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    The Rape of Women in Wartime
    Psychoanalytical Considerations

    Rape is one of the most brutal aspects of war and civil war, during which it is used as a psychological weapon. The resulting psychological damage is huge, as is demonstrated by cases from Syria and Iraq. In a cultural context that is markedly patriarchal, and fuelled by the legal opinions (fatwas) of reactionary religious scholars, contempt for the other sex continues to be a central problem in the current crises in the Islamic world.

    For a certain number of years before the eruption of the current bloody events in Syria, I used to go to Damascus two or three times a year to meet with Syrian psychoanalysts and discuss clinical practice. These analysts were hosted by the Cultural Service of the French Embassy so that they could work on analytical texts within the framework of seminars. During my visits there, in addition to the conferences, I supervised the young Syrian psychoanalysts, who provided therapy to Iraqi refugees who had experienced war trauma resulting in, among other things, agonistic experiences, narcissistic suffering, eradication of the subject and post-traumatic psychoses.

    At the first Franco-Syrian conference (in 2011), a Syrian psychoanalyst presented the case of Malika, a 37-year-old woman who had been referred by a humanitarian organisation that had taken her into its care ‘after the outbreak of war in her country’. The country in question was, of course, Iraq. Her father and brother had been kidnapped and Malika had had to pay the ransom. ‘It was not only money,’ the analyst said, ‘that she had offered in order to buy back her family. She had also given her body, and she regards this as her secret. She recounted the sexual attack she experienced, crying bitterly; at times lost for words, she substituted them with appeals to God for help.’

    The patient reported the following: ‘One of the kidnappers came into my room, after I had given him the money he had asked for. He pointed a gun at my little son’s temple while he slept. That was when I understood that he wanted to rape me. I begged him not to harm my child and to do what he wanted with me. So he raped me.’ Weeping, she continued: ‘Can you imagine, he slept with me while I had my period. I’m not a respectable woman any more. I’m ashamed.’ She never told anyone, ‘out of fear for her family and fear that she would be killed’: ‘What was I supposed to do – let him kill my child?’

    Rape and the feminine

    Why do the most abject acts of criminal domination utilise the feminine imago? What rape demonstrates is how sex can be used as the primary instrument and means to nullify women. In this case, sex triumphs over the sexual. It is one of the extreme characteristics of barbarous times. In connection with the masculine and the feminine, desire and pleasure, life and death and temporality (through the question of filiation), sex is utilised for the purposes of violence and control. Instead of death, one is mortified. Instead of pleasure, one is humiliated.

    Such an experience induces a massive shock. The shock is so massive because the woman finds herself in contact with the crude drive of the man, in contact not with seduction but with the destructive forces of the psyche. The shock, writes Sandor Ferenczi, ‘is equivalent to the destruction of the sense of self, the capacity to resist, to act and to think for the purpose of defending one’s own Self’.

    Confronted with a breach (Freud talks about the breach of the stimulus barrier in his model of 1920), the ego divests itself of living qualities in order not to register that the event ever happened. And in order to protect itself from the drive stimulus causing the breach, the ego becomes itself a ‘drive-neutralisation agent’, which is nothing other than a further variant of the death drive.

    Rape brings about a ‘detransitionalisation of reality’. ‘He slept with me’ expresses a duplication in reality of the original fantasy of seduction. The two spaces (the psychic space and the external space) communicate in such a way that the psychic apparatus can no longer perform its function as a container of the internal world. The boundaries have been eliminated. ‘Falling into agony is not an artefact of language’ (Philippe Bessoles).

    In fact, the Arabic term ightisaba (to rape) expresses the annihilation of the psyche by this breaching attack. Ightasaba means to take by force (implying a play of unequal forces). Ightasaba also denotes the act of pulling hair from the skin so forcefully that it causes bleeding. The act of rape is included within the scope of crudelis, from which is derived the word ‘cruelty’ – wahshiyya in Arabic. In order to say ‘he raped her’, the Arabic expression is Ghasabahâ nafsaha, which can be translated as ‘he annihilated her soul (nafs)’ – or ‘her psyche’ (the Arabic word nafs denotes both psyche and soul).

    During her pregnancy, Malika had a dream. Ali placed his hand on Malika’s head and said, ‘You are going to have a son. You must call him Ali. He will be a great man.’ As such, the mother had now become a malika (Malika means ‘queen’). She was a queen, since she was the mother of a boy who would become a great man like Ali. It was for the sake of this marvellous child, the child of the promise that had been made to her, that the mother sacrificed herself. However, this sacrifice was to be the death of her pleasure and pride in having such a special son. The woman was condemned to exile and a life of wandering when she left the motherland that could no longer offer her protection, that had even become a synonym for lack of protection.

    In saying, ‘I had my period’, the patient is expressing a perforation of her psychological being and the porosity of the skin-ego: a psychological leak, a physical breach. Her grievance, which constitutes a flayed skin, encompasses the full sense of ightasaba: rubbish, dirt, self-accusation, and responsibility for the guilt (not felt) of the aggressor.

    ‘I had my period’ becomes the obsessive preoccupation with a leakage that never ends. It is the wound of a mother who came to the aid of her son at the price of killing herself as a mother. The other children do not figure in her discourse; they no longer exist. How does one protect oneself from the eroticisation of the death drive? Does the patient’s sacrifice necessarily entail this compromise of the maternal? The mother will hate this child.


