Rana M. Jaleel, The Work of Rape (Duke University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Rana M. Jaleel (RJ): I grew up hearing that rape was the worst thing that could happen to a “woman.” By the time I was a teenager in the 1990s, mainstream media reported nightly on the rape of Muslim women in the disintegrating Yugoslavia. I had a very crude question at that time—how could “the worst thing” seem to be even worse for some people? I went to law school to try to figure it out and in the process learned how neoliberal war mongering through “women’s rights” worked firsthand. So I did a PhD and refined the question in the process. I started thinking historically about what had happened in the 1990s, how the Cold War’s putative end and the rise of “ethnic” warfare spurred the formation of the first international ad hoc tribunals—charged with the task of prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—since Nuremberg and Tokyo. And I became interested in how Western framings and responses to the 1990s “ethnic” wars and the emergent post-Cold War order, distinguished by the rise of international law as a space of justice, might suture those conflicts to twenty-first-century contestations of the meaning and significance of sexual violence and therefore discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and legitimate state violence.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RJ: The Work of Rape thinks about how naming sexual violence as rape, torture, war crimes, genocide, or other categories does differential work by generating hierarchies of value for both state and activist projects. It does so by engaging transnational gender and sexuality studies at the intersections of law and legal theory; international human rights; and critical queer and ethnic studies. The Work of Rape explores how the emergent post-Cold War legal and social order (largely predicated on Western, binary understandings of gender) is central to twenty-first-century contestations within international, transnational, and US domestic spaces around the meaning of sexual violence. From incursions in Latin America to the War on Terror to Title IX controversies on college campuses, the ability to name and locate rape as an act and a socio-legal concept is staged upon a thunderous, cumulative backdrop of imperial and settler/colonial warfare (always sexed and gendered projects). In the book I look at how legal and activist responses to rape on a global scale—both in the United States and elsewhere—changed after widespread global attention to genocidal warfare, in Rwanda and Yugoslavia in particular, during the 1990s as Cold War geopolitical arrangements shifted to a “new world order” of international securitization and global governance. Multi-sited feminist activism around these conflicts, which were framed as primarily “ethnic warfare,” helped usher in a new legal understanding of rape as not only an individuated, interpersonal assault but also as a mass atrocity crime occurring on a systemic, population-wide level—one capable of being prosecuted as a crime against humanity or even genocide. These feminist gains in the law occurred as US empire asserted itself as the global guarantor of women's rights (via the US war in Afghanistan and later, the so-called War on Terror), and at the moment in which global capital consolidated its grasp on the nation-state system through "rule of law" claims that supersede national sovereignty for unlucky “failed” states deemed unable to manage their violence.
In response, The Work of Rape asks how the violation and harm of rape and other forms of sexualized violence might be reconceptualized if the question of injury, harm, or evidence of such begins not with a clean journey through Anglo-American law—from coverture and seduction to sexual emancipation—but if instead those convolutions in law were placed alongside and within established and ongoing narratives of property, dispossession, and enslavement. What stories of rape and other sexualized violence emerge when they are told through the many imperial and colonial violences now reordered by the Cold War’s putative end?
J: What methodological choices did you make to engage law without reifying it or otherwise reproducing its own narrative of its coherence?
RJ: In The Work of Rape, I build on analytics honed by transnational and women of color feminism as well as queer of color critique to read law and legal texts (like policy reports, white papers, and law journal articles) in ways that highlight their incoherence, absences, internal contradictions, and deviations from their own stated rationales and logics. To do this I deploy a method, what I call law beyond Law, to trace the discussions, conflicts, procedures, and processes that produce law—to theorize practice of law and the making of the juridical itself.
