War and Women

Women victims of War #

The Silence of the Girls - by Pat Barker

In the Iliad, Briseis isn’t described as “silent.” She doesn’t need to be. Although we see her in Book 1, she doesn’t speak until Book 19. It is not until then, in her mourning speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beautiful cheeks and that she leaves unwillingly to be transferred to Agamemnon.

It is not until then, in her mourning speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beautiful cheeks and that she leaves unwillingly to be transferred to Agamemnon.

Agamemnon swears that I never laid hand on the girl Briseis, I never made love to her, and that during her stay in my huts she was left untouched.


Then Briseis, beautiful as golden Aphrodite, saw the corpse of Patroclus mangled by the bronze blades, she flung herself on the body, shrieking loudly, and tore with her hands at her breasts, her tender neck, and lovely face. And the goddess-like woman wailed in her lament:

‘Patroclus, dear to my heart, when I left this hut you were alive, and now alas I return, prince among men, to find you a corpse. So, evil dogs my steps. I saw the husband, to whom my royal parents married me, lie there, dead, by our city wall, mangled by the cruel bronze, and saw my three beloved brothers meet a like fate. But you dried my tears, when fleet-footed Achilles killed my husband, and sacked King Mynes’ city, saying you would see me wed to Achilles, that he would take me in his ship to Phthia and grant me a marriage-feast among the Myrmidons. You were always gentle with me, now I will mourn you forever.’

So Briseis grieved, and the other women took up her lament; mourning Patroclus, it is true, but also their own sorrows.

At last, we learn that she is the prize of the man who killed her husband, her father, and her brothers—and yet her only hope for safety for herself and any children she might have is what Patroclus once promised her: marriage to Achilles. Barker skilfully shows us what active political strategies the women construct in their captivity, protecting one another, sharing useful rumours, shrewdly assessing the men’s characters.

World War II diary #

A Woman in Berlin, the anonymous account by a German woman of the Russian army’s mass rapes at the end of the war. She describes how safety lay in forming an exclusive relationship, so as to be less vulnerable to gang rape. In Barker’s scene of Chryseis’s departure, some of the captive women fantasize about taking her place: “To be Agamemnon’s prize…It didn’t come more comfortable than that.”

Bean Pole evocatively dramatises the trauma dealt with by two young women drafted into the Russian Army to act as “comfort women” ……

Rape #

Partly retribution, but largely as an incentive to soldiers, the abasement of women became a hallmark of all war booty. From barbaric raids by hordes of Vikings, Mongolians, to Christian attacks on each other, or on Muslims, or Muslims on Christian, or Hindus on Muslims, rape has become an integral reward for risking your life in conquest. Mary Jo Anderson writes: By 800, Christians had been backed into the northernmost region of Spain by the Moors and a humiliating tribute of a 100 virgins per year was demanded of local governors.

War sanctions man’s bloody sadistic brutality. Women usually bore the brunt of men’s violence. Soldiers were repeatedly rewarded with promises of booty and sexual conquest, by the Pope.

When the Roman Crusaders were welcomed into Constantinople, they betrayed their hosts by raping and killing Greek Orthodox Nuns in the Cathedral of Haigia Sophia.

When Russian troops began their advance into Hitler’s Germany, Officers stood leisurely by as their troops took turns raping any German women they came across.

Recurring motifs of the debasement of women first - stripped naked to parade in victory marches, and as sexual slaves to lust filled and sex starved soldiers.

Oliver Cromwell “had a savage streak in his nature” and that he “enjoyed inflicting death, injury or humiliation on those against whom he had taken.”

At Naseby he allowed the foot soldiers of the New Model Army to commit hideous atrocities against the enemy’s female camp-followers, killing over a hundred and disfiguring others by cutting noses and slicing cheeks.

In the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, in Amritsar, on the Indian side of the border, a large group of Muslim women was stripped naked, paraded through the streets and raped by a Sikh mob.

In most wars, women become victims, as victorious troops exact revenge by stripping and raping them. Stripping is generally a mark of humiliation and indignity to emphasise dominance.

Religious Justifications #

The church has filled women with feelings of inadequacy by quoting the Bible to declare that menstruation produces a state of uncleanliness. Does anyone think that reflects science? One unspoken argument to prevent women from being ordained in various churches was that menstruation made women a potentially polluting presence in holy places, which is why the European cathedral tradition of Western Christianity had choirs limited to men and boys. This institution even informed the world that the ideal woman was a “virgin mother”. Since it is impossible for anyone to be a virgin mother, no woman could ever live up to this ideal. With the ideal not possible, this church then told women they could be virgins who joined the nunneries or they could be mothers.

When they chose marriage and motherhood, they were taught that the only redeeming purpose for sex was procreation, so birth-control practices that minimised the possibility of pregnancy were mortal sins. In an overpopulated world, is not the absence of effective family planning itself immoral?

In the Catholic Church, this visceral negativity against birth control went so far as to proclaim to its African adherents that the use of condoms was not morally acceptable - even inside one’s marriage to protect a wife from becoming infected by her HIV-positive husband. ……..

Torture #

The French Inqusition introduced a variety of devices to maim and torure victims before they were executed.

The Breast Ripper Torturers seemed to reserve special horrors for women. Surprisingly, few torturers had­ any reservations about torturing women – in fact, women-only tortures often seemed especially cruel and were designed to destroy specific aspects of femininity. In medieval England, differing torture practices were virtually codified: male criminals were hanged, while women faced the “drowning pits” [source: Parry].

The practice of torturing women sexually extends back to Roman times (and surely even before then). Female victims were given to soldiers to be raped, or sent to brothels. They might be tied up or paraded through public streets naked. These public humiliations were sometimes followed by bizarre sexual mutilations.

Torturers had a strange fixation on breasts, which were burned, branded or simply amputated. Worst of all was a device known as the Breast Ripper. It was a metal claw that pierced the flesh of the breast. The victim was tied to a wall, and then the claw pulled forcibly away, shredding the breast to pieces [source: Medieval Times & Castles]. It was used as both a method of punishment and interrogation – to mark the breasts of unmarried mothers and mutilate women convicted of heresy, adultery and a host of other crimes.

Women Poets #

It is the women poets who often write pungently of separation and the trauma of losing a son or husband, brother or just the sheer wastage of lives cut down in their prime.

Poet Wolla Meranda pithily summed up in 1916 the reality of many homes:

“They will never come back our stalwart men.”

Whereas Mary Gilmore in her poem Gallipoli echoed the particular pain of mothers:

When the world called him he went;
When the world called him, there he bent.
Now he is dead.