    Dominique Cupa has referred to cases of cruelty toward women which are in fact attacks on the maternal, as in the case of this Bosnian woman in 1996: ‘One day, he (the torturer) bandaged the breasts of a woman to see how long her new-born child would survive without being fed. She killed her baby herself to shorten his suffering.’ Dominique Cupa talks about a dematernalisation that can be radical when it is combined with extreme cruelty, a mortal cruelty that attacks the mother in her essence and power. She who can give and maintain life finds herself subjugated to a cruel control that forces her to commit infanticide. Thus the gift of life is replaced by the gift of death. In the case of Malika and of other mothers who have been subjected to rape, the flesh of the flesh becomes hated, and the child to be saved becomes the despised object.

    ‘What is most tragic,’ said one woman, ‘is that they succeeded, with their sadistic and perverse methods, in killing in us any sense of a previous, human life.’ André Green talks about ‘the cold and cruel monster of destruction (that) is found together with the most traditional figures of evil’. Perverse cruelty takes pleasure in killing life. The id is abandoned to the mercy of the drives. The crime is committed for its own sake. It becomes an end in itself. The woman who has been raped finds herself in a deathly grip, ‘stripped of the skin of humanity’.

    In some analytical works, trauma is connected to early agonistic or unprocessable traumatic experiences, or is seen in the light of early agonistic or unprocessable traumatic experiences or of a masochistic core in some women. In the present case, the trauma is rape and war. It is a reality beyond the control of the person experiencing it.

    It would be beneficial to broaden the scope of the notion of trauma by taking into account those extreme situations (bombing, war, natural catastrophes) which cause a breakdown in the psychic envelopes, a state of dereliction, a kind of psychological exteriority, a sense of danger or a constant threat of insecurity and its devastating effects (which contaminate the analyst). Subjects find themselves confronted with the threat of annihilation, which can lead to risk- and sensation-seeking behaviour and a sense of loss of self on the part of the patient, and a state of stupefaction and extreme anxiety on the part of the analyst.

    Often, in the Arab world, women who have been raped are repudiated as they are considered to be defiled, dirty, thereby defiling the honour of the husband and the entire family. The woman is thus victimised twice. A woman who has been raped will say to her husband, ‘hatakûlak ‚irdak’ (‘they violated your honour’). It is no longer a matter of her body and psyche but of the honour of the man. I remember those Algerian women I met when I was a young psychoanalyst who had been raped, even gang-raped, during the events that devastated Algeria in the 1990s, and who had been repudiated, because they were now dirty, and forced to leave the country.

    When questioned about the enormity of the transference the Syrian analyst, a young woman and mother, said: ‘The same thing could happen to us, too.’ Since then, Syria has gone up in flames. Iraqi women can no longer find refuge in Syria, which has become an equally volatile country. ‘It’ (the id) explodes every day, at any time. Temporality becomes determined by bombs.


    In addition to the terrors of war, mass disappearances, abusive condemnation, a day-to-day reality that has become unpredictable, the suffering of the Syrian people under tyranny, Iraq exploding on a daily basis, the chaos and the desolation, there are the fatwas of the fuqahâ’ (theologians): in order to encourage mercenaries to go to Syria, the Saudi fuqahâ’ authorise the men through fatwas to take the woman of Syria as sabâyâ (prisoners of war). And DAESH (ISIS) is today handing over women and young girls to men to keep up their fighting spirit, thus disregarding the Freudian considerations in Civilisation and Its Discontents, wherein renouncing one’s drives is the fundamental condition for the construction of civilisation. By this, Freud meant renouncing one’s crude, instinctive satisfaction. Thus, DAESH is counting on building a civilisation on the basis of crude drives that accept no renunciation and no sublimation.

    The fact of man wanting to continue to establish his domination goes back to the logic of ‘war and peace between the sexes’. However, authorising a return to a barbarous archaism that advocates the rape and possession of women as captives and the destruction of archaeological sites (the mausoleum of Fatima is one example among others) flabbergasts the mind, is beyond language and the capacities of translation, and presents the analyst with difficulties of interpretation, because they must go beyond the dimension of fantasy and (interpretable) psychic reality in order to listen to something that is not coming from the subject and her psychic space, but from a chaotic environment.

    The patient’s trauma collides with what becomes the analyst’s trauma, when confronted with their estrangement from the ideal cure or the ideal of the cure (benevolent neutrality, associativity, regular sessions, consistent setting, etc.), and in light of their commitment to civilisation and culture. The clinical challenge is considerable. Is it possible to give meaning to this meaningless murder?

    Since ‘rape is murder without a corpse’ because it kills ‘through an incessant torture that is constantly inflicted: it condemns the victim to wandering and exile in relation to his or her own physical, psychological, social, familial and cultural body’, re-sexualising sex, the psychological processing (reconstruction) of a murder perpetrated in a place which naturally belongs to life and to pleasure, and the reconstruction of the psychic envelopes are what constitute the clinical challenge for any psychoanalyst or psychotherapist.

    Given a context that paralyses and petrifies the capacities of representation, the analyst must then dig down into this reserve of creative resources in order to associate, psychologise, and shake off the paralysis. The analyst can, for example, utilise the phrase ‘He slept with me while I had my period’ to remind the patient of the reality of the event, to make her aware that she was a victim, thus allowing her to free herself from ‘the confusion of language’ (in the sense of Sandor Ferenczi) and a mortal guilt. At the same time, the analyst can describe to her the horror of war, which defies representation and causes the death drive to be unbound and set loose, and can attempt to rename the sexual by positioning it on the side of life.

    In order to help the patient process the events associated with the trauma, it is necessary to reconsider the trauma in the context of the culture and collective history of which we are the inheritors.
    Houria Abdelouahed is a psychoanalyst in Paris.

    Translated by Phyllis Elago

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014
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