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Feminists Do Gymnastics Over Reports of Hamas Rape
Suddenly, it’s complicated
Noticeable in feminist commentary on the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel has been a disinclination to dwell on reports of the rape of girls and women. By now, most of us have seen or at least heard of video that circulated on social media showing a woman (later identified as Shani Louk) lying face down, limbs grotesquely distorted, being driven around in the back of a pickup truck while hundreds of Palestinians jubilated in the street and one spat on her; in another video, a dazed abductee, forced out of the trunk and loaded into the backseat of a vehicle, has a large patch of blood on her trousers.
Reporting by Israeli officials and civilian responders has emphasized that mass rape and sexual torture were an integral part of Hamas’s raids on southern Israel. An Israeli morgue worker told the Daily Mail, “There is evidence of mass rape so brutal that they broke their victims’ pelvis—women, grandmothers, children.” ZAKA, an organization of first responders, found children whose clothes had been removed before they were tortured and killed. The commander of ZAKA, Itzik Itah, described the mutilated bodies found in many homes, couples tied together with their clothes off, children burned alive, victims with fingers, hands, and feet amputated and genitals gouged. Journalist Graeme Wood described a screening, in Israel, of raw footage of the Hamas incursion taken from the terrorists’ own body cams and mobile phones, which he described as “a record of pure, predatory sadism, no effort to spare those who pose no threat; and an eagerness to kill nearly matched by an eagerness to disfigure the bodies of the victims.”
It's hard to brush all of this aside as propaganda—perhaps especially the brutal glee shown by Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians alike—but many, including some feminists, seem keen to do so. I’ve seen commentators confident that the blood on the hostage’s trousers was caused by a defective tampon or unusually heavy menstrual period. One prominent Twitter feminist said that while she was “hesitant to claim it’s not true” [i.e. the rape reports], she found herself “troubled by the quality of the information we are getting and how much it sounds like a planted story as written up in Tablet [allegedly right-wing Zionist propaganda] and elsewhere.”
That Hamas atrocities could be even worse than anything devised by right-wing Zionist propaganda did not seem to occur to the anti-rape activist.
But since when have feminists ever been skeptical about rape reports or concerned about the reliability of sources? Since when have they waited for iron-clad evidence to condemn male brutality? Since when have they found, as in this case, root causes and mitigating circumstances more compelling than rape victims’ pain?
In the intersectional feminist schema, the victimhood of Palestinian Muslims seems to have had the effect of sanitizing the horror of the acts. After 50 years of feminist theorizing in which the rape of women has been the single most definitive target of pity and rage, suddenly the insistence on holding rapists accountable, naming the violence, and believing victims has been replaced by circumspection and attention to moral complexity.
Nowhere is this shift in focus more evident than at UN Women, the premier feminist organization in the world. UN Women has made frequent reference to rape as a weapon of war (google the phrase and you will find UN reports on wartime rape in Ukraine, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Gaza). Yet UN Women has passed over reports of Hamas sexual attacks in silence. After waiting six days to make an official comment on the Hamas raid (perhaps so that it could claim equivalent responsibility), it issued a bland statement characterized by vague collective nouns (“attacks on civilians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”), abstractions (“devastating impact on civilians”) and risible scolding (“We reiterate the UN Secretary-General’s call to all parties to ensure the safety of civilians”—the latter, of course, directed solely at Israel, not least because Hamas exists to attack civilians. UN Women’s Twitter feed in the days immediately following the attack is an astounding tapestry of frivolity (on October 8 it reminded us that “Trans lesbians are lesbians too!”) and redirection (by October 19, it was calling for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”).
Individual feminists, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, have joined boisterous celebrations of Palestinian aggression that made no distinction between solidarity with Palestinian civilians and approval of Hamas’s actions. One of those caught on video at an aggressive New York City demonstration on October 8th was Emilia Vieira, a feminist activist and paid employee at Women in Need, a NYC shelter for battered women that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding. At the very time that reports and video evidence of extreme violence against women were circulating on the internet, Vieira was cheering it on. She has so far refused to clarify her position.
