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Reviewed by:
  • In Plain Sight: Exploring the Field of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict ed. by Gaby Zipfel et al.
  • Michelle Lynn Kahn
In Plain Sight: Exploring the Field of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. By Gaby Zipfel, Regina Mühlhäuser, and Kirsten Campbell. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2019. Pp. 524. $35.00 (cloth).

In Plain Sight offers a much-needed contribution to our understanding of the intersections of war and sexual violence in interdisciplinary and global perspective. Complex and nuanced yet clear and readable, the edited volume comprises twenty-six essays by leading scholars and human rights activists. These essays are the product of long-standing cooperation between members of the Hamburg-based International Research Group "Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict," founded in 2010 by editors Gaby Zipfel and Regina Mühlhäuser; the third editor, Kirsten Campbell, is the principal investigator of "The Gender of Justice" project. The essays themselves emerge largely from the research group's 2015 international conference "Against Our Will—Forty Years After," which, the introduction emphasizes, was attended by pioneering scholar Susan Brownmiller.

Sexual violence, the introduction explains, has long been viewed in relatively simplistic terms: as ahistorical and the product of "biological impulses" (xi). Not until the women's movement of the 1970s did feminist scholars begin highlighting sexual violence as a "man-made disaster" structured by historical conditions such as colonialism, slavery, and war (xii). Attention to sexual violence in armed conflict grew in the 1990s, as the International Criminal [End Page 321] Tribunals in the wake of the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda asserted sexual violence as a war crime, an act of genocide, and a crime against humanity. Twenty years later, however, there remains little consensus about conceptual, theoretical, and methodological frameworks for understanding this phenomenon. The main goals of In Plain Sight are thus threefold: to assess the state of the field; to provide complexity, nuance, and historicity; and to develop common conceptual and methodological frameworks.

What distinguishes In Plain Sight is its breadth. The volume unites twentysix disparate essays about a wide variety of global, temporal, and disciplinary contexts not typically discussed together. To illustrate this variety, it is worth listing a small sampling of the essays. Aaron Belkin explores male-male sexual violence through the case of twentieth-century US Navy hazing rituals, in which new enlistees were feminized through forced anal and oral penetration in order to reinforce "military masculinity" (53). Atreyee Sen discusses a ruling Hindu nationalist party's 2013 distribution of pocketknives for protection to poor women in Mumbai, India. Yuki Tanaka, Hyunah Yang, and Debra Bergoffen offer three different perspectives on "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery by members of the Japanese military during World War II. Pascale R. Bos critiques historical inaccuracies and the male gaze in the 1961 novel and 1964 film The Pawnbroker, which is about Nazi violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. Ngwarsungu Chiwengo discusses national and international discourses surrounding the rapes of Congolese women, which have often been silenced and "eclipsed by the Rwandan genocide" (356). And Patricia Viseur Sellers, who provides the only essay to engage with the pre-twentieth-century context, traces the changing legal status of rape from medieval and early modern Europe until today.

These empirical case studies are interspersed with conceptual and methodological essays. Dubravka Žarkov offers an intersectional critique of the binary between "Westerners" as the self-defined bearers of peace, knowledge, justice, and international intervention and non-Western "locals" externally defined by "sexually violent masculinity and feminine rapability" (225). Louise du Toit argues that the feminist struggle to heighten the visibility of sexual violence "may inadvertently encourage the phenomenon" by lending credence to the symbolic notion that war rape is "ontologically powerful and militarily strategic" (133). Joanna Bourke contends that the "trauma model" embedded in Western discourses of sexual violence may impede psychiatric treatment because it "risks stripping victims of any agency" (109). Ruth Seifert and René Heberle both consider the entanglement of sexual violence with binary gender tropes, with the latter suggesting that eliminating sexual violence may require us to abolish gender altogether.

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