Who Pays the Price for Men’s Wars?

The people who are least responsible for this war—women, children, innocents of all kinds—are bearing the heaviest burdens of this war.

A family from the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on Oct. 30, 2023. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Jill.substack.com, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.

Like so many millions of people around the world, I’m watching the devastating war in Palestine, in the aftermath of the devastating attack on Israeli civilians, with heartbreak and horror. And I’ve been getting so many messages asking, “Where are the feminists?” Some of these messages come from people pointing out atrocities committed by Hamas against innocent women, men, children and babies in Israel; others come from people demanding more attention be paid to the Palestinian women who can’t birth safely, who are killed while pregnant, whose children are dying in their arms. Western feminists are accused of “consenting to Hamas’ rape culture” and also of telling Palestinian women, “Your suffering does not matter.”

The very existence of women’s suffering is also being called into question. With Twitter now under the control of an alt-right megalomaniac, disinformation and misinformation are rife, and it’s appallingly easy to write off as falsity or propaganda information that conflicts with your views, and take on only the information (and sometimes falsities and propaganda) that comports with them. I’m a journalist, and I’ve had a hard time sorting out what has been substantiated, what has been disproven, and what still exists in the in-between as investigations continue and forensics teams make their way through the aftermath of horrific terrorist attacks, and as a brutal and bloody war continues apace and horrors mount by the minute.

So where are the feminists? This particular feminist is on the side of women.

I’m on the side of the women and girls who were raped and murdered by Hamas terrorists, and who endured torture that is now, disturbingly, being denied or diminished or hand-waved away.

I’m on the side of the women who are going into labor in Gaza and can’t get basic care, who may pay for pregnancy with their lives, whose children may die before they fully enter the world, whose lives are written off as collateral damage.

I’m on the side of the women who are terrified of what is happening to their kidnapped children, or whose families were burned alive, or whose babies were killed by grown men in unfathomable acts of inhumanity, or who believed they were safe from centuries-old hatreds and are now being told with terrifying clarity that they are not.

I’m on the side of the women whose children’s lives have been stolen, of the women who were told to flee but had nowhere to go, of the women who fled but were bombed anyway, of the women who don’t have clean water or medicine or electricity or a safe place to hide, of the women who like so many women are desperate down to the marrow to protect their children, of the women who cannot do that one singular thing, of the women scrawling names on their children’s limbs so someone might be able to identify them, of the women who are pulling their children’s bodies out of piles of rubble, of the women who lost their lives to a war they didn’t start and wanted nothing to do with.

Friends and family members attend the funeral of Shiraz Tamam on Oct. 17, 2023 in Holon, Israel. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

I’m glad to see demands for American and other Western feminists to stand up for women around the world. I’m less thrilled to see those demands used as a cudgel, particularly by people with little previous investment in feminist causes: Speak out in this particular way that comports with my beliefs and demands, or you’re a pro-rape feminist, or a feminist who doesn’t care when women suffer or when women die.

The truth is that I dislike the “women and children” formulation—it’s infantilizing of women, it’s emotionally manipulative, it totally ignores the fact that men are also innocent victims of war, and it presumes a natural feminine pacifism that I’m not sure exists.

But also, it is women and children who are suffering the most in this war—in large part because most people in Gaza are either women or children. It is women and girls who are the most likely to be raped in conflict, subjected to a particular kind of torture and humiliation designed to break their souls as well as their bodies. It is women and children who routinely make up the majority of innocents killed when men start fighting. It is women and girls who particularly suffer under fundamentalist patriarchal religions and governments. And it is women and children who routinely do the least to foment and perpetuate violence and war, but nevertheless feel the heaviest consequences of violence and war bear down on them.

According to Save the Children, the number of children killed in Gaza has exceeded the number of children killed in all global conflicts since 2019. Women and children account for nearly 70 percent of the dead in Gaza. Many thousands more may live, but with serious injuries to the body or the mind or the spirit. The Israeli military has bombed neighborhoods, houses of worship, and even a refugee camp. Family planning clinics and maternity hospitals have been leveled or shuttered, making it impossible for pregnant women to safely deliver in a medical setting. Being a human being in Gaza is dangerous; being a pregnant woman has become even more so; being a mother is to guarantee a whole new kind of fear and sorrow.

In Israel, civilians were targeted by an Islamist terrorist group and neglected by their own government. Forensics teams have found evidence of rape and torture. A naked woman had her body paraded through the streets by jeering men, and spat on by at least one onlooker. International journalists were shown footage of Hamas atrocities, including terrorists using a garden hoe to hack through a Thai worker’s neck and terrorists murdering little girls and boys.

