Reading too much into the language seems, at this point, to be less of a danger than reading too little into it.

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.

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  • @Jayjader
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    02 months ago

    Late to this thread, but this is disturbingly similar to the media-bashing a French-Palestinian politician has received recently.

    She tweeted something along the lines of “time for an uprising” before attending a conference. The following week+ of interviews with her party colleagues were filled with “did you know uprising in Arabic is intifada?! Why is your colleague calling for violence?!?!?!”

    Her name is Rima Hassan if you’re interested.