Bringing genocide to women’s bodies

[I’m currently in Rwanda and tomorrow headed to the DRC with a delegation from the Nobel Women’s Initiative. I’ll be posting brief reflections here where possible]

Kigali, Rwanda – In December 1990, the Rwandan Hutu-supremacist paper Kangura published The Ten Hutu Commandments. The first three:

1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who
-marries a Tutsi woman
-befriends a Tutsi woman
-employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine.

2. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?

3. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.

The politicization of women’s bodies, and female sexuality and reproductive capacity in particular, to serve an agenda of ethnic supremacy and later to facilitate a genocide isn’t unique to Rwanda, but this country provides an illustrative case. (Background on the Rwanda genocide here and timeline here).

Hutu power propagandists widely imaged Tutsi women as both sexually promiscuous and sexually mysterious, as whores for politicians and military men but also attractive and sexually skilled. Propagandists appealed to the masculine pride of Hutu men by portraying Tutsi women as haughty and thinking of themselves as “too good” for sexual relationships with Hutus. The supposed inaccessibility of Tutsi women to Hutu men made rape a powerful instrument of humiliation, debasement, degradation and torture. Hutu men who married Tutsi women were just as suspect at Tutsis themselves, since Tutsi women were enemies of the state, and infiltrating Hutu structures by marrying Hutu men.

Three years and one month after the publication of the Hutu Ten Commandments, Brig. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Rwanda, sent what’s now known as the “genocide fax“: A warning to his superiors in New York that a plan to exterminate Tutsis was underway, and he needed support to counter it.

His warnings were received by the United States, Belgium and France, but ignored.

Three years and four months after the publication of the Ten Hutu Commandments, the interahamwe Hutu militia and the Rwandan Armed Forces set up road blocks across the country, and went from house to house raping, torturing and slaughtering Tutsis and anyone perceived as a Tutsi sympathizer.

UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping forces in the country, did little; when ten Belgian soldiers were killed in the first days of the genocide, Belgium withdrew its troops from UNAMIR. The United States, France and Belgium pulled all their citizens out of Rwanda, but brought no Rwandans with them. Two weeks after the genocide began, UNAMIR cuts its forces from 2,500 to 270.

In a three month period, close to a million Rwandans were brutally murdered. Enormous numbers of women were raped; most were killed afterwards, but some were spared, often to later find out they were infected with HIV or pregnant with their rapist’s child. Rape was a crucial tool of both torture and genocide, of debasing a population and of destroying a minority group.

Today, twenty years after the genocide, categories of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” — existing in some relatively benign form before colonialism, but formalized by the Belgians as intentionally economically and socially divisive — are taboo to speak about, with the government emphasizing that everyone is simply Rwandan. Rwanda today has one of the lowest levels of gender-based violence in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 60 percent of Parliamentarians are women. The country is a one-party state with almost no tolerance of political opposition; it’s also made astounding progress on women’s health and rights, among other development goals. Reconciliation in Rwanda means asking forgiveness and forgiving. It also means many women live side by side with their rapists.

“All the people are still [living with the aftermath of] genocide,” Godeliève Mukasarasi, a Rwandan genocide survivor who works with other survivors, told our delegation through a translator. “Even those who are raped, even those whose mothers were killed, all those people are living in the same areas [as the interahamwe]. Some of the interahamwe who killed people went to jail, but they got out and live with the people they raped. You cannot say genocide ideas have stopped. [Rape survivors] are still looking at those people who raped them and killed [their families]. You have to try to accept and to live with them.”

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Crime, Military, Rape Culture, Sexual Assault, War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Bringing genocide to women’s bodies

  1. Asia says:

    I’m disturbed that rape survivors have to live alongside there rapists and I think in reality there a lot more with that then the article suggests. Certainly the progress at the national level is inspiring and proof that countries can have coexistence after a genocide.

  2. anna_k says:

    UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping forces in the country, did little; when ten Belgian soldiers were killed in the first days of the genocide, Belgium withdrew its troops from UNAMIR. The United States, France and Belgium pulled all their citizens out of Rwanda, but brought no Rwandans with them. Two weeks after the genocide began, UNAMIR cuts its forces from 2,500 to 270.

