Feminist International Relations and Wartime Rape. Feminist Writings´ Contribution to Women´s Rights

Essay 2019 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


Table of Content


Feminist IR theory

Gendered violence during the Bosnian war

IR theory and morality in the context of mass rapes

International law and mass rape

Feminist IR in relation to mainstream IR




The goal of this essay is to examine feminist contributions to international relations (IR) theory in the context of wartime rape. In the first part of this essay, I will discuss what feminist IR theory can be and what it means in this piece. In order to evaluate feminist contributions, it is necessary to lay out some groundwork. Therefore I will then go on to outline the gendered violence that happened during the Bosnian war and I will also explain some of the moral-theory that dominates certain IR theories, because questions of humanity are questions of morals. Concluding my essay, I will take a look at international legislature concerning this topic, seeing how surprisingly enough, it is very close to some schools of IR theory specifically Realism. Before I conclude this essay, I will then put feminist IR theory in relation to mainstream IR theory against the background of wartime rape in Bosnia, although I touch upon this throughout this piece.

Feminist IR theory

The first challenge in this context is the term „feminist IR theory“ in itself. Whereas it is commonly known that „IR Theory“ is an academic field that constitutes multiple distinguished, different approaches and frameworks revolving around politics, feminism is often thought of and taught as simply one of the other ways of looking at the world, like realism or liberalism. However, it is not that uniform and utilizes various epistemological branches, establishing ideas that sometimes even contradict each other.

For example, there is liberal feminism that that aims to include women in public life through equal access to the economy and education, there is Marxist feminism that battles the patriarchy in the workplace, aiming to alleviate oppression, the the implication being that the workplace often is a woman’s home (Steans, 1998, 16 ff.). Moving a bit forward in time, there is post-positivist feminism that challenges, amongst other things, normative foundations of mainstream IR theories and asks how gender has so long not been factored into them for so long (Sylvester, 1999). These are only a few of the many branches of feminist IR-theory, therefore it is not easy to determine one single „feminist perspective“ with which to look at genocidal rape.

Even-though the topic is close to rationalism for the purpose of this essay, I will argue more in line with liberal standpoint feminism. Standpoint feminism criticizes the state as inherently male, because it is defined and dominated by man and historically always has been. (Hooper, 2001) Pivotal to this argument is the hierarchical divide into public and private with the women’s place being in the latter whereas politics and economics belonged to the public sphere (Youngs, 2004). Where classical realist IR scholars consider the state to be an abstract monolithic block, standpoint feminist theorists look within the state to research how women are impacted by domestic and foreign policies across country borders, in order to shed more light on the consequences of a ‚manly state‘ (Hansen, 2014; Hooper, 2001).

Gendered violence during the Bosnian war

Although this essay’s focus is IR-theory revolving around the subject of wartime mass rape and implications thereof, I think it is necessary for a better understanding to give a small overview of the example of Bosnia, which I will do in the following section.

The genocidal mass rapes in Bosnia occurred during the Bosnian war (sometimes referred to as a Yugoslav war) between 1992 and 1995 during which time approximately 20,000 muslim, Bosnian women were sexually assaulted and/or tortured by Serbian soldiers. What made this case of wartime mass rape stand out, was the undeniable genocidal intention behind it. The perpetrators were not single, marauding soldiers but rather executing a coordinated attack, using rape as a weapon of war, on the female gender and Bosnian race, targeting women’s bodies and reproducing abilities. (Salzman, 1998)

Bosnian women were detained in concentration camps and repeatedly raped over days or until pregnant from a Serbian. They were sold as sex slaves, forced into unpaid labour and tortured. There are accounts of Serbian soldiers presenting documents „ordering“ them to rape Bosnian women to „keep up moral“. Evidence like this suggests that this mass rape was an organized strategy employed by Serbian leaders to accomplish their goal of an ethnically homogenous Serbia, in other words, genocide (ten Bensel and Sample, 2014).

Systematic violence like this that women have to endure during wartime has been analyzed by feminist scholars since the 1970s. Brownmiller and Hobbs highlight the functions of this kind of violence in their 1978 paper. One reason they give for this atrocities’ occurrence is the fact that the male opponent can be especially humiliated and emasculated through the rape of „his“ women. He looses his masculinity due to his failure to protect „his“ woman, making this an inherently gendered issue. Female bodies therefore become metaphorical battlefields and rape transports a seemingly simple message, man to man, one wins, one looses (Hobbs and Brownmiller, 1978). In the case of the mass rapes in Bosnia, additional layers of national identity and genocide have to be added.

This brings us the next section of this essay in which I will examine the phrase „feminist IR theory“ and look at its relations with some of the other big schools of IR theory as well as describing the feminist view point from which this piece has been written.

