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    What Hamas Called Its Female Captives, and Why It Matters

    By Graeme Wood,


    This week, Israel released an appalling video featuring five female Israeli soldiers taken captive at Nahal Oz military base on October 7. Fearful and bloody, the women beg for their lives while Hamas fighters mill around and alternately threaten to kill them and compliment their appearance. The captors call the women “ sabaya ,” which Israel translated as “women who can get pregnant.” Almost immediately, others disputed the translation and said sabaya referred merely to “female captives” and included no reference to their fertility. “The Arabic word sabaya doesn’t have sexual connotations,” the Al Jazeera journalist Laila Al-Arian wrote in a post on X, taking exception to a Washington Post article that said that it did. She said the Israeli translation was “playing on racist and orientalist tropes about Arabs and Muslims.”

    These are real women and victims of ongoing war crimes, so it does seem excessively lurid to suggest, without direct evidence, that they have been raped in captivity for the past several months. (“Eight months,” the Israelis noted, allowing readers to do the gestational math. “Think of what that means for these young women.”) But to assert that sabaya is devoid of sexual connotation reflects ignorance, at best. The word is well attested in classical sources and refers to female captives; the choice of a classical term over a modern one implies a fondness for classical modes of war, which codified sexual violence at scale. Just as concubine and comfort woman carry the befoulments of their historic use, sabaya is straightforwardly associated with what we moderns call rape. Anyone who uses sabaya in modern Gaza or Raqqah can be assumed to have specific and disgusting reasons to want to revive it.

    The word sabaya recently reappeared in the modern Arabic lexicon through the efforts of the Islamic State. Unsurprisingly, then, the scholars best equipped for this analysis are the ones who observed and cataloged how ISIS revived sabaya (and many other dormant classical and medieval terms). I refer here to Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi, recently of Swansea University, and to Cole Bunzel of the Hoover Institution, who have both commented on this controversy without sensationalism, except insofar as the potential of sexual enslavement is inherently sensational.

    Under classical Islamic jurisprudence on the law of war, the possible fates of enemy captives are four: They can be killed, ransomed, enslaved, or freed. Those enslaved are then subject to the rules that govern slavery in Islam—which are extensive, and are nearly as irrelevant to the daily lives of most living Muslims as the rules concerning slavery in Judaism are to the lives of most Jews. I say “nearly” because Jews have not had a state that sought to regulate slavery for many centuries, but the last majority-Muslim states abolished slavery only in the second half of the 20th century, and the Islamic State enthusiastically resumed the practice in 2014.

    Read: What did top Israeli war officials really say about Gaza?

    In doing so, the Islamic State reaffirmed the privileges, and duties, of the slave owner. (Bunzel observes that the Islamic State cited scholars who used the term sabaya as if captured women were considered slaves by default, and the other fates were implicitly improbable.) The slave owner is responsible for the welfare of the slave, including her food and shelter. He is allowed to have sex with female slaves, but certain rules apply. He may not sell her off until he can confirm that she isn’t pregnant, and he has obligations to her and to their children, if any are born from their union. I cannot stress enough that such relationships—that is, having sex with someone you own—constitute rape in all modern interpretations of the word, and they are frowned upon whether they occur in the Levant, the Hejaz, or Monticello.

    But in the premodern context, before the rights revolution that consecrated every person with individual, unalienable worth, sex slavery was unremarkable, and the principal concern was not whether to do it but what to do with the children. The Prophet Muhammad freed a slave after she bore him a child. The Jewish paterfamilias Abraham released his slave Hagar into the desert 14 years after she bore him Ishmael. But these are cases from antiquity, and modern folk see things differently. Frederick Douglass, in the opening of his autobiography, emphasized the inhumanity of American slave owners by noting the abhorrent results of those relationships: fathers hating, owning, abusing, and selling their own kin.

    Sabaya is a term in part born of the need to distinguish captives potentially subject to these procreative regulations from those who would be less complicated to own. To translate it as “women who can get pregnant” is regrettably misleading. It makes explicit what the word connotes, namely that these captives fall under a legal category with possibilities distinct from those of their male counterparts. As Al-Tamimi observes , Hamas could just as easily have used a standard Arabic word for female war captives, asirat . This neutral word is used on Arabic Wikipedia, say, for Jessica Lynch, the American prisoner of war from the 2003 Iraq invasion. Instead Hamas used a term with a different history.

    One could read too much into the choice of words. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that Hamas is following the Islamic State by reviving sex slavery as a legal category. I know of no evidence that it has done so, and if it did, I would expect many of the group’s supporters, even those comfortable with its killing of concertgoers and old people, to denounce the group. More likely, a single group of Hamas members used the word in an especially heady moment, during which they wanted to degrade and humiliate their captives as much as possible. Thankfully, the captives appear unaware of the language being used around them. The language suggests that the fighters were open to raping the women, but it could also just be reprehensible talk, after an already coarsening day of mass killing.

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    Reading too much into the language seems, at this point, to be less of a danger than reading too little into it. As soon as the Israeli translation came out, it was assailed for its inaccuracy, when it was actually just gesturing clumsily at a real, though not easily summarized, historical background. What, if anything, should the translation have said? “Female captives” does not carry the appropriate resonance; “sex-slavery candidates” would err in the other direction and imply too much. Every translation loses something. Is there a word in English that conveys that one views the battered women in one’s control as potentially sexually available? I think probably not. I would be very careful before speaking up to defend the user of such a word.

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