Fetishising Wartime Rape does a Disservice to Survivors

© 2008 – 2021 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved)   

TW: sexual and gender-based violence, child sexual abuse and racism

Sexual violence is criminally underreported and dismissed throughout society. So why, then, is ‘rape as a tool of war’ continually growing as a trendy topic of discussion? And how could that be a problem?

The horror of sexual and gender based violence (hereafter SGBV) in conflict is undeniable. However, the issue arises where SGBV is seen as endemic to the global South. Rape in conflict is described as exceptional and, in casting the roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, racialised and gendered stereotypes play out in the media.

The ‘fetishisation’ – to borrow Sara Megar’s terms – of wartime rape has dominated media and academic articles alike. The common tale relies on a clear cast: the feminine victim, the savage perpetrator and the masculine liberator. Similar to the stereotype in ‘peacetimes’, the violent act is limited to penetrative rape against a cisgender woman and must be committed by a stranger. 

© 2011 – 2021 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved)

Cartoonist Zapiro, for example, has relied on metaphorical rapes to convey government corruption, legal injustice and threats to free speech (image above). As a white South African, Zapiro claims to deliver cutting social commentary on the one hand, while divorcing his cartoons from the social context of racism on the other. Although the most recent iteration in 2017 referred to SGBV in South Africa, the focus was directed at the rape of the nation and the racist stereotypes of the sexual predator persisted. The dramatisation of metaphorical rape ensures that, in Huibin Amelia Chew’s words, “the rape of women abounds in our consciousness, yet has no ‘real’ existence.”

© 2017 – 2021 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved) available at: www.zapiro.com

This is not a new phenomenon. Sara Farris, who coined the term ‘femonationalism’, refers to the French military in colonial Algeria and its preoccupation with unveiling Muslim women and contemporary framings of Islamophobia in France as a women’s rights issue. The sensationalisation of SGBV has been used to legitimise foreign intervention in Libya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, overreporting rape as a weapon of war reached a harmful extreme when it was discovered that the hyperbole was encouraging armed groups to blackmail others with the threats of SGBV to get a seat at the negotiation table.

Fairy tale narratives are used to frame the global power in question as a hero avenging himself against a monumental foe. The language of “the rape of Kuwait”, “women and children,” “the axis of evil,” and “the rape capital of the world” shifts the conversation from the physical embodied experience of trauma to rhetorical struggles of good versus evil. 

The politicisation of rape abroad distracts Western populations from misogyny on their doorstep, as well as consolidating difference and continuing coercive control of Other states. Divorcing sexual violence from reality and abstracting rape beyond the bodies who suffer is insensitive at its most banal and violent at its extreme. 

Carceral and colonial feminisms fall into this trap. Understanding the police, military and other ‘security’ forces as close relatives, feminists who support harsher sentencing, violent intervention and wars stand in the way of progress. The more they ally with sources of state power, the more they align themselves with the social power of whiteness, heterosexuality, cisgender bodies and able bodies. 

This form of feminism does not appreciate the pervasive SGBV perpetrated by police, law enforcement personnel, peacekeepers and soldiers from the global North. The police brutality that left domestic violence survivor, Cherie Williams, with a broken nose, jaw and ruptured spleen is just one example of U.S. state violence perpetrated with impunity. This feminism allows policemen and peacekeepers to maintain their virtuous identity as protectors without confronting their legacy of misogyny and objectification of femme presenting people.

The result is ‘feminists’ supporting new civilising missions that position the brown male Other as savage and violent. The result is ‘feminists’ positioning the brown female Other as passive victims who must be assimilated into Western culture. The result is applauding the heroic U.S. rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch from Iraq on one hand, while foregrounding the “tearful” U.S. soldier who raped and murdered 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi on the other. The result is incredibly dangerous if left unchallenged.

Acknowledging the global connections between patriarchal violence of the state and sexual trauma allows us to forge solidarity among Sarah Everard, Breonna Taylor, Blessing Olusegun, Jessica Lynch, Cherie Williams, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and many more who are unable to speak to their experiences. As the world spins further out of our minds grasp, we must refuse to be manipulated by the exploitative use of survivors’ bodies. 

Understanding SGBV as a continuum that includes all forms of sexual violence and its perpetuation before, during and after war can help well-meaning feminists comprehend insincere state motives for foreign intervention under the guise of gender equality. We must approach SGBV as a feminist issue, rather than a women’s issue, to avoid reproducing the identical misogyny, cissexism and racism which perpetuates harm in the first place.

We need to refrain from adopting ‘good versus evil’ narratives. Retribution continues to dominate the criminal justice system and to override other healing forms of survivor justice. The Black Lives Matter movement is the latest campaign to point to the fact that existing laws, courts and prisons do not keep communities of colour safe and promote punishment at the expense of reformative and transformative justice. Transformative justice acknowledges oppressive systems, including the criminal legal system, and understands that the conditions that allow violence to occur must be transformed in order to achieve justice. To take survivors’ experiences and justify further violence in their names is to ensure trauma continues in waves.

To combat colonial and carceral feminist approaches towards SGBV in conflict (and beyond), a transformative approach to justice must be adopted. In the context of SGBV at SOAS, this involves building a consent culture to challenge the existing rape culture. In practical terms, it can translate as survivor-centred support, consent education and prevention work and sufficient funding to demonstrate the gravity of the issue and support for change. The campaign to challenge SGBV at SOAS, Enough is Enough, has come to the end of 5 years of funding and it remains unclear whether the university will commit wholeheartedly to challenging SGBV on campus. 


The use of the word ‘woman’ was only used in this article in the context of other scholars’ use and the relevant media reporting. This article acknowledges the misogyny facing all femme presenting people, whether cis, trans or non-binary.