The Prime Minister’s speech at this week’s Conservative Friends of Israel lunch was a statement of the government’s and the UK’s support for Israel. But as he spoke about the horrific attacks on October 7, one word stood out to me. In condemning the attacks by Hamas, he spoke not just of the murder of innocent Israelis but also of the mass rapes.
There has been a deafening global silence since October 7 around the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas, something which as an activist who has worked in the violence against women and girls sector for years has horrified me.
That horror which was deepened when I visited the “Voices from the Tunnels” exhibition in east London, put together by 7/10 Human Chain. This powerful imagining of the tunnels is based around testimonies from survivors and hostages released by Hamas. But as shocking as the conditions many of the hostages were — are, for most — being held in may be, what really broke me was the stories of rape and how these women, some merely girls, were kept.
Some of the stories — such as two women held in a cage and then assaulted when they were taken to the toilet — were new to me. But at the same time they are not new, because they echo the stories told by women who survived ISIS, stories we know of because they were covered by international media and because they were spoken about at women’s rights rallies.
So to hear Rishi Sunak acknowledge Hamas as a terror organisation which used rape in its attacks against Israel was especially powerful, given the absence of proper coverage. I am not sure how many in the room on Monday realised the significance of that one word.
Now I am hoping that as he travels round the world he will stress then need to acknowledge the reality of what happened to Jewish women and girls on October 7 — and is almost certainly still happening to those being held hostage in Gaza. And I hope he stresses to his own Cabinet the need for ministers to keep referring to what happened.
I am so vocal about this issue because the othering of Israeli victims of sexual violence undermines our ability ever to be able to create a just world. For UN Women and other international organisations tasked with defending women to be silent or indifferent to the suffering of Israeli women is for them to be indifferent to the rights of all women.
The global terrorist movement of which Hamas is part will use the international community’s silence to keep abusing women and girls. It will corrode the fabric of international law which we have sought to defend for many years.
But most of all, the global silence around the rape of Israeli women will harm Jewish women and communities around the world at a moment when they are grieving.
Others tell me that the reason they have been silent is because it is “complex”. But I know the real reason is — to be blunt — because they are antisemitic and have been so blinded by hate that they still question whether Hamas raped women and girls on October 7, even when it’s on film. And on films which the terrorists took themselves and shared with the world. We cannot let up in this fight because the terrorist are watching to see how the world reacts. If they are not held accountable, rape and sexual violence will become the norm.
In the coming days, weeks and months there will be moments where we can make sure that the horrific crimes of sexual violence committed by Hamas are acknowledged and condemned. I will be alongside incredible Israeli and Jewish grassroots activists leading the calls for justice. I am proud to do this as a feminist and sister in the fight for equality.
Nimco Ali is co-founder and CEO of The Five Foundation, a global partnership to end female genital mutilation (FGM),
She was Independent Government Adviser for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls between 2020 and 2022