French feminist groups have come under fire for purportedly turning a blind eye to the sexual violence unleashed on Israeli women during the October 7 attacks by Hamas, echoing the anger levelled at rights organisations elsewhere. The accusation is indicative of the competing narratives and loyalties elicited by the devastating conflict. It also reflects a failure to rapidly investigate and establish the specific, gender-based nature of some of the atrocities committed.
Efforts to place the focus on the violence inflicted on Israeli women and girls triggered an incident in Paris last week at the annual November 25 march to condemn violence against women, which organisers said brought some 80,000 demonstrators to the streets of the French capital.
A group of around 200 protesters, some carrying Israeli flags, claimed they were confronted by pro-Palestinian activists and effectively barred from joining the march. The protesters wore clothes stained with fake blood, a reference to the searing images of bloodied female victims of the October 7 massacres, filmed and posted online by the perpetrators of the attacks, in which an estimated 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians.
The protesters had planned to “carry the voice of the Israeli victims of Hamas and denounce the deafening silence of feminist groups”, French daily Libération cited the activists as saying. They brandished placards reading “MeToo, unless you are a Jew” and “Feminists, your silence makes you complicit”.
Reports of the incident spread widely on social media, feeding into wider condemnation of an alleged bias among advocates of women’s rights. “The ‘Nous Toutes’ (We All – France’s equivalent of MeToo) that has been proclaimed for years is a becoming a ‘Nous Toutes unless you’re Jewish,” wrote prominent journalist Rebecca Amsellem in an Instagram post, a day after the Paris march. Writing on X, author Sophie Gourion lamented the “double standards” she claimed many fellow feminists were guilty of.
Government ministers and senior politicians also stepped into the fray. “One doesn’t choose which violence (to condemn) based on nationality or the type conflict,” said Gender Equality Minister Bérangère Couillard, warning that state subsidies for advocacy groups were conditional on the respect of “such universal values”. Senator Laurence Rossignol, a former minister for women’s rights, spoke of a “split among feminists, unlike any seen before”.
Organisers of the Paris march hit back in a joint statement on Tuesday, stressing their “unambiguous condemnation of the sexual and sexist crimes, rapes and femicides committed by Hamas” on October 7. They also blasted an attempt to “instrumentalise” the fight against gender-based violence and accused far-right activists of stoking tensions at the march and seeking to discredit its organisers.
Sexual violence overlooked
The criticism voiced in France echoes complaints targeting rights groups and international organisations in other Western countries and in Israel. United Nations agencies such as UN Women have faced particular scrutiny over their alleged failure to condemn the specific violence inflicted on women on October 7.
Ahead of the UN’s international day for the elimination of violence against women, Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog published an opinion piece in Newsweek expressing outrage and betrayal over the international community’s failure to condemn the gender-based sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas.
“A Hamas video from a kibbutz shows terrorists torturing a pregnant woman and removing her foetus. Our forensic scientists have found bodies of women and girls raped with such violence that their pelvic bones were broken,” wrote Herzog.
On Wednesday, a UN commission of inquiry investigating war crimes on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict said it would focus on gathering evidence of sexual violence in the October 7 attacks. Navi Pillay, the commission’s chair, told reporters she would pass the evidence onto the International Criminal Court and call for it to consider prosecutions, amid criticism from Israel and families of Israeli hostages that the UN had kept quiet.
Critics contend that the gruesome footage taken and posted on social media by Hamas militants, as well as CCTV images and the accounts of first responders, provide ample evidence of the horrific crimes committed by the Islamist group and other factions that took part in the massacres in Israeli communities and at the Supernova rave that was taking place close to the Gaza Strip.
Many war crimes experts, however, stress that the harrowing images must first be corroborated by material and other evidence – a painstakingly slow task further hindered by the unprecedented nature of an attack that caught Israel completely off guard.
Céline Bardet, a war crimes expert and funder of the NGO We Are not Weapons of War, said the acrimony and mistrust surrounding the subject highlighted the need for an independent and thorough investigation into the crimes committed on October 7. The criticism levelled at feminist groups and UN bodies “is a little unfair”, she added, noting that the authorities had been slow to establish the specific gender-based nature of some of the most horrific violence.
“We know that, due in part to the ongoing fighting, the investigation of sexual violence was not made a priority in the days and weeks following the attack. That means a lot of the work still needs to be done, but it’s much more difficult now,” she told FRANCE 24, warning that much of the evidence is likely to have been compromised.
“Israeli police have never faced such a challenge before,” she added. “We are ready to help them if they seek our expertise.”
Women’s rights groups in Israel have warned of significant failings in preserving forensic evidence that could have shone a light on the scale of sexual violence committed against women and girls in last month’s Hamas attacks.
