Linor Abargil, crowned both Miss Israel and Miss World in 1998, is on a mission to create “a very open and public discussion about rape without being ashamed. That is my wish.”
Fifteen years ago, Abargil was on top of the world. Newly crowned Miss Israel and winner of her very first car, she was headed to Italy to model.
But the 18-year-old wasn’t prepared for big city lights and life. She became extremely homesick and asked to be sent home. She was put in touch with an Israeli travel agent working in Israel who made the arrangements and offered to drive her to the airport.
On the way, her driver raped her at knife point in the back seat. Although she remembers the assault clearly, Abargil explained “your soul is not there.”
Two months later, barely able to function but determined to go on with her life, she was crowned Miss World and forced to appear ecstatic before the world.
She credits her mother and a couple of caring, close friends with eventually enabling her to go on with her life.
Since that horrible evening, Abargil has become very religious and is now the mother of 1-year old twins with another baby on the way. She also has become an incredibly strong global advocate for rape victims.
She spent this past week in D.C. publicizing a documentary made about her life. She met in the White House with Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on Violence Against Women, and was to address Jewish Women International on Wednesday. Her movie was screened before the Congressional Women’s Caucus on Capitol Hill.
Brave Miss World is a 90-minute, often wrenching movie, in which Abargil discusses being raped and moving on, while never forgetting. Interviewed during the movie are a number of rape victims, many who never spoke of their rape until they met Abargil. Some are famous, like actresses Fran Drescher and Joan Collins. Others are not yet teenagers, victims of family members and neighbors.
The movie, which was directed by Cecilia Peck, daughter of actor Gregory Peck, was shown at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on June 21, as part of the AFI Docs Film Festival.
“Rape is so isolating,” she states in the movie. “You are surrounded by silence. Even if you tell people what happened, they are afraid to mention it.”
Watching the movie does remind her of that awful period in her life. But Abargil insisted during an interview with Washington Jewish Week, “I never relive it.”
What really helps, she stressed, is “to talk about it.” Those who keep their individual traumas inside, choosing never to speak of them, allow the wound “to fester inside you.”
She warns victims that though it’s hard to speak out, just remember, “the worst has already happened.”
Yes, it is hard, but rapists need to be brought to justice, often through painful court trials, and victims must realize they are not the one who should feel shame or blame, she stressed.
“Everybody has baggage. You need to take your bags” and make the best possible life, she said. “Know that life goes on, and life can be very beautiful.”
As Abargil slowly moved on, she realized the beauty in small things. That new appreciation led her from her secular upbringing to Orthodoxy. The woman who once posed in the skimpiest of bikinis now covers herself at all times.
“You can’t take anything for granted. That’s what religion really is all about,” said the 33-year-old.
When asked if she would have become religious even if she hadn’t been raped, Abargil replies thoughtfully, “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.. Lots of things make you what you are.”
Take becoming Miss World, she said. More people are listening to her message because of that crown, she said.
In fact, there currently is a push to show Brave Miss World on television. Hopefully a large audience will tune in thinking it’s about beautiful women and pageants, thereby carrying her message far beyond where she could take it had she not won the top beauty prize.
On the other hand, she is quick to point out that a woman need not be beautiful to be raped. Your age, beauty, whether you are male or female, country of origin, none of that is relevant, she said, adding, remember, it’s not your fault. One in five women are victims of sexual assault. One in six men are as well, she said.
Don’t ever think your instincts are so good or that you are so smart, that you won’t ever be raped, she said. “No you cannot tell. If they all look like monsters, we would be able to identify them, and we would be safe.”
Just as anyone can be a victim, so, too, can anyone be a rapist, she believes. “When it first happened, I thought everybody was a rapist,” she said. It can be a father, brother, uncle, neighbor or total stranger, she noted.
Advocating is a big part of her life. Abargil, a recent honors graduate from law school, is aware that the need to speak out “will never be over. It is like a lifetime job.”
She keeps a website, linordocumentary.com, urging all victims to write their stories down on the site. She also writes letters to the parole board, making sure her victim serves his full sentence of 16 years.
The lifelong resident of Israel has yet to show Brave Miss World in her own country. But she vows to do so someday soon and to keep talking about it.