A Review Of “Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women” by Christina Lamb
“We have given our most precious thing and have died inside many times but you won’t find our names engraved on any monument or war memorial”
Here are the words of war heroine or ‘birangona’ Aisha, a rape survivor of the 1971 Bangladesh War, whose epigraph opens award-winning journalist Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women.
For most westerners born after World War II, wartime rape exists in a vacuum, encouraged by our belief that such atrocities wouldn’t happen here, at least not to people like ‘us’. As an International Relations student, I soon learned that wartime rape was the elephant in the room, hardly mentioned, not even when discussions touched on the impact war has on civilians. The only time the topic was addressed head-on was when a retired female Major was invited to deliver a talk on female soldiering. As soon as she began to describe the period she was stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more popularly known as the rape capital of the world, I remember experiencing a moment of dread whenever lecturers turned their attention to non-White countries. With a great deal of emotion, she told us the horror she felt when she learned that a group of White nuns had been raped by rebel forces, before mentioning almost as an afterthought, the numerous times she’d come across raped women and children in the villages, none of whom were named or provided with any identifying details that would make us care for their plight, not like the nuns anyway. The whole thing reminded me of a scene from the film Shooting Dogs, set during the Rwandan genocide, when BBC reporter Rachel (Nicola Walker) who confessed to crying every time she saw a dead White Bosnian woman, acknowledged her emotional detachment from the crisis in Rwanda observing quite coldly ‘over here, they’re just dead Africans’ moments after she’d walked past the bloody bodies of children.
Perhaps we’re only capable of sympathizing with the victims of wartime rape when they look like us? Falling into the familiar trap of normalizing sexual violence when they fail to resemble us, reasoning with ourselves that because of their culture or skin color, that it was bound to happen anyway? So when I purchased Lamb’s book, I was curious to see whether it would leave a lasting impression. I knew it would be a difficult read, but nonetheless would I finish it, shrugging it off with a silent acknowledgement of “Thank God I don’t live there” before forgetting all about it?
Lamb’s book crosses both time and borders, challenging the reader’s own prejudices, from classism to sexism and racism. By addressing the systemic violence inflicted on ‘comfort women’ by the Imperial Japanese Army, the German women brutalized by the Red Army and the Bosnian women terrorized by the Bosnian Serb Forces, the message — though a particularly brutal one — makes a universal point about womanhood. We are all at risk in times of war. Wartime rape is indiscriminate and systematic, destroying communities and rival ethnicities. It does not bow to skin color, riches, or culture.
There were times when I almost couldn’t bring myself to finish the book, peppered with stories of women being taken to forced brothels or rape camps, turning them and any children they beget into social outcasts, making the shame and trauma intergenerational. But one particular story stood out. A young Congolese mother, Furata, describes picking up her baby daughter, Alliance, to find ‘she was full of blood and dust’. A neighbor who she’d given food and shelter to had raped her baby, severely injuring her bladder, genitals, and rectum. I admonished myself, thinking that it’s people like me who don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable that render women and children ‘invisible’, ensuring that their bodies continue to be used as weapons of war by soldiers who can count on their victims to remain silent.
While Lamb succeeds in amplifying the stories of these women, I have to admit to being confused by the direction the book took. Her decision to cite Aisha’s words at the beginning of the book, drew attention to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh, who six days after the end of the Bangladesh War made a concerted effort to rehabilitate the estimated 400,000 Bangladeshi women who were raped and turned into sex slaves by the invading Pakistani army. By heralding these women as birangonas, Rahman gave them the same honorary status bestowed upon male freedom fighters, making them eligible for preferential educational and employment opportunities, an internationally unprecedented move. Although this cultural shift was reversed upon his assassination in 1975, I thought Lamb was indicating her intent to change the way we see rape survivors, moving the narrative from victim to heroine. Doesn’t the label ‘victim’ rob these women of their identities for a second time, eliciting pity for their situation but no real desire to help stem the crisis, at least not on an international level?
Lamb’s interactions with the women, mostly portrayed as passive — avoiding eye contact, or with ‘uncertain smiles’ — means the author never succeeds in transforming them into heroines, assuming this was her primary aim. Her decision to describe the graphic violence done to these women, places the focus squarely on the women’s bodies, who still see their worth as tied to their virginity or sexual exclusivity. But perhaps they merely conformed to what Lamb, a White middle-class woman, might have expected less privileged Black and Brown women to behave like. Why is it whenever a woman ticks the box of being Black, Brown and a Muslim she immediately identifies her self-worth in terms of her sexuality rather than her goodness? Although Rahman recognized birangonas had suffered, he transformed them into female warriors who could lead the way on how the Bengali people choose to value female honor. Not their virginity but their bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity won the nation its freedom. Perhaps there is something to be said for the #OwnVoices movement that aims to improve diversity in publishing by matching authors to the subject matter, if not in terms of identity then by lived experiences. While Lamb provides important testimony on the invisible war being waged on women, the book ultimately fails to move the narrative forward.