. The argument that women were raped solely because of their ability to become pregnant, does not, however, explain the mass rapes of old women and young girls:

"There are many women…and many females…who do not qualify, so to

speak, for this particular, and particularly Serb, atrocity because, for any

number of reasons, they do not get pregnant. They may be too young or too

old. They may not ovulate. They may miscarry immediately. "(Allen 121).

Women are raped because they are female, even though this criterion does not necessarily qualify them for childbearing. To say that rape in Bosnia was used only to impregnate and increase the ethnic pool would be a misstatement. Women were also raped because of the selfish desires of individual men. The fact that old women and young girls were raped in addition to women of childbearing age indicates that rape was used as sexual fantasy and pornography.

Women and girls were literally the pawns of men in the war in Bosnia; they were the targets not only of reproductive genocide, but also of pedophilia, and reckless sexual perversion. Bosnia became a sexual smorgasbord, where soldiers could satisfy their most vulgar sexual fantasies. They knew that, once the war was over, their actions could be blamed on the widely accepted notion that "soldiers do irrational things in times of war." In addition, they could use the cowardly defense of numerous Nazi war criminals: "I was only following orders." For example, when Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted for crimes against humanity for his role in mass extermination of Jews during World War II, he shifted the blame to his superiors (even though he was a high-ranking officer). Fortunately, the judges held Eichmann accountable for his actions. However, it is chilling to note the similarities between the war criminals in Bosnia and World War II. The famous post-Holocaust vow of "Never Again" suddenly seems less promising.

Unfortunately, many of the soldiers were, in fact, following orders, even though this does not excuse their actions. After the war, many army generals testified that they ordered their troops to rape women as a way to "increase the morale of our fighters" (Stiglmayer 149).

Local soldiers were not the only ones to participate in the violence against women, however; the United Nations, the "organization of nations pledged to promote world peace and security…and the observance of international law," participated in the rapes and proliferation of pornography, as well:

The spectacle of the United Nations troops violating those they are there to protect adds a touch of the perverse…some UN troops are participating in raping Muslim and Croatian women taken from Serb-run rape/death camps… "the UN presence has apparently increased the trafficking in women and girls through the opening of brothels, brothel-massage parlors, peep shows, and the local production of pornographic films." There are also reports that a former UNPROFOR commander accepted offers from a Serbian commander to bring him Muslim girls for sexual use (MacKinnon 192).

How did the United Nations become a war criminal? When did the men who pledged to protect the women of Bosnia decide to rape and objectify them? In this war, the whole world seemed to be going crazy. It was easy for UN and Serb soldiers alike to participate in these atrocities because they knew that they would not face dire consequences. After all, the world has a tradition of excusing men’s actions while in battle because "soldiers do irrational things in times of war." Rape commonly occurs in every war. The world has learned to turn a blind eye to rape and other violations of women because they have become so commonplace (in the media and in battle) as to be rendered almost insignificant.

Excuse after excuse for atrocious behavior unified the rapists in Bosnia; whether they were Serbs, Croats, or members of the UN peacekeeping force is irrelevant. In the war in the former Yugoslavia, rape crossed all cultural, ethnic, and moral boundaries. To many women, all men were the enemy; how could one defend against the enemy when he was your brother, neighbor, husband, co-worker, or friend? Peter Maass, in his report on Yugoslavia entitled Love Thy Neighbor, A Story of War, asks: "How could a man wake up one morning and shoot his neighbor in the face and perhaps rape the neighbor’s wife for good measure?" (14). In Bosnia, humanity turned beastly. There were no rules, boundaries, or fear of reprisals. Women were the perfect target: subjugated, accessible, and relatively defenseless. Sexuality became a means to control. In this war, the animal act of rape became part of the strategic plan.

An important part of this plan consisted of the establishment of "rape camps," designed solely for the efficient mass rape of women and girls. In such a camp, hundreds of women were held under inhumane conditions, treated like animals, and given little or no food. Young girls, many of them still virgins, were held in the camps, along with middle-aged and old women. Gang rapes, sodomy, and the making of pornographic films during the rapes were commonplace in these camps. Two examples of rape camps are Doboj, where two-thousand Muslim and Croatian women were held, and the Vilina Vlas Hotel in Visegrad, where close to three-hundred young girls were detained (Stiglmayer 116, 121-2). Although many such camps are known to have been in operation, the outside world was not aware of their existence until after the war.

