Why are women’s rights groups silent after Hamas’ sexual violence against women? Political leanings are to blame, experts say

Audience members setting in at an event at the UN Headquarters listening to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaking.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during special event to address sexual violence during Hamas terror attack on October 7 held at UN Headquarters in New York on December 4, 2023. During the event, speakers described their personal experience seeing women violated during terror attack and condemned women’s advocacy groups, specifically UN Women, to be silent on this. Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA via AP Images

A Northeastern University law professor says the political leanings of many women’s rights organizations have played a role in their silence about the sexual violence perpetuated by Hamas in its Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

“I think organizations here in the U.S. have been disinclined to make a statement because many women’s rights organizations or feminist-led organizations are aligned with movements of the left and liberation,” says Margo Lindauer, a clinical professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law.

“Many of those organizations oppose current Israeli policies towards Palestine,” she says.

But when it comes to condemning sexual violence, “my opinion is that it shouldn’t matter,” Lindauer says.

“If we stand for women and we stand against rape as an act of war, we all have to stand up to what Hamas did,” regardless of whether individuals support an Israeli, Palestinian or two-state solution or a ceasefire, she says.

Left to right: Margo K. Lindauer Clinical Professor of Law and Carlos Cuevas, professor of criminology and criminal justice and co-director of the violence and justice research lab. Photos by Alyssa Stone and Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“We have to have this conversation without condemning or agreeing to the war in Gaza,” says Lindauer, who is Jewish and opposes Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

“They are two separate issues,” Lindauer says.

She says it’s about time that women’s rights groups recognize and take a stand against the sexual violence perpetuated by Hamas.

“If we don’t speak out, then we are complicit,” Lindauer says. “The question is, why has it taken so long for the global community to respond? And why has it taken so long for individual women’s rights organizations to say anything?”

Delayed or absent responses

Lindauer isn’t alone in calling out U.N. Women and other women’s rights groups for delayed or absent responses to reports that Hamas raped and tortured women and other civilians during the attack. Activists, diplomats and U.S. legislators are doing the same.

U.N. Women, the United Nations women’s rights agency, issued a statement Dec. 1 — which was 55 days after the assault on kibbutz communities and a music festival — saying it “unequivocally” condemned the “brutal attacks by Hamas.”

The agency’s statement also expressed alarm at “the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”

The perception of a slow response has drawn the ire of activists, diplomats and U.S. representatives, 89 of whom signed a bipartisan letter late last month accusing U.N. Women of ignoring the brutalization of women in Israel. 

The National Organization of Women has also drawn criticism for delaying a statement against the use of rape in war until Nov. 30 and not then mentioning Israel or Hamas.

The delays and silence on the part of women’s groups led to an emotional speech by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, during a special session of the U.N. Dec. 4 that was led by the Israel’s Permanent Mission to the U.N.

“When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations who have said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?”

“The silence is deafening because what a reasonable person could interpret from the silence is that the rape against Israeli women is acceptable in war,” Lindauer says.

“If we don’t speak out against rape as an act of war in all circumstances, then what we’re saying is that it is OK in certain circumstances,” she says.

‘Long history of sexual violence’

“There’s a long history of sexual violence being used in war and genocide. It is a form or exercise of power and control over civilians and individuals who are victims to it,” says Carlos Cuevas, professor in Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“It’s still happening. There is a very long way to go,” he says, despite the creation of a U.N. resolution in 2009 that calls for criminal investigations of conflict-related sexual violence.

“The main issue is the compounding trauma that these victims are experiencing,” from both being in a war or conflict and being sexually assaulted, says Cuevas, a clinical psychologist who counsels victims of sexual assault.

“For me the issue is more about how much this adds to a traumatic experience,” he says. “The trauma experience is not only for the victim but for family members who know about it, people who witnessed it.”

In its Dec. 1 statement, U.N. Women said it is “actively supporting the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, which began its investigation into sexual violence very shortly after the attacks occurred.”

The agency also referred to the burden of the war on Palestinian women, and said it reiterates “that all women, Israeli women, Palestinian women, as all others, are entitled to a life lived in safety and free from violence.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at c.hibbert@northeastern.edu or contact her on X/Twitter @HibbertCynthia.