Total Terror and the Birth of a New Order

By Dechen Albero

‘Freedom entails responsibility.’  In considering this maxim, I’ve wondered what responsibilities those of us studying or teaching at ‘free’ universities might bear both within our own intellectual community and to the world at large.  Doubtless there are many, but in the wake of last summer’s invasion of Georgia, the ongoing crisis in Darfur, and recent hostilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it seems one of the most pressing obligations might be to give ‘voice’ to these events in a way that goes beyond mere sound-bites and aims at understanding and locating a path forward.  This piece represents an attempt to initiate such a discussion within the New School community by addressing the phenomenon of violence against women within Juarez, Mexico, Sierra Leone and the DRC.  May it not be the last word.

I.  War Against Women?

Since 1993 over 400 young women between the ages of fourteen and thirty have disappeared in the border town of Juárez, Mexico.  While many remain missing, those that are found often appear on the outskirts of the city in the form of a ‘tortured’, ‘mutilated’ or ‘strangled’ corpse.1  Their fate is not unlike that experienced by women and girls in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where civil wars have raged at various times during the last twenty years.  Each conflict has been marked in part by the sexual violence committed against women, including rape, sexual slavery, forced impregnation or prostitution, the cutting and deformation of genitals and bodies, and murder.  Given this litany of abuses and the diverse sites of the violence, it appears that a veritable war against women is being fought in many parts of the world.  This article analyzes several case studies of systematic sexual violence against women, and attempts to offer a broader understanding by delineating it as a strategic device, deployed by those who seek to subvert the dominant order in favor of ideological visions.

II.  Strategic Violence

In an attempt to make sense of the violence occurring in Juárez, Verónica Zebadúa-Yañez focuses on how the murders signify a value system and perform strategic functions within the community.  Central to her understanding is the concept of homo sacer, which she defines as “a life that may be killed but not sacrificed, a vulnerable life exposed to a murder that is followed by an empty reaction.”2  In her view, the women that come to Juárez in search of a better life assume the guise of homo sacer by virtue of their poverty, desperation, and expendability.  Such low social status results in an erosion of citizenship, as these women are deemed politically irrelevant and thereby viewed solely in terms of their biological life.  Zebadúa-Yañez likens them to refugees or inmates at a totalitarian camp who are stripped of all political rights and continue to exist solely because they are not dead.  This parallels the historical experience of women in Juárez who were once highly valued for the work they performed in the unskilled maquila industry, but are now largely redundant, given the city’s transformation into a high-tech arena that favors skilled male workers.  Without a defined role in the future of the town, women have been rendered expendable and are seemingly characterized by their ‘capacity to be killed.’  Yet women qua homo sacer continue to play an important role in Juárez by delineating the political community.  Zebadúa-Yañez writes,

It is important to note that homo sacer does not play the role of the ‘other’ to the community, of a being that in fact belongs somewhere else.  To the contrary, homo sacer stands at the very borders of what counts as a political community as if, by its very absence, it protected it from dissolution.3

In other words, through inhabiting the border region at the limit of the political community, women qua homo sacer effectively demarcate value and non-value.  The very process by which they are excluded from the political community serves as an affirmation of the value of those who remain, and instills these ostensibly male bodies with worth.  In the case of Juárez, Zebadúa-Yañez claims that the women who flock there represent an endless supply of raw material by which the male dominated maquila industry attempts to define itself.  Their deaths exemplify the physical transformation the town is undergoing and serve as a strategic means through which the new dominant order seeks to constitute itself by instilling a sense of legitimacy and value.

