The extreme violence perpetrated against Israeli women on the October 7th Simchat Torah massacre was not meant by Hamas to be a secret. Hamas terrorists proudly live-streamed their bloodshed; parading girls with hands tied to their backs, some alive and some dead, but all with clear signs of brutality and abuse. First responders and forensic scientists report that dismembered and mutilated bodies coming into morgues were often found stripped of clothing, with broken pelvic bones. Shocking testimonies, from first responders, victims and perpetrators themselves, describe gang rape as being as important as murder itself. To Hamas, the sexual atrocities were a premeditated central element in their plan of terror.
It will take time to collect all the testimonies and gather all the physical evidence. Israeli and international forensic teams along with The Shoah Foundation are working tirelessly on this gruesome accounting. But for now, one thing is clear: Israeli women were the victims of horrific sexual crimes.
While sexual violence was once swept under the rug of “collateral damage”, the world now formally acknowledges the gravity of crimes against women. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court clearly defines sexual violence as a distinct war crime. Dozens of international women’s organizations, like UN Women and the Global Fund for Women, have been created over the past few decades to empower and address challenges unique to women. Some organizations like Equality Now even offer online courses to teach young activists how to build “A Future Free of Sexual Violence”. Adding to this, the #MeToo Movement has empowered survivors of sexual assault and harassment to speak out against abuse, demand justice and foster a culture of accountability globally. While challenges to female empowerment still persist worldwide, the progress made in recent decades reflects a collective commitment to dismantling the structures that perpetuate violence against women. UN Women, for one example, undertook a survey documenting the violence against women and girls in Mali in order to respond adequately to survivors.
And yet, in the days and weeks after October 7th we have seen little to no response to one of the most overt acts of mass sexual violence in recent history. The indifference of international women’s organizations to October 7th not only works to actively and systematically silence women, undermining decades of progress, but it also encourages future gender-based violence. Not taking an immediate and clear stance against Hamas implies that there is justification for sexual assault under a specific context.
Were the women dressed too seductively at the dance festival? Do some girls deserve sexual assault because of their government’s policies? Are Jewish or Israeli women not entitled to the same protections or support as those around the world?
Through silence, these organizations have made their answers clear.
In the last week, there has been some slow momentum to acknowledge the massacre. But still, those that have said something have not been explicit in their condemnation of Hamas in using sexual assault as a tool of violence. Almost a month after the attacks, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom issued a public statement but it fell short of explicitly drawing attention to any of Hamas’s sexual crimes. Similarly, it took more than a month for UN Women to denounce Hamas on an instagram post, but then the post was replaced with another that omitted condemnation of Hamas. As UN Women mark 16 days of activism with the “#no excuse for violence against women campaign,” many women worldwide see #noexcuse for 54 days of silence.
Time and time again, there arises a false need to “balance” outrage against the sexual atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7th with the suffering of civilians in Gaza at war. By failing to directly call out Hamas, and instead decrying “violence against women on all sides,” groups are normalizing deliberate gang rape as an act of war. The suffering of others does not somehow make the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas less important.
As most international women’s organizations fall short in addressing the sexual violence, some individual women have played a vital role in breaking the silence around Hamas and sexual violence. Sheryl Sandberg, founder of Lean In, clearly denounced Hamas’s rape tactics, and Alyssa Farah Griffin, co-host of “The View”, was also clear in not only condemning Hamas but also the silence of women groups: “The fact that sexual violence was used against Israeli women and the major women’s groups in this country have not come out and denounced it . . .That violates every rule of warfare.”
The conflict as a whole has been riddled with misinformation. According to the New York Times, Cyabra has documented at least 40,000 bots or inauthentic accounts online in the days following the Hamas attack, and researchers have declared that “the deluge of online propaganda and disinformation is larger than anything seen before”. In this sea of misinformation there have been waves of uncertainty around specific claims on both sides, but the extreme violence that was perpetrated against Israeli women and girls has been unambiguous and immutable throughout. Perceived uncertainties elsewhere should not color our response to sexual assault.
It’s not just Israeli women who are affected and waiting for moral leadership. Rape and survivors of sexual assault – everywhere – have been left in the dark. For many women, the abundant graphic evidence of assaults found online may reactivate traumatic memories, and the dismissal and victim blaming is all too familiar.
Taking a clear stance against the perpetrators of violence against women is not just about validation and healing. It is also about justice for women everywhere. We will never be able to move forward as a society if we continue to tiptoe around the horrible reality of what Hamas has done.