Entertainment

05.29.14

‘Brave Miss World’: Linor Abargil on Her Journey From Rape Victim to Beauty Queen to Activist

Linor Abargil was brutally raped six weeks before she won Miss World in 1998. Now, she’s a prominent women’s rights activist. The documentary Brave Miss World, about Abargil, premieres May 29 on Netflix.

I was born in Netanya, Israel. I had a normal childhood and never thought about modeling. At 18, my boyfriend wanted to model, so I went to the agency with him. They sent him to business school, and gave me a contract. When a girl dropped out of the Miss Israel contest, I replaced her, and I won. All of a sudden you’re somebody. Not Linor from Netanya, but Linor Abargil: beauty queen.

I went Milan to model, but I wasn’t comfortable there. I wanted to go home, so I asked the modeling agency for help. They introduced me to a Hebrew speaking travel agent they'd been working with for years who had a family in Israel. They said I could trust him. He looked like a nice, professional man. He showed me that there were no flights to Israel, but he promised to help me.

He finally said he had found a flight from Rome. He said he was willing to take me there in his car. It never crossed my mind that this nice man would harm me. Later, I realized this act was carefully planned and I wasn’t the first who would be harmed by him.

The vision of this terrible night would visit my nightmares for many years. He took a secluded road, telling me that avoiding the freeway would save me the tolls. He had brought a knife, a rope, and a plastic bag. There was no flight from Rome, no ticket. He never planned that I would leave.

I was tied up, stabbed, strangled, gagged, and repeatedly raped. There finally came a moment when I was able to start talking with him, and a survival instinct took over. I asked him about his family. I tried to get through to him. He suddenly snapped out if it. He made me swear that I would never tell anyone. He admitted that we had never left Milan. He had driven around in circles. 

I was able to make him take me to the train station. When the train was about to leave and I saw he was gone, I ran to the phone on the platform. I called my mom and told her what happened, and that I was getting on a train to Rome.

"From that moment, I knew there was Heaven and Hell. From the outside, Heaven, from the inside, Hell."

Right away she told me not to take a shower. She said I needed to get a medical exam, and to go to the police. She never made me feel ashamed. In Rome, I was examined and evidence was collected, then I was interrogated at the police station. My mom got me on a flight home to Tel Aviv. I never returned to Italy until ten years later, during the making of Brave Miss World. It took me that long to confront my fears.

At the time, I had to get ready to compete in Miss World. There were 95 countries represented - beauty queens from around the world. I was representing Israel. I had to go. My mom thought it might help me get my mind off the rape. 

I went, but I was just going through the motions. Inside, I was screaming, “Help Me! Save me! I’m about to die.” No one knew what I had been through. 

I didn’t think I had a chance of winning. Israel had never won. I couldn’t wait to go home. Then I heard from a distance, “The winner is: Miss Israel.”

From that moment, I knew there was Heaven and Hell. From the outside, Heaven, from the inside, Hell. I was broken and no one could even tell. But I had to play the role. When you’re Miss World, you’re public property.

When I got home, the whole city was out in the streets waiting for me. I returned as a hero. But I wasn’t able to fulfill my duties. I couldn’t go to events and smile and wave.

There was initially a gag order on the story in the newspapers. My rapist had been arrested in Italy, but he was released. We were able to get the jurisdiction transferred to Israel, because he was an Israeli citizen. When he arrived at the Ben Gurion airport to visit his family, the police were waiting to arrest him. The story was in every newspaper in the world.

I only meant to tell a few close people. But when you’re a public figure, you don’t get to keep the story to yourself. That’s when I started on a long road that has not yet ended. To testify, to put him in prison, and to speak out. To give meaning to the crown.