    Not to mention that France brought in its military to protect the retreating Hutu army towards the end of the genocide, and took in many of them afterwards (alongside other European countries and the US), and all these countries then sat by while their refugee camps in the DRC were largely taken over and run by the same perpetrators post-genocide.

    The country is a one-party state with almost no tolerance of political opposition; it’s also made astounding progress on women’s health and rights, among other development goals.

    I feel the juxtaposition of these two statements sort of glosses the many problems with Kagame’s govt, but since this is the first of your reflections I’ll wait to see what develops.

    Also, this:

    Reconciliation in Rwanda means asking forgiveness and forgiving.

    induces an instant needle-scratch sound effect in my mind. “Reconciliation”, such as it is in Rwanda, has been brought about by and has consisted of a combination of really problematic things, just a few of which are:
    * Western insistence on the ICTR rather than national prosecutions as some sort of bizarre penance for their own non-intervention
    * The Kagame govt’s co-opting of the pre-existing village/community-based gacaca system which solved things like theft, land, and marriage disputes, to make “gacaca courts” for genocide
    * Western academics falling over themselves to love gacaca courts under the mistaken assumption that their approval of the same was post-, rather than neo-, colonial.
    * Western surprise that it actually isn’t that easy to shoehorn a peace-and-happiness reconciliation paradigm onto the population of a country where large numbers joined in to kill off up to 1/5 of all the people, and chastising of Rwandan govt and people for not reconciling fast enough, prompting justifiable grievance from the (nevertheless problematic itself) Kagame govt.

    Reconciliation doesn’t mean “asking” forgiveness and forgiving. Reconciliation has meant:
    * forced participation in a rushed “court” system
    * usually at the expense of one’s daily wages
    * with the threat of harm for non-participation
    * with no divergence from the narrative that “All perpetrators were Hutus and all victims were Tutsis”, also at threat of harm
    * while living in a society that technically no longer gives the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” meaning
    * with no due process for accused persons
    * and nothing that would be of practical help, such as reparations and other financial help (on which topic justice-and-court-loving Westerners fall mysteriously silent).

    • anna_k says:

      TL;DR: Kagame is hugely flawed, but so is literally every white precursor and response to the genocide in Rwanda, so nobody wins, especially not Rwandans.

      Also I think I know this topic too well to react well to a “brief reflections” format, which is obviously both within Jill’s right to do on her own site and really interesting for those not versed in the subject, so I might keep from commenting on this series as a whole from now on if my comments come off too critical? I dunno.

      • EG says:

        I would love and appreciate it if you could recommend some books on the genocide and Rwanda post-genocide. It’s something I’m really very interested in, but particularly because my French is not great (I can puzzle text out with a dictionary in my hand, but…meh…not to great insight or understanding), I’m not sure which sources to go to.

        And I, for one, would love to read what a smart, knowledgeable person has to say about Kagame’s Rwanda. I don’t even know what the standard of comparison might/should be–other countries post-genocide, other contemporary countries, other one-party countries, I honestly don’t know what I should be weighing, let alone how to weigh them.

        That said, I realize it’s not your job to enlighten me, and if this is a topic close enough to your heart that it’ll drain you to post on it, I completely understand.

        • I’d like to second all of this. I’m very interested and honestly have no idea where to begin reading, because it’s intimidating and sources seem biased as fuck.

        • anna_k says:

          Thanks for the responses, EG and mac. I’m certainly happy to recommend things, with the obvious caveat that I too am flawed and will likely have wholly missed terrible things in the sources I do recommend.

          I’ll have to think on it a bit as a lot of my work has been primary source-based for academic purposes, which does not an intro-friendly reading list make :)

          I can start by recommending three very different sources that I think will provide a bit of insight into some of what you’ve expressed interest in learning about.

          A second caveat should be attached at this point: as you’ve noted, there is bias everywhere, and a lot of the people writing on this issue on all sides of the arguments have serious investment (including in the form of $ and perceived moral condemnation) in making their arguments stick.

          So you should question whatever you read (as I’m sure you do anyway, being critical thinkers!), and take your time about believing any version of events. If it helps, I’m going into my fourth(ish) year of studying this genocide, amongst others, in detail, and I still lack anything like a settled picture of events in my mind.

