A man scorned: respect, vengeance and the use of rape in war

In the recent conflicts in Darfur, Uganda, Congo, and Bosnia, rape has been used systematically as a tool of war. The horrors perpetrated on civilian women and girls have been a key part of fighting forces’ strategy, a deliberate method for advancing the war effort.

Different theories have been put forward for the surge in such violence in the past few decades. Amnesty attributes it variously to ethnic cleansing (by raping a woman you infect her ethnicity with your group’s seed), the desire to sow terror in the enemy’s community, and the need to stop culture and values, of which women are often seen as the guardians, being passed down to the next generation. Others highlight the need for armies to humiliate their opponents (both the raped women and their husbands and sons) by emphasising their inability to protect themselves.

Sierra Leone’s 1990s civil war saw some of the worst atrocities against women of any war in history. Boys raped their mothers and sisters, pregnant women had their stomachs cut open, poles were shoved up vaginas. Gang rape became a sport. Yet here, ethnic considerations played little part, and in what turned into a Hobbesian frenzy of all against all there was no clear enemy to humiliate. Terrorising the civilian population and showcasing their power were no doubt important motivations for the rapists, but it seems there were other factors at work too.

I wonder whether a lethal cocktail of population pressure, poverty and pride was not a more important driver of the carnage. The population explosion forced young men off the land and into the cities to find work. Most ended up unemployed and dirt poor. They were therefore unable to afford the products of modernity – cars, houses, mobile phones, smart clothes – that the young women of the country, clinging to dreams of Westernisation, increasingly demanded. Spurned, the destitute young men could not find wives or start families. In Freetown earlier this year, one young Muslim hawker told me, ‘unless you have a car and a house, people don’t think you’re serious.’ Further along the West African coast in Senegal, a hotel boy complained that he could not find a wife because he was too poor. These days, he said, a girl’s highest priority is money: ‘I can’t afford a car or a house so women aren’t interested in me.’

Rebel fighters in Sierra Leone’s civil war singled out their elders for some of the most horrific violence. The latter, seeing that their sons and nephews could not fulfil the roles expected of them, had looked down on the younger generation. When war broke out, they paid a heavy price for this lack of respect. Could it be that the treatment of women was also linked to respect, a crazed act of vengeance by the proud, frustrated young men they had scorned? The traditional explanations for armies’ use of rape in war put most of the blame on instructions from the top, but perhaps in some cases the pressure comes from the bottom, from the fatefully wounded pride of the soldiers themselves.

Rape as an initiation rite in Afghanistan? (updated)


Stewart Jackson, Conservative shadow communities and local government minister and the party’s regeneration spokesman, was reported by audience members and rival parliamentary candidates to have told a public meeting organised by Peterborough Senior Citizens Forum last month that, in Afghanistan, “fifteen year old Muslim boys’ initiation rites are to rape a woman and shoot a foreigner”.

Jackson, who is the sitting MP in Peterborough, confirmed to this magazine that he had made the comments. But he said that the comments were made in reference to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He said they were “100 per cent” not his personal opinion but rather a view expressed in a briefing he had received on Afghanistan from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

He said: “During a public discussion I referred to claims made at an MoD briefing on the situation in Afghanistan, this was part of a serious debate about complex issues and I hope no one is using it to try and score political points.”

But a MoD spokeswoman said that such a description of the situation in Afghanistan would be a complete departure from normal MoD practice. She said: “I can’t say that nobody from the MoD has ever said that but that is not the sort of thing we would ever say in an average MoD briefing”.

Update: This plays into an obsession on the fringes of the right with Muslim ‘rape gangs’. Our old friend, Mark Steyn, is a key promoter of this idea…

Update II: Stewart Jackson appears to have related concerns about the UK’s ‘broken society’:

The heart of Middle England is destined for asylum meltdown… News that the results of New Labour’s failed immigration policy are rising levels of violence and lawlessness on the streets of Peterborough come as no surprise to me – or anyone else who lives in the city…

Anyone walking through the city centre can see increasing numbers of young unemployed Kurdish men hanging around and residents are increasingly fearful as their area is used as a dumping ground for such ethnically mismatched groups like Afghans, Kurds and Pakistanis who riot and fight…

Tensions are growing not just between different ethnic minority groups – but also across the whole city – Pensioners, young families, professionals, Pakistanis. People are angry and feel impotent. When I knock on doors, people tell me that they’re fed up with seeing young men on street corners – mainly asylum seekers – intimidating old people and young women.

They’re fed up with homes being bought up in their neighbourhood by unscrupulous landlords milking the Housing Benefits system to let out to illegal immigrants used as cheap labour. And they’re angry that police resources are being diverted to keep warring factions in the city centre apart, whilst their streets suffer increased burglaries, robbery and car crime.

Update III: The UN has called rape a ‘profound’ crisis in Afghanistan.

Our field research also found that rape is under-reported and concealed and is a huge problem in Afghanistan. It affects all parts of the country, all communities, and all social groups. It is a human rights problem of profound proportion.

Women and girls are at risk of rape in their homes, in their villages, and in detention facilities. Rape is not unique to Afghanistan, but the socio-political context does have particular characteristics that exacerbate the problem. Shame is attached to rape victims rather than to the perpetrator. Victims often find themselves being prosecuted for the offence of zina, otherwise known as adultery.

For the vast majority of victims, there is very little possibility of finding justice. There is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan Penal Code that criminalizes rape. Thus, the UN recommended that the legislation on the Elimination of Violence Against Women make explicit reference to rape, contain a clear definition of rape in line with international law, and hold the government responsible for tackling this ugly crime.

The question remains, though, whether there is any evidence of it being used as an ‘initiation rite’. I think Stewart Jackson is going to have to give more details about who from the MOD briefed him and exactly what they said.