I had to undergo the trial, which was very difficult. Rapists’ lawyers deny everything and claim that it was consensual. It’s terribly humiliating - it’s another rape - and stops a lot of victims from pressing charges. But it’s so important to take the stand because it helps us recover. Our attacker is counting on us being ashamed and not wanting to tell anyone. When the guilty verdict came in, I spoke publicly for the first time and encouraged other women to report the crime if it happened to them.

Linor Abargil
Linor Abargil (left) was invited to the White House in Washington D.C. in June to meet with Lynn Rosenthal, President Obama's Advisor on Violence Against Women. (Courtesy of Embassy of Israel)

After my trial, many more women in Israel called their rape crisis centers to seek help, and more women filed police reports and pressed charges. This let me know that if we speak out and encourage others to do the same, we can make an important difference in the lives of rape victims who feel alone, or feel that no one understands. Also, because of my case, rape victims in Israel now have access to representatives in the prisons who inform them when the rapist is being released.

From the moment I was crowned, I knew it was my destiny to encourage other women to speak out. I have tried to use what happened to me, to show what it’s like not only for the person who is raped, but also for their family and those around them.

It took me many years to speak openly with my family about the rape. At the time, they didn’t want to make things worse by bringing it up. At home, for the first year, I cried all the time. I couldn’t sleep. My parents didn’t know what to do. I realized how painful it was for all of them, too. Much later, my mother apologized to my brother and sister for not being there for them during those years because she was so concerned about me.

I have a mom I can tell anything to. She didn’t blame me. I’ve heard of mothers who blame their daughters, or make them promise they wouldn’t tell anyone. Mothers need to know that their daughter’s healing process depends on their first reaction. One wrong reaction is enough to cause a silence and self-blame that can last for years.

You might think, “What a terrible story, but what does that have to do with me?” Rape happens everywhere around us, every day, in the best places and the worst places. Little girls, teenagers, female soldiers, students, career women, disabled women - no one is immune.

One out of every four women has or will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Eighty percent of women will never press charges, and in most cases, will never tell anyone. They will continue to live with guilt, thinking that they invited the abuse. Ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

It’s very, very difficult to talk, but it’s much worse to live with the secret. It eats you up from the inside. It shatters your confidence, your relationships. You are certain that there is no cure for what happened to you, that you have no strength, that you definitely don’t have the strength to rebuild yourself. But women are strong. We have strength that is stronger than any physicality. The feminine force is a force that can win the world over.

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This strength cannot be taken away from us. You can be tied up, you can be stabbed, but it’s not a victory. Violence defeats you only if it makes you lose your faith in your strength. In that sense, whoever doesn’t give up, and whoever speaks out, wins and wins big.

I was lucky enough to find a team of women filmmakers who believed in the power of my story and who followed me for four years when I decided to speak out. In Brave Miss World, Cecilia Peck and Inbal Lessner have made a film that tells my story and the stories of brave survivors all over the world. And I couldn’t have done it without my friend and producer Motty Reif, who never left my side.

I hope that Brave Miss World will not only encourage victims to speak out and report the crime without shame, but also that it leads to longer prison sentences for rapists. I have met with survivors all over the world, to talk about different kinds of rape - stranger rape, date rape, acquaintance rape, college campus rape, domestic rape, rape as a weapon of war. I want to bring the subject of rape out of the shadows and into the light.

Together we can create a world that helps survivors get access to investigative, medical, and legal help. One where every city has a rape center and the resources to process rape kits and prosecute rapists. One where the victim doesn’t blame herself, and isn’t pressured to keep quiet. 

My personal struggle was to get my life back; to get back the faith that this world is not dangerous and violent, and that I have the right to heal myself and have a normal life. For me personally, my faith is the most important thing in my life.

The real healing is in the heart, and the real victory is to go back and discover your trusting, believing self - who can trust somebody else, and who's capable of giving and of receiving.

I hope that all survivors and their families will use our website, www.bravemissworld.com, as a place to connect find resources to help. If each of us can reach out and encourage someone we know to seek help, we can end the silence and make this world a better place.