Why did the women in these camps not speak out and make the world aware of the presence of rape camps in Bosnia? The reasons for the women’s silence are numerous. First of all, rape survivors are often overcome with a general sense of shame, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the rape. Even in the United States, with its progressive attitude towards women’s rights, it is known that rape statistics are grossly underreported.

In addition to this debilitating shame, the raped women of Bosnia were faced with the fear of retaliation from their perpetrators:

Another reason survivors of genocidal rape often wish not to name their rapists even when they are able to do so is that they fear reprisals. These may well occur not only against family members but also against the women still being held in rape/death camps and concentration camps. Such reprisals are expected whenever outside forces are awakened against the genocide. They happened on a large scale in other cities when NATO intervened to lessen temporarily the Serb siege of Sarajevo. No one knows the mortal reality of the threat better than the women themselves (Allen 71).

It is ironic that, in the aftermath of genocidal rape, a woman’s voice becomes at once her greatest and most destructive weapon. If she speaks, she summons the outside world’s attention to the atrocities being committed within the nation. At the same time, however, she experiences tremendous guilt, knowing that her voice may bring destruction to her family, as well as thousands of other innocent women. For many raped women in Bosnia, the threat of retaliation from the enemy was too great; therefore, they remained silent.

A sexually violated woman did not only fear the "enemy," however. She also feared the reactions of her husband, boyfriend, brothers, and male friends to her status as a "raped woman." In Bosnia, this term is often synonymous with a "used" or "had woman." In a society where a woman’s sexual purity is highly valued, such a marking could be devastating to her reputation. "Muslim society is patriarchal. A woman’s honor is important, and the men are jealous. If a man has even the slightest suspicion that his wife may have cooperated voluntarily, the marriage is over" (Stiglmayer 91). The consequences of revealing one’s rape were often too grave. Most women chose to endure in silence rather than to risk the unknown. In this way, crimes against women went unrecorded in the registry of human atrocity.

Human rights have traditionally not been women’s rights. In almost all wars, violations of women have taken place on a large scale. Rapes by soldiers are usually dismissed as a "by-product" of stressful times, errant behavior that occurs only under the duress of war. However, rape is not an irrational act, whether committed in peace or war. The conflict in Bosnia is testament to this assertion. After all, the mass rapes of women were part of a calculated strategy. In Bosnia, rape was not a product of random behavior. Rather, it was a clear and outlined plan for genocide, pornography, and ethnic cleansing.

How should the world punish those who committed these "crimes against women"? Should the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia punish mass rapists under existing human rights laws or create another category specific to women’s rights? Since the systematic rape of women as a strategy of war was in many respects unique to the conflict in Bosnia, some would argue that the creation of a similarly unique category for the prosecution of these rapes is necessary. This may be the only way to send a message to the world that violations of women’s rights are a grave and punishable matter.

I would argue, however, that by differentiating women’s rights from human rights, one creates a dangerous misconception that there is a significant difference between the two. An even larger problem is the fact that the United Nations is in charge of prosecuting war criminals from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. How can the UN be an impartial judge when its own troops are some of these very war criminals? The sad truth is that many of the rapists in Bosnia will go free because women’s rights have a long history of being devalued.

It is vital to note that these violations of women’s rights have important implications for future generations, as well. Clearly, the raped women and girls will never forget the atrocities committed against them. Fear of men, depression, and an inherent distrust of others are common experiences of rape survivors. The women’s families will also be affected. Some family members may try to avenge the rapes of their loved ones by inciting hatred or violence against people believed to be related to the perpetrators. For the raped women of Bosnia, there exist additional consequences of their rapes. This is because the rapes committed against them were part of a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing. Since the Serbs were the main perpetrators of the rapes (and the war in general), many of the violated Muslim women may teach their children to hate and distrust Serbs. What the former Yugoslavia needs least is more hatred, yet it seems almost inevitable that such enmity will rise out of the atrocities committed during the war. The war on women in Bosnia was truly the rape of humanity. Can we heal?


Allen, Beverly. Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1994.

Dizdarevic, Zlato. Sarajevo: A War Journal. New York: Fromm International, 1993.

Filipovic, Zlata. Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. New York: Viking, 1994.

MacKinnon, Catherine A. "Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern

Genocide" in Alexandra Stiglmayer, ed. Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 73-81.

MacKinnon, Catherine A. "Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights." Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 183-196.

Maass, Peter. Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Silber, Laura and Allan Little. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Stiglmayer, Alexandra. "The Rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina." Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia_Herzegovina. Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 82-169.


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