Everything Old Is New Again: The Use of Gender-Based Terrorism against Women. (Articles)

By Hardy, Jacky | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Everything Old Is New Again: The Use of Gender-Based Terrorism against Women. (Articles)


Hardy, Jacky, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


While entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their sex. Parties to the conflict often rape women with impunity, sometimes using systematic rape as a tactic of war and terrorism.

L. Chavez -- Special Rapporteur to the United Nations (1)

Headlines recently sound a new them: Women are targets. Women are targets of armed conflict, political violence and terrorism. The stories come from different cultures and continents. In Rwanda, Algeria, Yugoslavia, And Afghanistan the stories of systematic attacks on women (and children, too) have alerted international authorities to a seeming new element of modern conflict.

This paper will show that gender-based terrorism is not a new weapon at all. (2) There are aspects of terrorism motivated by gender which are new, however. Primarily, there is an evolving awareness by the public that gender plays a role in acts of violence in general, including war, ethnic conflict, and even domestic disputes. This awareness is bolstered, then later reinforced, by the increasing attention paid to gender-based acts of violence by the media. Resultantly, what makes sexual violence within conflict appear new is the attention paid by the media and international community.

Despite being covered in the media as a facet of war and ethnic conflict, sexual violence has not yet been recognized as a form of terrorism. Rather, gender-based terrorism is still being viewed through the lens of either conventional conflict, where it remains a regrettable example of the horrors of war, or, when perpetrated by a state, sexual violence is categorized as a human rights violation.

These categories neglect the deliberate political nature of such attacks. The cases cited in this paper demonstrate that sexual violence is indeed a tool in the terrorism toolbox, aimed at bolstering political objectives by striking at the heart of traditional culture, at the honor and virtue of women. Each of the cases possess a common, underlying thread that demonstrates how vulnerable women can be, when cultures are in conflict, or even at peacetime. For example, in the case of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, the embassy was specifically targeted by Usama bin Laden because the Ambassador at that post was female. Bin Laden's men operated under the assumption that the target would be more effective because of the emotional impact of a female casualty to the American people. (3)

The Taliban have taken this form of intimidation to a new level. The Islamic students there have created an environment of complete domination of women in society, effectively removing them from all social contact. They harken back to a period where women were open sexual prey in Afghanistan, and threaten that women are only safe from sexual attack when removed from the world of men.

In general terms, the Taliban demonstrate how populations can be effectively manipulated through deliberate acts of political violence without necessarily resorting to the more mainstream conceptions of terrorism -- use of a bomb, kidnapping of powerful elites, or deployment [of] a weapon of mass destruction. However, the objective of this paper is not to stretch the definition of terrorism so that it fits with other forms of political pressure. Rather, the intent is to enhance the general perception of types of violence that fit the definition, yet remain outside the common understanding of more conventional terrorist attacks.

History is rife with examples of women being victimized as a result of war and conflict. Practically every ancient society considered the right to rape women as part of a victor's booty. In the Twentieth Century, the frequency of the use of sexual violence in armed conflict is staggering: German WWI troops raped women of each village conquered, to prove their dominance; in 1937, Japanese troops raped a staggering 20,000 women a day for three days in what became known as `The Rape of Nanking'; the Japanese also imprisoned up to 200,000 Korean, Chinese, and Filipino `comfort women' in rape camps; and Russian troops raped an estimated two million German women as they vanquished Nazi Germany. …

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