Sexual violence cannot be anticolonial struggle, by Catrin Lundström – 9 March 2024

After over a hundred days of bombing in Gaza, tens of thousands of civilians killed and millions fleeing for their lives, residential buildings and mosques razed to the ground and a glaring lack of supplies, I, like many others, have been urged to take a stand, by friends and mainly Palestinian international colleagues, who either terminated the friendship, or were dismissed themselves for their stance. Still, I can’t let go of the image of the Israeli woman’s half-naked body, sprawled on the bed of the truck under the legs of jubilant Hamas fighters with weapons in hand. For me, she raises the question: where does it lead us if we don’t label sexual assault—or, more specifically, stabbings, severed breasts, and neck shots during ongoing rapes—as expressions of resistance?

A recent 23-page UN report by Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative for Countering Sexual Violence in Conflict, on March 4, shows that there is strong evidence that gang-rape and sexual torture and abuse of bound and dead women with severed genitalia occurred in at least three kibbutzim along the Gaza border, during the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023.

On October 17, in the (Swedish) newspaper Dagens ETC, the French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz appealed to the left not to evade “mass murders of innocent civilians in their homes, indiscriminate violence against women, the elderly and children, and mass kidnappings of Israeli citizens” in the statements she knew were coming.

Since then, several academics, debaters and journalists have contributed with much more knowledgeable political input into this painful event than I have the skills to do.

For that reason I will remain with the dead Jewish woman. She undoubtedly embodies a range of privilege in this particular context, in contrast to the many poor, anonymous Palestinian women in Gaza, who are currently watching their children starve to death.

Mattias Gardell, professor of comparative religious studies, shortly after the attack explained in Swedish magazine Parabol (3/23) that “we” tend to identify with “civilization’s war against barbarism” which “since the beginning of colonialism has been characterized by military technological superiority”. We primarily empathize with the lives we see ourselves in, based on “normative notions of lives worth living, civilized, decent and well-ordered lives in a recognizable environment”, Gardell argued, drawing on philosopher Judith Butler’s argument about “grievable lives”.

Consequently, we should be able to mourn the woman on the flatbed – if only she weren’t Israeli. That’s how the many Jewish women around the world felt, who in November 2023 united under the call #MeTooUNlessURAJew – a response to what they saw as the UN Women’s tardiness in condemning the brutal rapes committed on October 7 (which they did two months later). A number of pro-Palestinian left-wing feminists around the world responded with accusations of “pinkwashing” and “colonial feminism”, despite the fact that the UN has determined that systematic gender-based violence is a violation of international law.

Unlike men, women do not represent the nation. They symbolize it, according to British geography professor Joanne Sharp. As bearers of the nation’s ideologies, women are tasked with marking the boundaries of races, classes and ethnic groups, primarily as mothers, but also as wives and daughters. That makes the Israeli woman especially valuable as prey. She is not only a symbol of jewishness, but also of the nation and the state of Israel. The power over her body thus becomes a humiliation of the Israeli man, the soldier and the military power.

Another dead woman who exemplified the symbolic function of women was Iranian-Kurdish Jina Mahsa Amini, whose tragic fate became the starting point for Iran’s feminist revolt in September 2022. It was easy to identify with Amini, as she for everyone – except Iran’s regime – was on the right side.

Human ecologist Andreas Malm ranted, also in Parabol (3/23), about the appalled reactions that came after the Hamas pogrom, as if their actions were expressions of “unprovoked terror, pure evil, and barbarism in its most unmixed form”. Malm tells us that this is what armed “anti-colonial struggle” looks like. And based on that premise, there are really only two sides: the side of the colonizer and the side of the oppressed. And as for Malm, there is only one side.

What space is left for women within that premise? Perhaps the Israeli woman on the flatbed was one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s settler sympathizers? Probably not. Perhaps the Palestinian women, whose homes and families are being wiped out, also fear the theocratic and repressive organization Hamas? Not unlikely.

Sociologist Eva Illouz states in Haaretz (3/2-24) that the Western world’s previously complex belief system around fixed, normative values such as equality, democracy, freedom of speech, diversity and tolerance, has been reduced to two mutually homogeneous poles during this conflict: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – more often than not among people who lack a thorough understanding of the same.

Many have pointed out the problems in this dichotomy. But more have urged people to take a stand in this potential genocide. This is completely understandable, and one should not underestimate the importance of popular protest movements. But despite the voices that claim to protect “women and children” (not infrequently together), there seems to be few perspectives that use Hamas’ brutal sexual violence against the Israeli women at the festival, or Palestinian women’s dissent against Hamas’s patriarchal and undemocratic rule, as a starting point.

Postcolonial theorists have pointed to the difficulty in speaking for and representing the subaltern. What we can do, however, is create discursive spaces for these voices. From our safe distance, we should also be able to make room for the mutilated, dead Israeli woman, and open up to the possibility of mourning her life as well, even though she is on the “wrong” side of the conflict lines — which in this case are more than two.