The method directs attention to law’s inner operations—the human and nonhuman relations and connections required to theorize harm within the preexisting strictures of available structures and theories of violation. This approach gives me a way to think about the social and legal terminology and concepts that directly structure the injury of rape—terms like consent and coercion—as materially and historically produced. How do the all-too-familiar terms of rape culture, consent, and coercion fare if we refuse to imagine gender and sexual justice by disavowing conditions of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and war? The method helps show how the stabilization of rape "resolves" the crises otherwise generated by multiple historically distinct understandings of geographically specific sexual and gendered atrocities. In this way, law beyond Law emphasizes the historical and geopolitical contexts as well as the activist genealogies that shape law’s inception, meaning, operations, and impact—in the process disordering law’s own logics of progress and modernity.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RJ: I am always interested in the politics of evidence—or how concepts like labor, sex/gender, race, and property are sustained or transformed through the recognition, narration, and redress of harm. I like to think about how we come to know things, how we talk them into being, how or which stories or concepts harden into fact, and what other kinds of thinking or doing might be required to open or shake them up.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RJ: I hope that US-based anti-sexual violence and abolitionist scholars will read and consider how the social and legal concepts of sexual consent and coercion in the United States cannot be separated from international systems of law and governance that divvy up the world according to racialized and sexualized danger. I hope we can think collectively about how the legacies of empire and neocolonialism supply the conditions through which feminists on the ground and elite legal feminists coproduce the parameters of sexualized injury and harm. Gendered and sexual violence, now ensconced in international law as indicia of affronts to the essence of the human, organize global meanings of property and freedom. Those orderings cannot be separated from post-9/11 US figurations of Muslim women as singularly oppressed that, as Sara Farris has demonstrated, culminate in “saving” Muslim migrant women by funneling them into low-paying, precarious domestic work. They cannot be separated from the complex of US and tribal lawfare that catches indigenous people and sexualized violence in jurisdictional nets that require complex adjudications of tribal sovereignty. They cannot be separated from attempts to justify the now studiedly international carceral and militarized humanitarian regimes that produce migrant populations, stranding queer and trans people of color around the world and in US detention centers at unconscionable risk of psychic, spiritual, and bodily harm. Yet such examples remain staged as paradoxically and mostly resolutely separated from mainstream US antiviolence movements, even as they are still presented as evidence of global “violence against women.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RJ: I am writing an academic book with Neda Atanasoski on the concept of sexual slavery. Rooted in the commitments of queer of color critique, this project brings Black feminist historiography on the transatlantic slave trade; research on contemporaneous, parallel systems of enslavement like the Ottoman empire’s and other “Oriental” slave systems; and contemporary research concerning sexual violation and racial capitalism together to explore how interconnected freedom struggles across the globe are partitioned by imagined frameworks of racial and sexual difference that isolate entangled systems of gendered and sexual enslavement. I am also working solo on a mixed-genre historical and autoethnographic project about animals, empire, and growing up mixed race (Indian Muslim and working class white) in the US South.
Excerpt from the book (from pp. 1-4)
In the 1990s, I was a teenage feminist in rural Georgia, reading riot grrrl zines and Sassy magazine, where indie rockers dispensing dating tips nestled column to column with Bosnian refugees and their testaments of war. I was transfixed not only by the implicit connection, shadowy and unacknowledged, between what was happening to women in the Balkans and calls to Take Back the Night, but also by the mere mention of Muslim women. Beyond the confines of my own Muslim family, the Balkan conflict was the first time I could remember hearing any sustained talk of them—of what they did and what happened or could happen to them. A few years later, in college, I dumped sugar in my coffee while my Serbian classmate downed her espresso and confessed how she and her mother held hands by the television each night, praying that the United States would invade their country, praying for a war to end war, praying for what I would later learn by a more musical name: jus ad bellum, the right to war, the ultimate show of legitimate force. She spoke of dead uncles and the aerial bombings of medieval seaside towns, and although I could not imagine a truly just war, I could see how I might learn to desire one.
Fast-forward some years and gender securitization strategies, homonationalisms, and the repressive, deadly potential of international human rights and humanitarian regimes are key subjects in a rich vein of critical ethnic studies and queer scholarship focused broadly on examinations of governance, what makes up legitimate state violence, and knowledge production. Yet the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and later Rwanda, each couched as ethnic in causation in conjunction with a concerted if internally conflicted wave of feminist organizing that began the formal coupling of mass sexual violence and war within international law—that occasioned the entrance of rape and sexual violence in international human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law—has slipped from focus. It was then, in the wake of the Cold War, with the rise of the so-called ethnic wars, that the scope and significance of international law were reimagined. Here, for the first time since Nuremberg and Tokyo, international ad hoc tribunals were charged with the task of prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. This moment created new subjects of and subjects to international law as rape and other forms of sexualized violence were for the first time configured as enumerated violations of international, rather than national, law. In the aftermath, as scholars and activists have noted, war and its accoutrements are understood as both a cause of rape and also an answer to it. Task forces and UN resolutions proliferated as sexual violence in conflict zones became a familiar topic of concern, study, law, and policy. Militarized humanitarianism, girded by a faith in carceral systems, became a solution to an issue perceived, as legal scholar Karen Engle writes, to involve “the worst crimes you can imagine” whose occurrence “makes wars last longer.” Rape and other sexualized violence became anathema under multiple theories and bodies of international law. They became international crimes, human rights violations, war crimes, and gendered, individual injuries that are in this view antithetical to “peace.”