Shifting the focus of analysis from victim to perpetrator, Elisabeth Jean Wood wants to understand why violence against women generally increases during wartime, yet varies in intensity depending on the conflict.  She focuses on a host of conflicts ranging from World War II to more recent clashes in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, where the systematic and widespread nature of violence against women is believed to constitute a ‘crime against humanity.’  Indeed, these conflicts represent a distinct departure from the transgressions of individual soldiers or opportunistic battalions, as they represent the strategic deployment of sexual violence, with the goals of heightening terror or punishing a particular ethnic group.  Summarizing the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone, Wood writes,

[A]ll of the armed factions, in particular the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) and the Armed Forces of Revolutionary Council, embarked on a systematic and deliberate strategy to rape women and girls, especially those between the ages of ten and 18 years of age, with the intention of sowing terror amongst the population, violating women and girls and breaking down every norm and custom of traditional society.4

In other words, sexual violence functioned as a weapon which troops in the Balkans and Sierra Leone readily deployed in order to advance their aims.  In addition to inflicting shame and humiliation on the victim and securing a sense of power and domination for the offender, systematic and widespread rape serves as a means for instilling a totalizing terror that can forcibly disperse an ethnic group from particular regions.  Moreover, public rape after the takeover of a village is not merely the spoils of war for the victors or a means of enacting revenge, but represents an attempt to instill fear in the populace and render them more malleable for control.  In this writer’s view, even forced impregnation may play a strategic role in realizing revolutionary aims, as the very act of procreation can symbolize the new order revolutionaries are struggling to bring about.  Given the mythical status of women as guardian and life force of the nation, the idea that revolutionaries would attempt to consummate their vision for the country on the foundation of women’s bodies seems an almost logical progression.

Indeed, the deployment of sexual violence against women with the goal of manifesting a totalizing terror that may precipitate a new order is vividly illustrated by the current civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While the fighting there ostensibly concerns power and control of the nation’s rich mineral deposits, the country continues to witness some of the most brutal crimes committed against women.  Rape has assumed an almost normative status, as it is systematically deployed following battles that ravage entire communities.  As Anneka Van Woudenberg, the Human Rights Watch researcher, notes,

This is not rape because soldiers have got bored and have nothing to do.  It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group.  This is about showing terror.  This is about using it as a weapon of war.5

Whereas rape traditionally causes physical and psychological anguish that effectively cripples the victim, it has gained a more totalizing power in the Congo, as family members and neighbors are forced to witness the violence and are sometimes even commanded to partake in it.  They assume a complicit role in the crime and share in the trauma and humiliation that is further exacerbated by a sense of helplessness and inability to protect either family members, friends or themselves.  As Judith Registre, of Women for Women, rightly notes, “When a woman is raped, it’s not just her that’s raped.  It’s the entire community that’s destroyed.”6 Such destruction may in fact be the aim of Congolese combatants, given that it functions as a necessary precursor for the realization of any new order.  However, the failure of any particular group to gain the upper hand seems to have resulted in the means becoming a more-or-less permanent end, where violence is installed as the dominant paradigm.  This is strikingly illustrated by the increasing number of rapes being committed by civilians and the absence of a functioning judicial or penal system that effectively sanctions rape.7 Lacking any viable institutions to either prevent or manage the effects of terror, violence continues to reign unchecked, giving impetus to ever greater displays of destruction.

III.  Ideology and Norms

While the role sexual violence plays in enacting and supporting new socio-political orders seems evident, it remains unclear why political transformations take this form in some places and not others.  In her investigation into the origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt addresses a similar concern by focusing at length on the question of ideology.  For Arendt, ideology is vital to understanding the behavior of individuals and how they were shaped to perform certain actions during World War II.  Whereas all ideologies tend to present the logic of an idea as scientific, Arendt claims that fascist ideology was unique in the sense that it ignored reality.  She argues that fascists began with an idea and after finding it to be counterfactual, attempted to change reality in order to make it fit.  In other words, within the fascist worldview ideology, there’s a means to manipulate reality and make it conform to the idea.  Ideology functions as a means through which the individual, the movement, and the state can be disconnected from reality and an altogether different one may be realized.  Indeed, ideology was the primary means by which individuals became politicized during World War II, and established a foundation for the Nazi horrors.8 

