Editor’s Note (2/13/24): A previous version of this article described the New York Times’ Oct. 7 sexual violence report as “debunked” by various sources. The article’s language has since been amended to more accurately describe the report as under scrutiny. Language regarding the race of victims has also been removed to avoid mischaracterizing events.
Additionally, the article had mislabeled Gal Abdush as the sister of an Oct. 7 victim. The article has been edited with the correct name of Abdush’s sister, Miral Alter. The language surrounding the Emmett Till case has been changed to “sexual harassment” to better represent the situation.
Pipe Dream deeply regrets the errors.
Hyperlinks have been added in order to provide additional context.
The New York Times (NYT) has received consistent backlash for its anti-Palestinian bias. Seeing protests outside its headquarters from anti-Zionist activists and frustrated readers alike, the publication continuously fails to cover Palestinian death with respect to a disproportionately higher and rising death toll while going so far as to use highly emotive rhetoric, like “slaughter” and “massacre,” exclusively for Israeli death. At this point, the NYT’s failure to take accountability for its wide influence and responsibility during this time of conflict is old news, and I can only hope that readers are supplementing their news intake with their own research. The one article I cannot shake, though, is one titled “How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.” In this viral article, the NYT chronicles the alleged rape, brutalization and mutilation of Israeli women at the hands of Hamas, ensuring to not spare any detail for the imagination. The report has since come under scrutiny from a range of sources — including human rights and feminist organizations — for its inconsistencies, prompting the Times to publish a follow-up piece addressing the criticism.
Although NYT’s report is under scrutiny, including from its own staff, I do not doubt that sexual violence against Israeli women occurs — we should believe women who come forward, especially those that are often silenced. However, as feminists, we must also call attention to the instances of sexual violence that receive media attention. This means analyzing the way in which the rape of Israeli women are used to, first, delegitimize and, even, overwrite the ongoing sexual violence against Palestinian women and, second, perpetuate racist stereotypes about Arab men within the larger project of colonialism. Let me be clear — sexual violence is never justified, but neither is genocide — and the combination of the two is just typical NYT conflation.
Rape and other forms of sexual abuse have historically been used as a war tactic — whether to dispose of a population or to subordinate victims. The war in Ukraine, for example, has led to several women testifying systemic rape at the hands of Russian soldiers, who told the women that “they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.” There are several differences between the wars in Ukraine and Palestine. Notably, there is a lack of first-hand testimony from the victims of Hamas’ sexual abuse, with Miral Alter, the sister of Gal Abdush, the protagonist of the NYT report, even publicly denying her sister’s rape.
Abdush’s sister claimed the NYT had manipulated her family in order to produce a disturbingly romanticized piece about “the woman in the black dress.” Hence, the main issue with NYT’s coverage of sexual abuse — these intimate and harrowing forms of violence are commonly weaponized by colonizers to justify cruel agendas. Specifically, the NYT and other Western media outlets have irresponsibly mobilized liberal feminism to both paradoxically problematize the militarization of women’s sexuality and vindicate the placement of women’s bodies in the crosshairs of war.
There is strong documentation of Palestinian women’s experience with sexual assault, harassment and forced nudity while visiting their loved ones in Israeli prisons and jails. The interrogation techniques of the Israeli Shin Bet are also well documented with female Palestinian prisoners facing rape, electric shocks to their genitalia and, subsequently, blackmail, in which cultural values on “family honor” and “virginity” are used to terrorize women. Additionally, strip searches and assault are common experiences for Palestinian women at hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and during military raids on their homes.
While the systemic sexual violence against Palestinian women goes unreported, the NYT and other Western media outlets have no issue with claiming to speak on behalf of silenced Israeli women — the only victims — in the name of feminism against Hamas, which, we all have seen by now, extends to Palestinian civilians. But, it’s clear that neither the Israeli government nor the NYT actually care about the well-being of all women. This includes Palestinian women who face extensive delays to maternal care due to Israeli checkpoints, who cannot access female hygiene supplies, who inhale teargas while pregnant and whose very sexual freedom poses a “demographic threat” to a Jewish nation-state.
The media also has no issue propagating gross stereotypes of Arab men. From Edward Said’s Orientalism to Sut Jhally’s Reel Bad Arabs, men of color have empirically been vilified as untrustworthy terrorists and sexually deviant womanizers incapable of having moral compasses. These stereotypes are also often used as fuel to perpetuate violences against Black and brown folks, an infamous case being that of Emmett Till’s, a 14-year-old African American boy who was tortured and lynched in 1955 after a 21-year-old white woman claimed he had sexually harrassed her. Now, the victimization of Israeli women after Oct. 7 will be used to justify real, material consequences for the Palestinian people.
If NYT was correct in their reporting, this testimonial confession still doesn’t justify Israel’s campaign. Critic Wendy Brown has argued that liberal feminism often manifests in “wounded identities” that demand recognition and protection, but this speaking-out about women’s trauma does not necessarily lead to liberation from the systems that produce their oppression. For example, reliance on punitive or state-sanctioned justice produces “attachments to the self (often the wounded self) and to power (often in the form of the state).” In the case of Palestine, it’s no surprise that the solution to an incredibly vulnerable and descriptive account of women’s violence is seemingly a genocide backed by a military complex worth billions of dollars. Even further though, it seems that the prerequisite rendering of women’s bodies into battlefields seems to have glossed over, accepted and, even, become a source of political gain by Zionist feminists.
The question isn’t whether or not there is any truth to the NYT’s appropriation and manipulation of women’s trauma, but rather its agenda and the assumption it makes about some women as inherently privileged, yet eternal victims. Said trauma should never be a means to genocide. Keep women’s bodies out of your war.
Julie Ha is a junior double-majoring in English and comparative literature and is Pipe Dream’s Assistant Opinions Editor.