Required reading: 10 books on sexualized violence, gender, and war
Developing a full understanding of how sexualized violence plays out around the globe requires a lot of context. At its most basic, the issue is already a difficult one to comprehend, but when it happens in wartime, or when you begin to unpack its intersection with topics like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or colonization, it can be incredibly intimidating just trying to figure out where to start.
In 2013, WMC’s Women Under Siege published a list of 10 must-read books on sexualized violence, but in a field this expansive, and one in which research continues to evolve, we couldn’t just stop there. So, here we have compiled another list of must-reads recommended by experts on gender, sexualized violence, conflict, and human rights.
Kelly Dawn Askin: War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War Crimes Tribunals
Martinus Nijhoff Publishers (1997)
Recommended by: Karen Naimer, director of the program on sexual violence in conflict zones, Physicians for Human Rights
Askin provides a thorough background on sexualized violence in wartime, including the laws surrounding it. Beyond examining the legal approaches with a view to addressing gender-specific crimes in conflict, Askin examines an array of conflicts, from global wars to the war in the former Yugoslavia.
This book is perfect for anyone trying to understand the relationship between laws of war and the status of women both during and in the aftermath of armed conflict.
Andrea Smith: Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
Duke University Press Books (2015)
Recommended by: Sarah Beamish, international board member, Amnesty International
The relationship that exists between colonialism, genocide, and sexualized violence is longstanding and intricate. In her book, Smith examines the use of sexualized violence against indigenous women across the U.S. and highlights the ways in which it links to an array of injustices, environmental racism, and cultural appropriation to show how “colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.”
According to Beamish, “Smith’s compelling work will challenge many readers to rethink their assumptions about what we mean by things like ‘sexualized violence,’ ‘conflict,’ and ‘rape culture,’ and what is required for peace and justice. … This was a groundbreaking book that has been very influential and important, and I think it deserves a spot on the list if only because this long, terrible story of sexualized violence does.”
Elizabeth Dauphinee: The Politics of Exile
Recommended by: Roxanne Krystalli, program manager of the humanitarian evidence program, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University
While Dauphinee’s book is not specifically focused on sexualized violence, it does offer a nuanced examination of the challenges and questions surrounding research conducted in vulnerable environments and populations. A compelling read, The Politics of Exile focuses on conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s—and is invaluable for those researching gender and sexualized violence or working in the field.
Yoshimi Yoshiaki (translation by Suzanne O’Brien): Comfort Women
Columbia University Press (2002)
Recommended by: Harmonie Kobanghe, program assistant, program on sexual violence in conflict zones, Physicians for Human Rights
A truly heartbreaking work, Yoshiaki’s Comfort Women paints a stark picture of the sexualized violence perpetuated by the Japanese military during the Second World War. Yoshiaki draws on extensive research and testimony of survivors to illustrate the scale of the “comfort women” program, in which as many as 200,000 women from across Asia were forced into sexual slavery and exploited by Japanese military personnel.
Rigorous research lends weight to this book, which not only sheds light on the gruesome treatment of these women but also raises valuable questions about government responsibility and collective memory.
Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, eds.: Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust
Recommended by: Karen Naimer
An incredibly difficult read, this anthology draws on historical documents, academic research, and extensive victim testimony to paint a heartbreaking picture of the sexualized violence, exploitation, and torture experienced by Jewish women during the Holocaust. Editors Hedgepeth and Saidel aim to expand the existing discourse around the violence of the Holocaust to include the long-overlooked violence and trauma, from public humiliation to rape and forced prostitution, experienced by women during the war. And, it’s one of the books that led Gloria Steinem to create WMC’s Women Under Siege.
Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern: Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond
Zed Books (2013)
Recommended by: Roxanne Krystalli
Drawing primarily on research from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Baaz and Stern use a host of conflicts to challenge the way that sexualized violence is often presented in the context of war. At times unsettling, this scholarly work pushes the reader to consider the implications of the existing discourse around sexualized violence, as well as deepen their understanding of not only the causes of these crimes but the contexts in which they occur.
“This book provides a critical lens into the stories we tell about sexual violence—and the ways we tell them,” says Krystalli.
Judith Herman: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
Basic Books (2015)
Recommended by: Karen Naimer
Herman’s work on trauma is incredibly valuable as it moves beyond the level of the individual and examines the broader themes and implications of trauma on a much larger scale. Building on a rich foundation of clinical and academic research, Herman gives the reader a thoughtful examination of the similarities between different kinds of traumatic events, from domestic abuse to political terror. This book, which draws on the consequences of sexualized violence both at home and in war, challenges the existing narrative around approaches to both understanding and addressing trauma.
Jocelyn Viterna: Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador
Oxford University Press (2013)
Recommended by: Dara Kay Cohen, assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University
Viterna sets out to understand the reasons that women decided to join the insurgent forces during the bloody civil war in El Salvador. Cohen, who often assigns this book to be read in her class, says that it “provides a rich look at the complex role that rape—and the fear of rape by the Salvadoran Armed Forces—played in recruiting women to the FMLN.” The FMLN, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, once a guerrilla movement, has become the ruling political party in El Salvador.
Cohen also emphasizes the author’s valuable exploration of “the ways that the FMLN, which had many female fighters, regulated sex and sexuality within their group, and how they were successful at preventing both the sexual abuse of civilians, and of the female fighters within the group.”
Ruth Rubio-Marin: The Gender of Reparations; Unsettling sexual hierarchies while redressing human rights violations
Cambridge University Press (2011)
Recommended by: Roxanne Krystalli
The idea of pursuing some form of reparations after a conflict is not new, but in this volume, Rubio-Marin explores the relationship between reparations and gender. By reviewing a host of case studies and examining the myriad and distinct ways in which women experience conflict, Rubio-Marin offers a rich exploration of the gendered dimension of these programs.
The use of rape as a weapon of war, forced abortion, sexual slavery, and any number of other heinous crimes are overwhelmingly experienced by women, so designing appropriate or meaningful reparations programs requires a gendered understanding of any sort of reparations—whether financial or symbolic.
Rubio-Marin offers a thought-provoking look at how the reparations framework responds or could respond to gendered violence and atrocity.
Peggy Reeves Sanday: Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus
NYU Press (2007)
Recommended by: Soraya Chemaly, a board member of the Women's Media Center and a feminist critic whose writing focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion, and the media
While there are many ways that rape in conflict can differ from non-wartime rape, there are also many ways in which it is similar. Rape, as a demonstration of hyper-masculinity, or sexualized violence, as a form of ritual or initiation practice—particularly among high school or college-age students—has received increased attention over the past couple of years. Media coverage of cases like the 2012 Steubenville rape or, more recently, the St. Paul’s boarding school case, has raised a lot of questions about rape culture in young adults in the U.S.
Focusing specifically on fraternities, Sanday examines the relationship between these organizations and sexualized violence. By conducting interviews with both group members and victims, Sanday sheds light on how sexualized violence and gang rape are intertwined in the culture and history of these institutions. It provides an insightful, if chilling, look at how rape culture continues—and even, at times, thrives—within the university system of this country.
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