With new documentary, former Miss World from Israel becomes global champion for rape victims

Published: March 21, 2014

In the photo Tuesday, March 18, 2014, former Miss World Linor Abargil poses with her four-month-old daughter at her home in Netanya, Israel. AP Photo/Aron Heller

ARON HELLER
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NETANYA, Israel — When 18-year-old Israeli beauty queen Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World in 1998, the tears streaming down her cheeks appeared to be the overwhelming joy of a young woman fulfilling a childhood dream. Few knew the painful truth behind them — that just six weeks earlier she had been raped at knifepoint.

Unlike most victims of sexual assault, Abargil refused to keep quiet. She pressed charges, spoke out publicly and testified at a trial that sent her attacker to prison for 16 years. Her ordeal inspired other Israeli women to break their own silence and in the process, she became a national symbol who helped destigmatize rape in the country.

Today, the 34-year-old mother of three’s crusade against sexual violence is going global, thanks to an international speaking tour and new documentary, “Brave Miss World,” in which she details her ordeal and speaks to dozens of other victims, many of whom shared their tales of terror for the first time.

“If you go through something very bad or very hard, the only pill you can take is to tell, to take it out of your system. Because if you don’t, it is like a tumour — it becomes bigger and bigger until it kills you,” she told The Associated Press this week, shortly after returning from a visit to India. “I feel that I have this privilege to really help other women to open up.”

In “Brave Miss World,” director Cecilia Peck chronicles Abargil’s journey from teenage rape victim to outspoken lawyer and activist and finally to wife and mother who discovered a newfound comfort in her Jewish faith. Interviews with her parents, her husband and even a former boyfriend shed light on how the rape altered her life but also how her strength helped transform her into an unlikely ambassador.

In the documentary, shot over four years, Abargil listens to the stories of rape victims ranging from American college students to young South African girls to Hollywood celebrities like Fran Drescher and Joan Collins — who disclosed for the first time that she married the man who raped her.

“There is something about Linor that gives credibility to rape survivors. They know that they will be believed, it helps relieve that burden of shame,” said Peck, whose previous work includes “Shut Up and Sing,” a documentary about the U.S. country singers the Dixie Chicks.

Peck, daughter of legendary actor Gregory Peck, said the film’s name was a subtle allusion to Aldous Huxley’s famous novel “Brave New World,” in which the government tried to control even citizens’ sex lives.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, America’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, one out of six American women has been the victim of rape or an attempted rape, with 60 per cent of them unreported to police. The figures are similar in Israel and other Western nations and far higher in the developing world.

Peck said the film’s website has become a focal point for victims to speak out. More than 300,000 people already have visited the site, with many writing about the abuse they experienced. Hundreds of emails arrive each day, she said.

Abargil said she was drawn to the project since she was not the type of person to just seek “justice for myself and then walk away.” Rather, she felt that as a public figure she had a responsibility to break the taboo around rape and give other women the courage to talk about it.

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