          So, the sources:
          1) “My neighbour, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity”, eds. Eric Stover and Harvey M. Weinstein. If you want one book on what happens in communities after atrocities, this is it. Years of rigorous empirical research, quantitative and qualitative analysis from multiple situations (including many chapters on Rwanda specifically), a good combination of researchers “on the ground” and from elsewhere. Really top-notch academic work that’s readable, vivid, and an excellent corrective to simplistic reconciliation rhetoric.

          EG, I think this book is the best source (in fact, perhaps the only one of its standard) when it comes to whether comparisons can be made to “like” situations, and what those comparisons could/should be.

          *clings lovingly to my copy*

          2) “The Myth of Closure, the Illusion of Reconciliation: Final Thoughts on Five Years as Co-Editor-in-Chief”, by Harvey M. Weinstein. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 5, 2011, 1–10.

          As you may notice, there is author crossover here. I will recommend a greater diversity of authors later (though note that source 1 is actually authored by many different people). This is a really short, introductory read. It’s more personal reflection than anything else, as the title suggests, but for those unfamiliar with transitional justice scholarship it lays out a lot of the aims and tensions of the relatively young movement (however you constitute it) for justice in such situations, and how those have changed over the years. You may need uni database access to be able to read it.

          3) “Sometimes in April”, dir. Raoul Peck. Not a book; a film following fictitious characters, but grounding them well in the real events that took place. Unlike 1 and 2, this is focused specifically on Rwanda. It is not a perfect film by any means, but it is by far my favourite on these events, and may be my favourite in the field of transitional justice as a whole (tied first with “The Lives of Others”).

          The reason I recommend it is because, as a film made and set ten years post-genocide, in 2004, and following the lives of a variety of Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi (rather than focusing on e.g. Dallaire, other westerners), both in 1994 and 2004, it avoids telling a simple story and really forces the viewer to dwell in the unresolved nature of events.

          While it avoids explicitly focusing on Kagame in the present day (it was shot in Rwanda so I imagine there was some delicate manoeuvring there), it does not baulk at telling the wider story of colonial guilt or unpunished domestic perpetrators, and critiquing the idea of happy endings through gacaca or the ICTR, while also acknowledging their merits for some.

          It’s not a showy film, or that well-known. There’s no glamour in its violence and very few simple goodies and baddies. Women and girls are prominent, and complex. There are layers upon layers of meaning. It is powerfully-acted and a tough watch, and absolutely ruins me (I had to watch it a *lot* of times, too, because I wrote a critical study of it).

          [Nope, I’m not recommending Hotel Rwanda, because I just do not want to recommend an “uplifting” narrative set in the deaths of a million people.]

        • anna_k says:

          So I am winning at long comments today, but I recommend three things to start with:
          1) “My neighbour, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity”, eds. Eric Stover and Harvey M. Weinstein.
          2) “The Myth of Closure, the Illusion of Reconciliation: Final Thoughts on Five Years as Co-Editor-in-Chief”, by Harvey M. Weinstein. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 5, 2011, 1–10.
          3) “Sometimes in April”, dir. Raoul Peck. [there are online versions, but try to get the DVD b/c I don’t think the youtube/vimeo ones have translations for the important Kinyarwandan dialogue]

          The long comment in mod has caveats and more info on each.

        • Thank you, anna! That looks like it’s a wonderful list! ♥

        • EG says:

          Thank you so much, anna_k! This list looks wonderful and deeply informative.

          I confess that I remember when Sometimes In April came out, and I just…chickened out of seeing it, because seeing upsetting violence on film can be much, much harder for me than reading it about it. But I will fortify myself and set aside an evening.

          Thank you very, very much!

      • Hugh says:

        Thanks from me too, Anna, awesome list and I hope to get a look at one of them soon.

        Do you have anything in French, incidentally?

      • Jill says:

        Anna, please comment away! I have very limited internet access and time here, so simply am not able to give this the time and depth it deserves. Your willingness to do so in the comments, even critically, is really helpful and appreciated.

  3. I find this post to be highly enlightening. I know of the genocide in Rwanda, I mean well everyone does, but to think of the women who have to stand beside their rapists day by day is heartbreaking. I would like to say that is interesting to see the radical shift from oppression to something opposite of that. I thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront.

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