There I was, in the 1990s, with so many of “us,” so many of us “of color,” getting groped or worse on campus as “ethnic” war rape took up tenure on the nightly news. There and then the idea of rape was a door of approximate recognitions opening into a repository for so many things we could not easily express or name. And so in college I drank sugar with a splash of coffee and (almost) learned to love the bomb.
The “almost” is important. It was made possible by a hitch in the overarching tale of violence against women—an incongruence that I felt as much as thought. In retrospect, I recognize—and this book is ultimately a move more fully into that recognition—that this feeling was in some ways particular to the twentieth century’s end. A feeling at the so-called end of history, after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. A feeling formed in the thick of the US sex wars alongside what I knew and was learning about the vibrancy of Third World and women of color feminist and queer activisms. A feeling that discomfited itself into a question: what should we make of the presumptive continuity of sexualized violence as a category, of “rape” as the stuff that binds what happens on campus to what happens on the grounds of “ethnic” war?
If the concept of rape seems self-evident, the paths the word has taken to arrive at our current understanding are anything but. From the adjudication of mass rape and sexual slavery in the International Criminal Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda to state violence against indigenous women in the “Dirty Wars” in Latin America to the use of torture in US military prisons during the War on Terror to the role of Title IX in sexual violence on university campuses, The Work of Rape demonstrates the wide-ranging importance of rape within contemporary sociolegal understandings of power transnationally. Using a transdisciplinary and queer historical methodology based on years of archival work, The Work of Rape scouts how feminist interventions in the “gender atrocities” of the 1990s-era ethnic wars have traveled across bodies of law (international and “US” domestic, criminal and civil) and social geographies. The Work of Rape proceeds by understanding rape and sexualized violence—as well as their primary components, namely, consent, force, and coercion—as concepts and categories that are products of material histories. The ability to name and locate rape as an act and a sociolegal concept depends on power and knowledge achieved from racial, imperial, and settler colonial domination actuated through market liberalization and global racial capitalism. In other words, rape’s contemporary political prominence in the United States—from #MeToo to Title IX controversies on campus—is staged on a bloodied, tumultuous, and cumulative backdrop of imperial and colonial warfare.
From this orientation, one that prioritizes women of color, decolonial, and Global South knowledge, rape and other forms of sexualized violence cannot ethically be cast as problems faced by “vulnerable women” subjugated as a group by patriarchal law and policy. Instead, The Work of Rape takes up how violence is socially and globally defined and distributed through the notion and naming of rape. It focuses particularly on how that recognition of rape occurs through the operation and practice of law—or how legal practice is itself a material process of theorizing both injury and evidence. How have feminist interventions—including feminist innovations in law and its practice—in the “gender atrocities” of the 1990s-era ethnic wars traveled across bodies of law (international and domestic, criminal and civil) and social geographies? How do those interventions reverberate within contemporary US engagements with gendered and sexualized violence and harassment inside the “United States” itself?
Instead of seeking to “diversify” survivor experience of what is called rape or other sexualized violence (as if these were stable or self-evident descriptors), this book takes a different tack. In the aftermath of rape’s ascent into international law, The Work of Rape asks what work rape and its associated terms must do as it tries to hold many and conflicting forms of imperial and colonial violence across many sites, systems, and scales of law. This framing is not about how attention to sexualized violence detracts from other discrete issues or competing concerns. Instead, The Work of Rape asks what is uplifted, occluded, or viciously suppressed within the very definition of rape so that sexualized violence might be recognized. How does that resulting understanding of rape encourage punishing, carceral responses to it and why do those responses feel for so many like justice?