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Girls Will Be Boys: Mass Rape and Democracy

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Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is currently facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda charged with genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, rape as genocide, and crimes against humanity.

In addition to being only the second war criminal charged with rape as genocide, she is the first woman ever to be tried for crimes against humanity. The roles of rape during war, and of a female political figure in the commission of mass rape, underscore vital points about the changing nature of gender and power. While crimes against women are perhaps being taken more seriously, the integration of women into political structures clearly does not prevent such crimes from happening.

Nyiramasuhuko’s trial follows the 1998 trial of Jean- Paul Akayesu for rape as genocide during the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. Akayesu’s conviction marked a vital transition from the understanding of rape as a tool during warfare — shifting it from a “crime against humanity” to “genocide,” a crime against a race. Rape is now considered genocidal because of its strategic use to infiltrate ethnic lines and terminate persecuted groups. Employed as a eugenic method from the Book of Genesis to the present, before 1998 rape had never been singled out from other forms of ethnic conflict and warfare.

While the International Criminal Tribunal convicted Paul Akayesu of contributing to the strategic use of the rape of 250,000 Tutsi women during the Rwandan massacre, the New York Times politely neglected to mention the word “rape” in the headline of its brief article on his groundbreaking conviction. The editors sensationalistically remembered, however, to include it in the title of the Times weekly magazine’s 12-page cover story on Pauline Nyiramasuhuko’s trial: “How could a woman incite Rwanda’s sex-crime genocide? The Minister of Rape.”

It may be exciting in a voyeuristic way to consider the idea that a woman could be so un-feminine as to order the commission of hundreds of thousands of rapes. But what is the implication — that newly enfranchised female politicos should conceive of more innovative ways to commit genocide? Faced with a woman abusing the power she was given, we are astounded to realize that she is capable of committing heinous crimes. How could a woman incite Rwanda’s sex-crime genocide? It was remarkably similar to how despotic rulers have done it throughout the history of the world: with brainwashed armies, broken bottles, banana stamens, machetes, and an ideologically induced hatred of the victims that dehumanized (and, in this case, defeminized) them in the eyes of their oppressors.

The more informative question, therefore, might be: why does anyone incite genocide? The Rwandan genocide, like a startling number of other twentieth-century instances, was the result of animosity against what Amy Chua, in World On Fire, calls a “market-dominant minority,” an ethnic group that is more economically successful than the surrounding majority. This type of animosity is often the result of attempting to marry democracy with free markets.

The historic hostility in Rwanda between the Hutu (85 percent of the population) and the Tutsi (14 percent) was heightened when democratization hit the country in response to Western pressure in the 1990s. Democracy in Rwanda divided the Hutu from the Tutsi along ethnic lines more sharply than ever before. While intermarriage had once been common, and successful Hutu were able to “become Tutsi” through economic and social upward mobility, the two ethnicities now became completely polarized. Playing to the resentments of the majority, Hutu politicians exacerbated hostilities in order to be elected. Academically trained ideologists then co-opted radio stations and other mass media in order to spread anti-Tutsi propaganda.

For the hundred days of the massacre, Rwandan morality was entirely transformed. Sanctioned by the democratically elected authorities and collectively committed, the atrocities were represented as a moral obligation — a deed so admirable that in that brief period, 800,000 people were massacred, usually by means of the most un-mechanized, “personal” weapons imaginable. No specially trained SS was needed, nor were gas chambers or even firearms: a huge proportion of the ordinary Hutu population simply hacked their victims to death — often after raping them.

The first three commandments of the document that prescribed this new morality, the “Ten Commandments of the Hutu,” proscribed sexual relations between the two ethnicities. Yet rape was an important element of the Hutu strategy. It was considered distinct from the sexual relationships banned by the Commandments, and was continually espoused by the military as a means of eradicating the Tutsi. The polarization of Rwandan society largely manifested itself in sexual divisiveness, separating the ethnicities via the separation of the genders. In outlawing inter-ethnic sex for pleasure but advocating inter-ethnic sex for pain, the Hutu regime made rape a duty, not a crime.

No one has wondered how Hutu men were able to tie Tutsi men’s testicles to motorcycles and then drive off, leaving them to die of blood loss. To expect women in power to exercise greater humanity is to demand of them what would have been contrary to democratic imperatives. Nyiramasuhuko may be an aberration in her lack of empathy, but no more so than the male Hutu leaders who, like her, were selected by Rwandan democracy: psychopaths would, in the context of resentment against a market-dominant minority, have a decided electoral advantage over more humane politicians.

The issue currently facing the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is not gender but genocide, and in this under-studied, under-noticed recent event that the world’s other democracies did nothing to stop, there may be new answers to the most difficult questions that have been asked of the more famous holocausts of twentieth century history.

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Lucy Jane Lang is graduating
from Swarthmore College this month.






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