Tal Hochman, a government relations officer at the Israel Women’s Network, told the Guardian: “Most of the women who were raped were then killed, and we will never understand the full picture, because either bodies were burned too badly or the victims were buried and the forensic evidence buried too. No samples were taken.”
While grisly footage of the carnage soon spread on social media in the wake of the attacks, detailed reports of sexual violence were much slower to emerge.
On October 24, Israel published a first video of a soldier citing evidence that women had been raped, followed by more such accounts over subsequent days. On November 8, local media reported the first testimony of a survivor who described the gang-rape, murder and mutilation of a woman at the Supernova rave. A week later, on November 14, police announced they had opened an investigation into “multiple cases” of sexual violence committed on October 7, citing video evidence, DNA samples and witness accounts.
Israeli authorities have been playing catch-up, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote the next day, highlighting the role of civil society groups in pushing for the investigation and recognition of the gender-based violence that had been overlooked not just by international organisations – but the Israeli government too.
“Whether it was an effort to protect the (…) victims and their families, an inability to handle the ugly details or simply one of the many systemic failures of Israel’s leaders in the initial days after the October 7 attack, the full extent of the sexual atrocities committed were not detailed or documented enough to make national or international headlines,” she wrote. “And so an opportunity was lost: the chance to gain a greater degree of recognition and sympathy from international rights organisations as to the depth of the brutality and viciousness of the Hamas attack.”
‘Pitting one side’s sorrows against the other’s’
In recent weeks, the Israeli government has stepped up its efforts to obtain greater recognition and support for the victims of sexual violence.
On November 5, the Israeli state issued an appeal on its official X account “calling all feminists” to “support all of the Israeli women who were raped, tortured, murdered and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists” – and drawing a parallel with the international support for Iran’s Mahsa Amini. The following week, Israel’s foreign ministry launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #BelieveIsraeliWomen.
Speaking on FRANCE 24, French writer Sarah Barukh said many feminist groups had failed to “abide by their core principle: to tell Israeli women, ‘we believe you’.”
Claims of a lack of evidence smacked of “hypocrisy”, she argued, adding: “It’s somewhat strange to argue that more proof is needed, when it was all filmed live and published on the Internet by Hamas.”
Barukh said the silence on the subject betrayed a bias on the subject. She described the habit of “systematically comparing the suffering of Israelis with that of the Palestinians” as a way to “minimise” the former.
Weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip and the forced displacement of its population have shifted much of the media focus on to the plight of women and girls trapped in the enclave and the spiralling civilian death. Health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory say women and children account for two thirds of the more than 15,000 people killed.
Journalist Olivia Cattan, the founder of the advocacy group “Paroles de Femmes” (Women’s Voices), argued that many feminist campaigners’ views on the decades-long conflict roiling the Middle East had clouded their judgement and blinded them to the atrocities committed against Israeli women.
She wrote in a blog post on the Mediapart news site: “I am not asking for your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I am simply asking that you pass judgement on this massacre of women and children. Full stop.”
Such remarks mirror the divisions that have also roiled left-wing movements in France and abroad, with critics arguing that sympathy for the Palestinians – widely identified as the oppressed party in the conflict – has at times prevented forceful condemnations of the October 7 attacks.
In a column on MSNBC, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of gender at The New School in New York City, suggested the “minimisation” of violence against Israeli women was “the result of an ideological turn among some feminists and progressives that elevates an ‘antiracist’ agenda above the core feminist commitment to defend the universal right to bodily autonomy for all women”.
She added: “This argument contends that because Israel is a colonial power oppressing the Palestinians, any resistance is a justified dimension of decolonisation.”
Others have voiced the opposite argument, bemoaning a lack of empathy for Palestinian women driven from their homes, scrambling for shelter from the bombs, giving birth with no anaesthetics, no painkillers, no electricity.
Read moreMalnourished, sick and scared: Pregnant women in Gaza face ‘unthinkable challenges’
In an op-ed published by Mediapart on the eve of the eve of the November 25 march, Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux joined several activists and academics in condemning the “dehumanising and gender-based violence” perpetrated on October 7 – while also denouncing “the double standards applied to an occupied people – the Palestinian people – and an occupying state, a double standard that also applies to feminism: as if the lives and sufferings of Palestinian women had no value, no density, no complexity”.
Hanna Assouline, of the women’s group Guerrières de la Paix (Warriors for Peace), bemoaned a widespread tendency to take sides in the conflict and amplify divisions, instead of calling for unity and peace.
“We’re witnessing a sad spectacle of selective empathy and pitting one side’s sorrows and deaths against the other’s,” said Assouline, whose advocacy group has helped organise silent gatherings for peace, with neither flags nor slogans.
“It’s as if we were incapable of displaying a united front of humanity facing all this horror,” she told FRANCE 24. “The only way forward is to step out of our respective solitudes and mourn together, mobilise together, and voice our common indignation.”