Women and Genocide

Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Elissa Bemporad, Joyce W. Warren
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As important and prolific as the study of genocide has been since the mid-20th century, the phenomenon of genocide has not regularly been thought of in terms of its gendered logics or expressions. While women variously occupy the positions of genocide victim, survivor, or perpetrator, women’s experiences, memories, and roles in genocide have received relatively little, focused theoretical attention. Each of the fourteen chapters of Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators, edited by Elissa Bemporad and Joyce W. Warren, speaks directly to this gap in scholarship by using gender as a critical lens for staging intersectional, multidisciplinary investigations of genocide in the 20th and 21s tcenturies. The result is that genocide—as both act and experience—is itself revealed as fundamentally gendered. The broad argument sustained through the diverse contributions to this volume is that considering women’s experiences of genocide is necessary for understanding genocidal violence in the first place. The utter success of this argument is one of the text’s central contributions. It stands as a contribution of significance to genocide studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and peace studies alike.

The genocidal contexts treated in the volume include some that have been widely researched, such as the Holocaust, and others that are still little known, like the genocide committed against the Herrero and Nama peoples by German colonists in present-day Namibia. The volume therefore contributes not only to theoretical knowledge on the subject of gender and genocide but to historical knowledge of particular genocidal contexts as well. A complete list of the contexts addressed by the authors includes, in addition to those already named, the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America, the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor in Ukraine, the genocide in Bangladesh waged during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Democratic Kampuchea genocide in present-day Cambodia, genocidal violence in Colombia, the Guatemalan genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Serbian massacre of Srebrenica, the Darfur genocide, and the genocidal violence waged by ISIS against minority groups in Iraq and Syria. 

While it has long been common to consider sexual violence against women and girls a consequence of war, this volume chronicles the intellectual and historical processes by which rape has come to be recognized as an overt strategy of armed political conflict. The multi-authored chapter “Sexual Violence as a Weapon during the Guatemalan Genocide” names succinctly what multiple contributions to the volume argue in historical and theoretical terms: that rape is strategically operationalized in genocide, “to terrorize the [targeted] population, destabilize the reproductive role of women, demoralize the enemy, provide soldiers with the spoils of war and train them to commit hyperviolent acts, usurp land, and reaffirm historic relations of power between [perpetrators of genocide] and [victims]” (218). Each of these modes of rape’s operationalization in genocide is discussed throughout the volume in terms of the genocidal logic it reveals. Rape as a mechanism for controlling the biological and cultural reproduction of a targeted group reveals time as a category central to genocidal logic insofar as genocide is organized around making the future of a targeted people impossible. That rape is used as a mechanism for training soldiers to become able and willing to commit other kinds brutal violence against a targeted group reveals women’s bodies as primary cites of violence insofar as genocide is made possible through the way in which raping women psychologically prepares soldiers to commit acts of mass slaughter. Rape, however, is not, the only kind of act through which the gendered logics and strategies of genocide are expressed. Authors of this volume trace the centrality of gendered strategies in medical, educational, religious, legal, and other dynamics of genocide as well.

Also significant in the volume is an analysis of the ways that gender dynamics encouraged women’s allegiance to participation in programs of genocide as perpetrators. For example, Wendy Lower’s chapter, “German Women and the Holocaust in the Nazi East,” presents Germen women’s participation in Nazi campaigns as providing them a sense of release from the patriarchal structure of German society. One such woman is described as considering her post with the Nazi regime a “manly honor” and “liberation from an unhappy marriage and the burdens of motherhood” (115). Against the grain of common historical assumption, German women are shown in this volume to have participated in Nazi programs not only as bystanders and enablers but as extremely violent and sadistic mass murderers who threw Jewish children and adults off balconies, shot them, and administered countless lethal injections. In its focus on women as perpetrators, the volume maps ways that gendered forms of oppression intersect with racial and colonial privilege to promote European, white women’s perpetration of and support for genocidal programs. Thus, while the chapters of this volume focused on women as victims and survivors of genocide show that intensifying the oppression of women in targeted groups is constitutive of genocidal strategies against those groups, the chapters focused on women as perpetrators suggest that extending patriarchal power to the women of perpetrator groups is likewise critical to the success of genocidal programs. 

In addition to the theoretical and historical contributions of the book, the volume is an invaluable collection of critical resources for those looking to read at the intersection of gender, sexual violence, trauma, and genocide. In addition to the formal endnotes for each chapter, select bibliographies for further reading are included at the end of the volume for each genocidal context discussed therein. These bibliographies are especially valuable for their pairing of primary source testimonies from survivors and perpetrators with relevant government documents, NGO reports, and key historical and theoretical texts. A robust index follows the select bibliographies, making this volume an ideal desk companion for researchers and students alike. 

A final note about the value of this book: It elegantly bridges the historical divide between the study of political violence and the study of gendered violence in the so-called domestic sphere. The theoretical frameworks it works within resist this binary and problematic distinction. It, therefore, ought to be read not only by those interested in large scale lethal conflict, but by students and scholars interested in gender, race, politics, domestic violence, abuse, and sexual violence broadly speaking. Women and Genocide is an immense scholarly accomplishment that has the potential to fund creative advances in each of the scholarly disciplines it engages, as well as human rights, peace, and anti-violence programs of advocacy. My copy has already found a home on my shelf reserved for texts most used.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hilary Jerome Scarsella is a doctoral candidate in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Chair in East European Jewish History and the Holocaust, and Associate Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York and at The CUNY Graduate Center. She is author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk.

Joyce W. Warren was Professor of English and Director of Women and Gender Studies at Queens College of the City University of New York. She is author of a number of works, including most recently Women, Money, and the Law: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Gender, and the Courts, and editor of Feminism and Multiculturalism: How Do They/We Work Together?


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.