Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, by Christina Lamb (Scribner, 384 pp., $11.99)
Early March 2020 saw the publication of a remarkable book on a shamefully neglected subject: the brutality visited on millions of civilian women in war zones. That the book launched just as the Covid-19 pandemic swept away all other news was unlucky timing for its author, war reporter Christina Lamb. To read her harrowing account of sexual atrocities in Our Bodies, Their Battlefield—in Burma, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere—is to recognize the huge disconnect between the gravity of multiple events unfolding around the world and the amount of coverage they receive. Some of these atrocities have been going on for years, and they were going on in 2017, when Western media attention was suddenly mesmerized by the issue of sexual aggression—but mostly as it pertained to casting-couch exploitation in the film industry.
Lamb has a much darker tale to tell. The stories she recounts of rape, torture, and maiming on a massive scale are horrific. They leave one asking what it is about men that war or ethnic conflict can unleash such orgies of savagery in them. What can induce a soldier to force a long wooden stick into his victim’s vagina or to stamp on her baby? These are moral quandaries outside the scope of Our Bodies and from which most of us avert our attention.
Lamb’s gruesome subject is something huge and ongoing in human affairs—and not just in wartime. The United Nations International Labor Organization estimates that 3.8 million women were victims of forced sexual exploitation in 2016. According to UNICEF/DCAF, “Globally, women between fifteen and forty-four are more likely to be injured or die from male violence than from traffic accidents, cancer, malaria, and the effects of war combined.” Much of the narrative in Our Bodies is devoted to detailed accounts of the search for justice by establishing rape as a war crime and securing convictions of its perpetrators—monumental tasks, especially since any quest for progress must confront the reality that wartime atrocities of recent times have all occurred in parts of the world where misogyny is culturally entrenched. International realpolitik plus political correctness share blame for the near silence on these crimes; so, too, does the self-absorption of Western liberal elites.
Sexual violence, a subject virtually taboo until recent times, is now big news in the West, but that news is filtered through media that tend to select for stories involving celebrity or “white patriarchy.” There are exceptions, as in the eventual exposure, in the U.K., of widespread sexual exploitation by gangs of mainly Asian men, which ended years of institutional silence born of a fear of appearing “racist.” Other stories have occasionally broken into the mainstream—like the notorious Delhi bus rape, chillingly retold in the documentary India’s Daughter, or the brief social media fixation on #bringbackourgirls. And, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, some reports have confirmed the predicted surge in domestic violence worldwide. But Western governments and media alike have ignored “honor killings” occurring on their own soil and immigrant girls being shipped back “home” for forced marriages or genital mutilation.
#MeToo activists would no doubt credit themselves with, at the least, raising public awareness. But their type of feminism can cast as many shadows as it does light. One aspect they prefer to ignore is how, in many #MeToo scenarios, circumstances and culpability fall short of being unambiguous. There are, to be sure, male predators, and the past few years have provided fresh reminders. But some women can find themselves drawn into transactional arrangements with such men, whether through naivety or hope of preferment.
It is uncomfortable to recognize that despite civilizing influences, people retain animal instincts. If there is cause for optimism, it is perhaps because most men in advanced societies agree that women are entitled to full equality of opportunity—including freedom from sexual compulsion. And only the most fevered anti-capitalist would deny that growing wealth has brought a reduction in the incidence of sexual violence and oppression. Less optimistically, the spread of Western technologies like social media to parts of the world where tribalism and misogyny are entrenched has not roused an appetite for Western liberalism. The tragedy of #MeToo and similar Great Awokenings is their self-flattering delusion that they are changing this.
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