Who would have imagined it?
A Muslim-majority nation placing greater sanctions on the crime of rape than Western countries?
That’s the idea of Libyan legislators who have drafted a bill that, if passed, would make rape during armed conflict a war crime punishable by ten years in prison.
That means that rape, held since ancient times to be the perquisite of soldiers and sailors, regarded as perfectly understandable in “lusty” men – and the equivalent of post-battle crimes against property, like looting – would, in a worldwide first, be regarded as just as much a war crime as torture or the murder of civilians.
What happened in Libya to bring about this innovative idea is stomach-wrenching. As The Guardian reports, people searching for missing children during the 2011 revolution that saw Moammar Khadafy deposed and killed found in cellars far below the surface of the earth rooms clearly used for torture. They also found rooms full of women who had been tortured by being raped.
In the conservative society that is Libya, even discussing rape is difficult, but it was obvious as the women spoke that the men who raped them were not only imposing control and humiliation, pain and wounds that some women died of – they were also using the women as political victims. Since the women were taken from anti-Khadafy families, they were regarded as fair game for what could be called “torture by penis”. Many needed medical care after being brutally invaded. Few received such care. Instead, they were left to die of internal injuries and septicemia, a horrifying death.
Rape was apparently a Khadafy specialty. A new book, Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya details the many ways in which the leader abused women and girls chosen by him personally. No wonder, then, that his underlings felt entitled to rape in such a flawed, inhumane system.
While Libya’s proposed legislation is a commendable move, it does not go far enough. “Armed conflict”, what does that mean? Must everyone carry a weapon? Obviously, some people – mainly female – are not allowed weapons during conflict. Take Egypt, for example, where conflict is growing but few people outside the military own guns. (Why a gun? – isn’t a knife enough of a personal threat? Come to that, an engorged penis used to harm is plenty threatening.) The problem of rape in Egypt is exploding into “an epidemic of sexual violence” to the point that, even outside battle-lined Cairo, few Western women want to visit Egypt, even though in the past they were big fans of Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh. If Egyptian men are so avid to attack their own – some young women are disguising themselves as boys to avoid rape – the presence of non-North African women in their misogynistic, violent society is horror on wheels. As one writer notes, Egypt needs a sexual violence revolution, a cultural shift to make rape as abhorrent as it is in Scandinavia, where, according to research, all of Norway’s convicted rapists in 2012 were Muslim. In other words, they were not ethnic Norwegians, they were imported trouble.
Don’t get me wrong, the West is not without flaw. The US armed forces have dragged themselves through the muck with regard to rapes committed against both female and male forces – by their own side, let’s recall. Getting shot at by the enemy might be less frightening than being raped by a man who is known – who is, at times, one’s superior officer – to the victim. Considering how often brutalized soldiers have been denigrated by the people assigned to interview them, the US has a long way to go before “joining the Army” is not met with disbelief and horror.
Think of Western television, too. How many crime/detective/medical dramas feature a young woman brutalized? If these characters were young men, blue-eyed and fair-haired, objections would flood the channels. As it is, as Fiona Sturges points out in The Independent, “These too-familiar tableaux of women being bound and gagged . . . beaten and raped normalises male sexual cruelty, along with the notion of women as powerless victims.” When cruelty is presented as normal, men who inflict it see themselves as, you know, regular guys. The patent falsehood “good guys commit rape, too” is created from this madness.
Then there’s everyday sexism. The terrifying reality of which, frankly, sucks.
So, way to go, Libya! Make rape a war crime. It’s only taken thousands of years. Let us hope and expect that every nation follows your lead.
Only, don’t stop with rape during armed conflict.
Rapists will not.