IR theory and morality in the context of mass rapes

Human conduct and international politics are arguably always guided or grounded in a moral framework and so are either IR theories themselves or they take to a specific moral code. This will be elaborated further in this next part.

One cannot discuss genocidal rape without at least taking a glance at the moral aspect. Classical realists, above all Hans Morgenthau, take the view that morals are significant in political actions, however they reject the notion of universal morals that should guide political decisions. The state should act purely focused on its own benefit, national survival is the utmost priority and be guided rather by consequences than morals (Morgenthau, 1948). In my opinion, this is a very problematic view when looking at one hand at half of earths population as a recipient of marginalizing political actions and at the other hand at international atrocities committed against members of that half of the population.

On the other hand, liberalism, or more specifically liberal internationalism has often been an ally to feminism. The liberal core values, individual freedom, peace, prosperity and justice can easily be transferred into feminist theories, since putting it oversimplified, feminists just want the aforementioned individuals to be women and children as well as men (Jönsson, 2014, 105ff).

Realists have always seen state security as something that should not be interfered with from the outside because the state handles its own security out of self interest. This means that during the balkan war, western states should only intervene defensively, when their own security was at risk. Merely protecting muslin women in Bosnia or supporting the Bosnian Government in dealing with this crisis did not qualify from a realist perspective, for an intervention.

Realist theorists go as far as claiming that, as regrettable as it is, rape has always been a natural component of warfare, which makes it a purely domestic issue. Consequently, it is nothing to concern international politic with and normalizes wartime rape to a certain degree.

While some neo-realists do not agree on this next point, some realists state that the balkan as, not a nation but an idea, held together by a similar culture, is simply moulded by a tradition of violence. This claim is founded on the long, conflict filled history of this geographical area with national identity usually at the heart of such conflicts. The mass rapes during the Bosnian war became yet another piece of balkan brutality (Hansen, 2014).

International law and mass rape

This part of the essay examines international law from a feminist angle, beyond its current boundaries. The main question here is, if and how international law might protect women and their interests from (sexual) violence during wartime. This is a feminist issue because militarization as well as security have always been major research topics for feminist IR theorists.

At first glance a feminist view and a legal one are not compatible. The nations sovereignty dominates international law ever since it came into existence reinforces and contains the separation between the public and private sphere that feminist IR theorists view as a main obstacle to a gender equal society, since it renders women’s and children’s experiences invisible. However there already have been a few achievements for women in international law that feminist IR theorists should be credited for.

I will now go on to discuss a view notable developments in international law concerning genocidal rape further. This overview is by no means exhaustive but elaborates on a view issues important to feminist IT in the past and present.

Legislature and law are usually supposed to mirror the morals and values of the society they are applied upon, it is therefore than in every law 101 class, it is made very clear that law is not always what people think is just. International law first and formally deals with the relations between states and their obligations, responsibilities and rights towards each other. It therefore differs substantially from national law because lawmaker and subject are the same entity. The foundations of international law are autonomy, equality and consensus amongst states and it lacks a supranational sanction mechanism to enforce these laws and regulations. The fact that voluntary recognition is the only „authority“ in this regards, is often criticized and listed as the main reasons of the ineffectiveness of international law’s. However, many states do commit to certain conduct of behavior or treaties despite some occasional infringements.

Relatively early, laws regarding violence against women during armed conflicts were incorporated in international law, such as the Geneva convention of 1949. Here, rape is considered an offense to a woman's „honor“ not against her physical integrity. A woman’s honor in this context is her modesty and sexual purity (Harders and Roß, 2002). This ties in with the aforementioned private sphere in which a woman belongs and in which her husband, the sovereign of his little empire reigns over her. Both are part of a societal contract in which he is part of the economy, the link to outside world and her duty is to bear him children. (cf. Hobbes, 1651)

In the middle of the twentieth century when the Geneva convention was drafted, these concepts were the basis of protecting a woman’s reputation which at the time was deemed more important than protection against physical injuries. Correspondingly rape thus does not constitute a „grave breach“ as defined in art. 147 of the Geneva convention and at the time of the Balkan war, was not considered a crime of violence (Legislation.gov.uk, 2018, Niarchos 1995). It should be noted however, that both the United States and the International Committee of the Red Cross interpreted rape as a grave breach or war crime under the Geneva convention (Kohn, 1994, emphasis added). During the Nuremberg trials, „crimes against humanity“ first were applied. Their definitions explicitly included rape as inhumane crimes against the civil population however the persecution of mass rapes after world war two were not prioritized by the International Military Tribunal (Niarchos 1995).

Despite this gender dismissive background, feminist scholars have described the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as significant progress. (Harders and Roß, 2002, 175 ff.). For the first time in history, rape gets defined as a crime against humanity and Enloe writes that this is largely owed to the work of feminist networks (2005).



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Title: Feminist International Relations and Wartime Rape. Feminist Writings´ Contribution to Women´s Rights