Hamas hasn’t exactly spared Palestinian women, either. Right now, I imagine most Palestinian women and men in Gaza likely share one goal: To keep themselves and their families alive in the midst of an Israeli military onslaught that is hard to see as anything but a kind of brutal collective punishment that should shock the conscience of any decent person. Women’s rights mean nothing to women who are dead.

But Hamas is an organization of religious fundamentalist misogynists who, before this war, made life far less free and far more repressive and dangerous for Palestinian women and girls—and during this war, have made life far more dangerous for civilians broadly. Palestinian feminists have long fought back against religious fundamentalism, advocating for a Palestinian freedom that includes full freedoms and protections for women. Nor have Israeli women been made more free by their vicious current government, also made up of many religious fundamentalists, as well as a smattering of sociopaths who cater to the hateful and misogynist far right. Before this war, Israeli feminists were sounding the alarm as ultra-Orthodox leaders were granted more and more power, and as women’s rights and freedoms—and democratic institutions—were being whittled away.

The vast majority of decision-makers and violence-purveyors on both sides of this current war are men who have long made clear they have little interest in women’s rights, freedoms, or even basic safety. The vast majority of people who are suffering from this war are women and their children.

This isn’t necessarily because women are naturally more peaceful than men, and it’s certainly not because motherhood elevates women to a higher moral status. Women, being people, are just as capable of hatred and vengeance and bloodthirstiness. If women have launched fewer wars than men, it is perhaps because women have not had nearly as many opportunities to launch wars.

It’s also true, though, that women are much less likely than men to behave violently. All around the world and throughout most of recorded history, women have been far less physically violent than men, which seems worth mentioning. But that doesn’t mean that women lack a propensity toward violence, or an inability to carry it out. And it has certainly been historically true that women have condoned, applauded, encouraged, and incited violence. In this current war, there are women carrying out acts of violence. There are many, many more women cheering on acts of violence committed by men. One of the more disturbing anecdotes to emerge from the Oct. 7 attack is audio of a Hamas terrorist calling his parents to brag about his murder spree. “I killed 10 Jews with my own hands,” he says. “I’m using the dead Jewish woman’s phone to call you now.” He tells them to check WhatsApp — he’s sent photos of the murders for them to admire. He tells his parents that their son is a “hero,” and they seem to agree.

This isn’t a single sociopathic lone wolf. This is a man who is part of a larger organization, and who believes his family—his mother—will celebrate what he’s done, and will want to see the carnage with their own eyes.

And this is a man who is part of a larger community in which most men are not terrorists—one in which scores of innocent men are also being killed. These innocent men don’t even receive the tiny scrap of empathy that the “women and children” category seeks to provide.

It is not as simple as “men do terrible things, women suffer.” Men, too, suffer. Women, too, do terrible things.

It is so easy to use suffering to justify the creation of more suffering. It is so easy to deny or downplay suffering if recognizing it might complicate your cause. Rape as a tool of war or as a tool of terror is a particularly inflammatory act and accusation, enraging many people not for feminist reasons, but for patriarchal ones. Feminists often focus on rape because rape is a gendered and female-targeted crime that unforgivably turns what should be a pleasurable act into a violent and sadistic one, and takes a pleasurable part of a woman’s body and makes it a locus of pain and humiliation and sometimes permanent injury and sometimes deadly injury. It is an expression of male power and domination, treated as if it were about unbridled sexual desire.

But the broader public focuses on rape because rape remains widely viewed as sullying and dirtying and humiliating for its victim, and also maybe a bit titillating and certainly quite salacious to a reading audience. Men who don’t give a damn about women’s rights or women’s bodies are appalled by rape because the act symbolizes another man’s domination over their women—a property crime and an insult, not a violation of a human being. This is partly why claims of rape in conflict are so often so fraught, and why some people go to such lengths to deny them: Rape is much, much more about power and patriarchy and honor and control and shame than it is about sex, and the response to rape—the the act itself or simply the accusation—is about all of those things compounded.

That the mounting evidence shows that Hamas terrorists raped Israeli women does not negate the suffering of Palestinian women in this war, and certainly does not justify it. That the policies of the state of Israel mean that Palestinian women have suffered so badly and for so long does not negate the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists, and certainly does not justify them.

I am 100 percent positive that a number of people will reject what I’m saying here as some sort of “both-sides” equivocating. But I’m not trying to do math or weight scales. No one has to diminish one suffering to elevate another.

I’m not writing to solve an equation, let alone a conflict. I am writing to say that it is the people who are least responsible for this war—women, children, innocents of all kinds—are bearing the heaviest burdens of this war. This is not a new observation. But in a moment of widespread denial, when so many people seem convinced that their guys on their side would never do horrible things or that mentioning one horror papers over another, it is among the most important to keep at the front of our minds.

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Jill Filipovic is a New York-based writer, lawyer and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to The New York Times and a former columnist for The Guardian. She writes at jill.substack.com and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.