Other feminists who celebrated the Hamas attack were more forthcoming with justifications. When questioned about Instagram posts such as one saying that Gazans had “made history as they escaped the world’s largest open-air prison” (a description that conveniently erased more than a thousand mutilated and savaged bodies left in the wake of the escape), feminist activist Lucy Small offered statements rich in compassion for the perpetrators: “If Palestinian society is going to heal and progress, it needs to be able to do so on its own terms, which is why self-determination is so important.” She also equivocated that “If we are going to condemn the actions of Hamas, we must condemn the violence of the Israeli state.” Such condemn-all-sides bromides are normal on occasions when one wants to excuse the violence of one’s preferred aggressors; but even so, it is usual that after an attack of such gratuitous excess, one would refrain for at least a few days from expressions of outright enthusiasm.
Over the past 50 years, feminists have called many things sexual violence as part of an effort to continually expand the domain of alleged male toxicity: locker room talk, sexual jokes, transactional sex, awkward attempts at seduction, and so on. Never interested in the realities of sexual dynamics or of male victimization, they told us repeatedly that the foregoing were all part of a continuum of hatred, that too many women were silenced and blamed, that we were all responsible for failing to stop it, and that even men who did not commit sexual violence (including men who were victims of it) must examine their own complicity.
Thus, it is particularly startling to see the worst forms of sexual violence, clearly driven by hatred, clearly dehumanizing, clearly intended to terrorize and silence victims—recorded without mercy amidst shouts of Allahu Akbar—now sidestepped with discussions of Palestinian trauma and quickly passed over. Academic feminist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein showed an unprecedented compassion for rape-murderers when she stated her hope on X that “all rapists are held accountable by their communities in a manner that sustains life, a just peace, and protects the aggrieved from further harm” and said she “pray[s] for spiritual peace for all survivors.”
The generous sentiments are quite an about-face for someone who has been at the forefront of academic feminist activism to demand harsh penalties (firing and permanent disgrace) for science researchers merely accused of—never convicted or even criminally investigated for—sexual misconduct, often of a very anodyne sort involving romantic gestures, touches, and expressions of sexual interest between adults.
Suddenly Prescod-Weinstein is arguing that there is something manipulative and false in declaiming against the horror of what rapists do. She is “troubled that the entire Palestinian cause is being slandered by some as unworthy because of a tactic that has no borders” (what an impressively clinical and neutral word is tactic) and she tutored her large Twitter following on the extent to which they were to focus condemnation on Hamas sexual violence (answer: not much): “Do not use rape survivors as a shield to avoid the hard conversation about why this is happening,” she instructed, “About Bibi’s violent fascism. About dispossession and occupation. When people talk about those issues, you can’t just shout ‘rape’ and think the conversation is over.”
Perhaps written in anger and haste, the prefabricated phrasing shows how remarkably little thought Prescod-Weinstein has given to the victims raped by Hamas. Many of these victims were not, in fact, “survivors.” Some were raped to death; others murdered after they were raped. How is it a “shield” to name what happened to them and to hold perpetrators accountable? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that claims about “Bibi’s violent fascism” are the shield, used to explain and to that extent justify the rapes? I cannot recall another case in which appeals to the alleged suffering of perpetrators, without proof, were allowed to deflect from the perpetrators’ remorseless and premeditated aggression.
Prescod-Weinstein has even inveighed against characterizing Palestinian culture as “patriarchal,” alleging that “a narrative that frames Palestinians as uniquely patriarchal and morally reprehensible is rooted in racist stereotypes.” Few could have predicted in advance how adroitly condemnation of mass rape could be recast by the holier-than-thou as evidence of racism. The rhetorical sleights of hand here are dizzying.
The question then arises: what is one to make of the past 50 years of feminist activism around sexual violence and coercion, as well as the tears and the shouts and the damning testimony, if it can all be retired, as other commitments demand, with a few glib rationalizations. Has this feminist cause been mainly strategic, a case of Agitprop theater, a “tactic” to secure power and control over (civilized, mainly western) men who cared about women’s pain? Did feminists not really mean it after all?
The case of Hamas terrorism points toward a hypocrisy so jarring as to dumbfound even hardened anti-feminists like me. It may also confirm the long-simmering suspicion that some feminists actually admire hyper-masculine (anti-Western) men who (so far) seem immune to feminist shaming. At the very least, this moment forces the recognition that abhorrence of rape is not the unifying conviction feminists have for so long claimed it to be, and that in certain cases, it seems hardly to matter at all.