By Riada Asimovic Akyol
December. 18, 2017
Last month, Human Rights Watch published a report confirming that Myanmar’s army is engaged in the mass rape of Rohingya Muslim women and girls as a tool of ethnic cleansing. That report was followed, last week, by an article from The Associated Press that established the same set of facts: the use of “sweeping and methodical” rape as a weapon of war.
I read both with tears in my eyes and disgust in my stomach. The reports, in all their horror — the dehumanizing gang rapes in front of family, the forced public nudity, the torture and sexual enslavement — all called to mind similar stories from my country, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women experienced brutal sexual violence, both inside and outside numerous “rape camps.” The largest number of these women, by far, was Bosnian Muslims. Rape was used systematically, with the aim of cultural extermination. The forced impregnation of Bosnian Muslim women by Serbian men was among the distinctive and repugnant genocidal strategies used by the Serbian military, policemen and members of paramilitary groups.
Today, there is no more war in Bosnia. But more than two decades after the fighting ended, it is the lingering effects of this wartime sexual violence that remain among our most open wounds. In the case of the Rohingya I worry especially for the future of the women who have suffered these mass rapes: They might be in the news for now, but as in Bosnia, could later end up marginalized, silenced and abandoned to their traumas, even by some members of their own community.
But not all of them. In 1993, when there was still active fighting in Bosnia, Ahmed Mesic, a renowned Bosnian theologist, Islamic jurist and Sufi sheikh, wrote an essay under the pseudonym Ahmed Nuruddin titled “Message to Raped Women.” His aim was to offer theological explanation and spiritual comfort and support.
In his message, Mr. Mesic declared that Bosnian women who had been raped should be considered “martyrs to the faith.” He emphasized that it was the responsibility of the community — and especially men — to show extra care, respect, support and solidarity toward these women. The message served as a powerful warning, grounded in Islam, against patriarchal tendencies in Bosnian society: Mr. Mesic criticized the lack of organized, institutional support for victims of rape, and didn’t shy away from slamming the Islamic community for not offering adequate care.
Health workers and war rape victims at the time welcomed the message from Mr. Mesic and other religious leaders: “The imam’s engagement and public condemnation of the perpetrators created a possibility for a new understanding of the victims,” wrote the scholar Inger Skjelsbaek.
If only the government and community had paid enough heed. Instead, in the years since, the experience of war rape victims in Bosnia has consisted primarily of pity or neglect, but also stigma. As part of research conducted by the United Nations Population Fund in 2015, two-thirds of participants described how they were subjected to condemnation, insults and humiliation as soon as their neighbours or friends or family members learned they’d been subjected to sexual assault. Who knows how many still remain silent about what they endured as a result.
Part of the problem is that after the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country made up of three constituent ethno-national groups — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — has never managed to establish a common narrative about the recent past. Each ethnic group has its own competing nation-building project. Not one has room for rape victims.
“These women are not part of the collective memorialisation, because they are seen as a reminder of the nation’s shame and defeat,” said Zilka Spahic-Siljak, a Bosnian scholar of gender, politics and religion and research associate at Stanford University. Honouring those who suffered wartime rape requires men to acknowledge that they were powerless to protect their nation, women and territory. As the scholar Janet Jacobs put it, remembering the suffering and honouring those who were raped during war is “antithetical to the project of nation building and ethnic pride,” which in Bosnia is very much still happening.
We’re still a very long way from any sort of justice for the Rohingya, let alone any kind of nation-building effort. The Myanmar government continues to deny its crimes against humanity, and the future of the Rohingya as a people remains unknown. So much for “never again.”
But there are signs that the Rohingya women who have been raped could face a future not unlike those who were victims of sexual assault in my country years ago. The Associated Press told the story of a woman in Myanmar whose husband had responded to the news of an attack on his pregnant wife by demanding to know why she had not run away, and threatened to abandon her. Human Rights Watch reported that many Rohingya women, even those who have fled to Bangladesh, are not seeking post-rape treatment because of stigma. Other victims of mass rape, such as the Nigerian women and girls raped by Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, or Yazidi women enslaved by the barbaric Islamic State also potentially face similar fates.
What Bosnian women and others who suffered wartime rape need is a space and means to tell their own stories, which could cast them not only as victims but also as survivors, said Ms. Spahic-Siljak. Such a change could create a place for them in the national narrative of rebuilding. Unfortunately, Mr. Mesic’s note to the women in his community has been largely forgotten over the past two decades, even in Bosnia, and his message is as relevant as ever today.
Mr. Mesic emphasized that we must respect and honour women raped in war. As an Islamic scholar, he also reminded his audience, citing Islamic verses that the perpetrators of the crimes against them would be punished, and the victims would be specially rewarded by God. God, in other words, would be with those who are suffering, sooner or later.
It seems that many Rohingya victims feel the same way today. “They wanted to wipe us out from the world,” a Rohingya victim of torture and gang rape said to The A.P. “They tried very hard, but Allah saved us.”
Many victims in Bosnia also felt that God was with them, and this helped them survive. But most mortals, from the international community to members of their own communities, were not with them — at least not enough. The same tragedy that took place in Bosnia should not recur with the Rohingya. The genocide must be stopped, and the victims of sexual violence should be given the support, the rights and the respect that they deserve.
Riada Asimovic Akyol is a writer on gender, nationalism and religion and a Ph.D. candidate at Galatasaray University in Istanbul.