Girls, women, and the significance of sexual violence in ancient warfare

Chapter · January 2011with 106 Reads
One compelling social justice concern in the modern day is the practice of armed men at war, adolescent and older, seizing, traumatizing, and subjugating foreign or enemy girls and women through rape, torture, and related debasement, by such methods as subjecting the victims to prostitution, domestic servitude, forced impregnation, and maternity. Many of these women and girls are killed for various reasons after being sexually assaulted- because they resist or fail to please, or because they embody the enemy. Provoked by such military and paramilitary atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Congo, and elsewhere, numerous scholars, activists, and artists have responded vigorously in diverse fields such as international law, feminist philosophy, medicine, film making, political science, and education. Substantive steps have been taken on a number of counts: Ruth Seifert focuses on such sexual violence in warfare and argues that this practice is a central "weapon of war" in those armed conflicts where the aggressors aim to supplant peoples of a certain cultural identity: "If the aim is to destroy a culture, [its women] are prime targets because of their cultural importance in the family structure. . . . Their physical and emotional destruction aims at destroying social and cultural stability." Claudia Card articulates a few of the more long-term "patterns of intelligibility" to rape in war and peace: "an important aspect of both civilian and martial rape is that it is an instrument of domestication: . . . a breaking for house service . . . utilitarian, recreational, or both."1 These assessments of wartime rape deepen the more inchoate understandings of the practice first offered in the mid-1970s, when Susan Brownmiller interpreted wartime rape as an exultant postconquest celebration, and Andrea Dworkin saw rape in war and peace alike as a primal act of conquering and colonizing women as a people. In the more recent wave of studies since the 1990s, however, the task of uncovering the historical significance of heterosexual battery and sexual assault in warfare remains superficial and is overly dominated by twentieth- And emergent twenty-first century examples. The few cited instances from ancient and medieval warfare derive from Susan Brownmiller's watershed but now dated study, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975).3 Historian Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy (1985), a more ambitious but still preliminary venture to historicize heterosexual rape in ancient armed conflict, is rarely mentioned in such studies. Furthermore, the incidents of ancient wartime rape drawn from Brownmiller are treated with two different historicizing interpretations. First, they are portrayed as a vague and distant counterpart of the modern phenomenon, a "mirror [of] the wartime sufferings of women through the centuries," as the legal scholar Catherine Niarchos phrases it.4 Second, they are used to assume a developmental schema over time, in which heterosexual rape and related violence in ancient warfare are a sporadic and small-scale operation that has only in modern times become a weapon of war on a mass scale. As Kelly Dawn Askin puts it in her legal history, War Crimes Against Women, "Rape and other forms of sexual assault have thrived in wartime, progressing from an . . . incidental act of the conqueror, to a reward of the victor, to [the] discernible mighty weapon of war" that they have come to be in modern times.5 As I argue below, the first interpretation, the "vague and distant mirror," is nebulous but has the right intuition, while the second developmental hypothesis mistakenly interprets Brownmiller's sketchy coverage of rape in antiquity as though it were an exhaustive study indicating that wartime rape then was but a set of isolated and semilegendary incidents compared with the magnitude of the undeniably major problem now. There is, to be sure, justification in some important respects for the preponderant focus on the contemporary manifestation of the crisis. First, women and girls who are assaulted in the present merit attention because they are able to seek redress under evolving international law, whereas those who are long dead can do no such thing. Second, thanks to this focus on present and still-living memory, a veritable revolution in our documentary sources on heterosexual practices of warfare as sexual violence has taken place since the early 1990s. Surviving women and girls are now providing an abundance of first-person testimonies about their torments for the first time ever in the history of Western and world civilization to international teams of investigators, including physicians, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers. These testimonies are of incomparable value for grasping the immense violence of the practice and can only come from the living.6 Nonetheless, the dominant attention given to current and very recent instances of sexual violence in warfare leaves many pressing questions unanswered, and I will address a few important ones here. Historically speaking, how significant were the capture and subjugation of women and girls to warfare in the Mediterranean region from the Bronze Age through late antiquity? What does this practice mean for our understanding of warfare in its relation to gender, society, and social injustice? In dealing with these questions, I examine Greek sources dating from Homer through late antiquity (the sixth century), also including several medieval Byzantine Greek sources as well as a few Old Testament sources. Copyright

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