Clearly, neither the maquila factory owners in Juárez nor the revolutionary combatants in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, or the Democratic Republic of Congo should be viewed as fascists; however, Arendt’s conception of ideology seems instructive.  Both the factory owners and combatants are driven by visions of what constitutes a “better” life, and each of these conceptions privileges some individuals at the expense of others.  In order to realize their goals, members of these groups endeavor to forcibly alter reality by carrying out violent attacks against the dominant order, which in these instances, is embodied in women.  They comprised the majority of workers in the unskilled maquila industry that was the original foundation of Juárez, and can be viewed as the guardians of the nation, given the role they play in reproduction and ensuring the viability and purity of the state in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, and the Congo.  Consequently, they represent terrain that must be conquered if any of these ideological visions are to be realized.  The totalizing terror, enacted through sexual violence, seeks the complete subordination of women, and forces entire communities to grant legitimacy to the ideological vision of the combatants.  Indeed, events in the Congo may even have a politicizing effect, given the forced impregnations that seem to embody the birth of a new order, and the number of male civilians who are now willingly committing acts of violence.  Such social transformations represent the manifestation of an altered reality that may ultimately serve as a basis for realizing the ideological vision of combatants—an altogether different world.

Given such totalizing ideological struggles, powerful forms of resistance are needed.  The transnational movement to combat sexual violence against women, established within the last thirty years, represents an important beginning.  Activists have successfully lobbied human rights groups so that they may recognize rape and domestic violence as crimes against women, and have enacted changes in international policies that make combating violence against women a priority.9  Deborah Rhode, a legal scholar, has argued in favor of stricter legislation and greater enforcement of existing norms for the punishment of rapists.  She suggests mandatory arrests for batterers and anti-violence education in schools, and although these initiatives would undoubtedly improve the plight of women in the United States and western Europe, they seem unlikely to have much impact in developing countries ravaged by conflict.10  Nothing less than the development and endorsement of norms condemning sexual violence by state militaries and local militias is needed.  As the Salvadoran insurgency suggests, adherence to such norms is not out of the realm of possibility, even for revolutionary groups.11  Finally, a greater awareness regarding the role and function of ideology in shaping human actions could prove useful in helping individuals evaluate the potential costs of their struggles and determine which are actually worth fighting for.

IV.  Conclusion

Sexual violence against women has played a strategic role in conflicts throughout the world.  It can serve as an effective weapon for individuals and groups who want to enact social and political change in circumstances where women seem to embody or support the dominant order.  Rape, forced impregnation, genital cutting and murder should not be viewed as ends within themselves, but rather as means by which certain groups seek to strategically realize their ideological vision.  The totalizing terror these actions instill in populations manifests power, control, and a kind of legitimacy for revolutionary groups.  Moreover, it may even serve to politicize civilians and encourage them to partake in the violence.  Combating systematic sexual violence means working to instill universal normative standards of respect, for the sovereignty of bodies, and understanding the role ideology plays in determining human action.  This is not merely a feminist project, but one in which all would do well to engage.

Works Cited

1. S. Laurel Weldon, “Inclusion, Solidarity, and Social Movements:  The Global Movement Against Gender Violence,” Perspectives on Politics, 4 (2006), 64.

2. Deborah Wood, Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality, (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1997), 112, 117.

3. Wood, 329, 332.

4. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, (Meridian Books:  New York, 1962), 468-9.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “War Against Women,” 60 Minutes, narr. Anderson Cooper, CBS, 13 January 2008.

8. Quoted in Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Variations in Sexual Violence During War,” Politics & Society, 34 (2006),  315.

9. Ibid. 8.

10. Ibid. 7.

11. Verónica Zebadúa-Yañez, “Killing as Performance: Violence and the Shaping of Community,” E-Misferica, 2 (2005), 1.


Dechen Albero is a Ph.D student in the Politics Department of the New School for Social Research.  His interests are in researching and writing about gender, sexuality, identity and violence.  He is currently working on his dissertation proposal, focusing on women’s role in the organization and execution of the Rwandan genocide.