Women’s experiences of war are almost exclusively examined through the prism of rape and sexual torture. With the mass scale and the organized nature of rape during the Bosnian war, these stories were important to tell. In many ways, they helped illuminate and examine violence against women in the most meaningful ways and nest the discourse about gender politics into the public sphere.
However, more often than not, the ways in which these stories were told helped drown and silence the voices of many women who endured horrific aggressions against their bodies and souls, as well as having witnessed the suffering of those around them. Their stories of pain and destruction were synthesized, examined and exploited either for furthering political goals or for personal gain. Even those with the best intentions at heart, found themselves recycling these stories in a same manner that portrayed these women purely as victims.
The most frequently promulgated narrative shows women’s bodies as battlegrounds, claimed and marked as territory. They are vessels that carry a promise of national destruction, a message board for one side or the other. She becomes her body and nothing more again, and again.
What about A. or N. after the act? The stories of “after” are seldom found in a public discourse. Every once in a while the stories of personal and social struggle for some semblance of normal life are told in a study in an obscure academic journal, whose audience are but a select few. Stories of their everyday struggle and fight for survival are not told, and “she” stays on the outskirts of humanity, relegated to dark corners of collective memory; a faceless, soulless and one dimensional article.
Focusing on women solely in terms of rape, told as a uniformed story, obscures the variety of women’s experiences and silences their voices. Forgotten are the experiences of everyday battle for survival and human dignity that gives us a more intimate understanding of war, one that most of us relate to and can comprehend. In that narrative the impact of war’s violence and horror allows us to understand rather than ignore.
Forgotten is A. who got up every morning at 2am, running through sniper fire to fetch water so her family could survive yet another day. Forgotten is R. who got up each work week throughout the war, dressed herself and sat in a cold, bombed out office in order to keep her job. Forgotten is M. who while bleeding profusely dragged herself to a hospital to deliver a baby she chose to keep amidst destruction. Forgotten is S. who made an agonizing decision to let go of her baby because she did not think she could feed her. Forgotten is R. who, with two jagged chunks of shrapnel lodged in her back, got up with freshly dressed wounds to cook for her children. Forgotten is D. who lost her virginity in a bomb shelter. Forgotten is N., the artist, who painted in her frigid studio even during the worst shelling. Forgotten is V. who was able to create a week worth of meals out of one can of humanitarian food. Forgotten is L. who after losing three children and a husband to a grenade spent days writing and agitating for peace. Forgotten is H. whose loss of family made her yearn for revenge.
These are women’s experiences of war. These are the stories of love, loss, pain, dignity, torture, defiance, child rearing, hatred, confusion, fear and above all survival. They are a common thread, a vast and all too often ignored chorus of experiences forged by women’s individual identities in every war. Once told these stories portray a three dimensional woman who becomes more than her body. Once told they paint a landscape of defiance to war at odds with the celebratory pornography all too often offered to mass consumption.