What war does to women

September 20, 2020

Christina Lamb explores the heartbreaking history of the use of sexual violence against women as a tool of warfare

Christina Lamb, known for her news coverage from battlegrounds and minefields, tells stories of women from war-torn geographical spots such as Rwanda, Burma, Aleppo, Greece, Nigeria, Buenos Aires etc to put forth the discussion about war crimes against women – especially rape and sexual violence used as a tool of warfare, one that is not discussed enough in the mainstream. She does so in her new book Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women.

Lamb designs the discourse of the book in a pyramid format, starting off with elaborating on the systemic support connection between war and sexual abuse for as long as since the first war recorded in books of history. She writes, “Ever since Man has gone to war, he has helped himself to women, whether to humiliate his enemy, wreak revenge, satisfy his lust or just because he can.” Lamb has been conscious to embed history at the tip of the pyramid, and she weaves her narrative through case studies to general observations. She takes her reader on a painful journey as she jumps between and over continents, countries, islands and concentration camps, as well as camps within camps.

Quoting from the first book of (western) history ever recorded, Lamb says the insensitive narration of the abduction and subsequent abuse of women in the times of the Phoenicians and the Greeks was written as if it was the women’s own fault – a trend that could very much be relative in today’s male-dominated society rampant globally. This almost blames the victim for being prone to rape by the enemies who picked up women from the streets, their houses and the battlegrounds to be carried off only to be divided like artillery or cattle. “We felt as if we were goats,” she quotes a victim.

Through the course of the book, Lamb laments the literal erasure of women’s role in a wars in which they go through unacknowledged trauma, physical illnesses and undue violence at the hands of men who consider them no less than spoils of war or rightful property that is advertised, sold and bought between men like merchandise, both in the physical world and in the virtual. One victim remembers the names of all nine men who bought her for various prices and kept selling her after they had had their way with her. Lamb writes, the girl remembered the names of all nine men, and of their children as well as of the online marketplace of the slaves – sabayas – because one day, she wanted justice.

Lamb discusses at length but at most points in a nuanced diction the elements of faith and race being the commonest justifications behind war crimes of abusive nature against women. The Yazidis for instance, are forcibly converted and if they refuse, their men are killed and women are forcibly impregnated. During her revelation of case studies, the reader meets Aysha from Leros, who has been abused and tortured along with other girls of her age. There is Turko, who speaks with Lamb and says, “The prisoners [from the camp] had been released and it was filled with women. Hundreds of women. It was a kind of a Hell. We were given no food or water. Just a dry piece of bread every day. We were so desperate that we were forced to drink water out of the latrines.”

Recording the accounts of the Nigerian terrorist organisation, Boko Haram – that literally translates as Western Education is Forbidden – one meets a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped, and the only time she sees her is after the young girl has been forcibly converted, impregnated and made to stand before a camera to make demands that are neither her own nor beneficial to anyone around her.

Lamb writes, “He pulled out a girl in a faded black abaya and tattered yellow headscarf and held a small microphone to her lips.” Forced conversions, roadside rapes and distressing enforced sexual encounters are either part of a woman’s life or the fear that she lives with, in every country of this world – war is just like an open marketplace where rape and assault are quite callously brushed aside because then the harm and damage caused to women’s bodies is merely collateral damage. Lamb argues, “You will not find these women’s names in the history books or on the war memorials that we pass in or railway stations and town centres but to me, they are the real heroes.”

Lamb says the insensitive narration of the abduction and subsequent abuse of women in the times of the Phoenicians and the Greeks was written as if it was the women’s own fault – a trend that could very much be relative in today’s male-dominated society rampant globally. 

The author is also conscious of the fact that all women who she has spoken to and won their confidence enough to have their stories heard out, are neither to be grouped under the umbrella of being ‘victims’ since it is a word that takes away the strength they have shown through unbearable circumstances that the book relates. So, Lamb liberally uses the word survivor for these women, but she is also aware that as much as it is possible to switch the tone of the narrative from positive to negative, not all survivors have the capacity to trust anyone, including Christina Lamb, one who wants to tell their stories to the world.

She calls them heroes, in the passage where the books concludes but what takes the glory away from this is the fact that the celebratory salute does little to address the glaring issue of sexual assault against women – a widely unrecognised crime. The book suggests, the crimes against women are as old as war itself, and yet there have not been more than a handful of incidents where lawful action was taken. Lamb in her sign-off note admits the book is a difficult read. It is.

Just the way the truth is hard to handle, the most unpleasant and disturbing conversations are exactly those which matter the most, the most heinous of crimes are those which are most embarrassing for a systematic procedure to address and public discourse or ring aloud about. It is a difficult book, because it gives life, to an already living woman in Manila, another in Aleppo, one in Nineveh and so on, and brings their stories of torture, survival and uncounseled life afterwards, to those who choose to read the harshest truths that lay the grim realities of life stark naked before their eyes.

Amal Clooney’s blurb on the front cover calls this book, ”A wake-up call… these women’s stories will make you weep and rage.” The selection of words is admirable since the book does exactly that – hurt one at the heart and pulls at all strings emotional and then it channels the emotions to anger – the kind women need to exude because they have already ‘asked nicely’ enough times.

Despite the grim narrative, there are instances where Christina pokes some good-natured British humour at herself, breaking up block-fuls of distressing text with lighthearted jest. During an incident of her sharing a meal with some of the women in a camp, she appreciates the Middle Eastern cuisine and gets asked about her national cuisine. Lamb writes and quotes herself saying, “I explained that my country was not really famed for our cuisine and told them about ‘toad in a hole’ and fish and chips wrapped in a newspaper and that our national dish was chicken tikka masala brought by immigrants from India and Pakistan. They found this very funny and laughed for the first time, repeating the story to each other.”

Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women

Author: Christina Lamb

Publisher: Scribner,

September 2020

Pages: 384

Price: US$9.99

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

What war does to women