This is not your typical beauty pageant story.
In just a few short weeks in 1998, 18 year old Netanya native Linor Abargil on a lark became Miss Israel, and then was brutally stabbed and raped while on a modeling trip in Milan. She decided she could not allow the horror to defeat her. Instead, she went on to compete and win the Miss World contest just seven weeks after the brutal assault.
For many, the idea that anyone can pull herself together and compete in an international contest just weeks after such an assault seems impossible; for Abargil, allowing the rapist to defeat her was more impossible.
She went forward with the competition although she told no one other than her immediate family, and the police, what had happened. She never thought she would win, but she desperately needed something to fill her head that wasn’t about her ordeal. Linor had no thoughts of winning the contest, she just wanted to be able to keep breathing.
When my name was announced as the winner, I was completely shocked. I thought I was the least fitting of all the contestants to serve as Miss World. I did not know how to go about making world peace, or feed all the hungry children in Africa, or find a cure for AIDS. I was not sure what would be the purpose of the crown on my head, but I had a very strong sense that both my rape, and winning the crown, had happened for a reason.
Initially she confessed to the Miss World officials that perhaps they had chosen the wrong woman, she did not see how she could keep up with the media appearances and traveling when what she most needed to do was to follow through on pressing charges and ensure that her attacker was convicted.
Amazingly, the pageant officials understood and allowed her to take the time necessary to ensure that justice was served. But she also knew the issue was bigger than just her personal experience.
Abargil went around the world, speaking out about her ordeal, speaking with others who had also been sexually violated, working with survivors to help heal, working with those who work with survivors. She testified in court at the trial, and the rapist was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in jail.
And then, ten years after her traumatic experience, Abargil concluded she should make a film to document her experience, and the experience of so many others she has met.
That film, “Brave Miss World,” is 92 minutes long, and was shot in Israel, Italy, the United States and in Africa.
“For anyone who is a victim of rape, I am stepping forward to help you tell your story,” is the message Abargil sent as she made the film.
The documentary explores not only her experience, how she was able to survive the violence, how she escaped, but also how she had the strength to do what so few rape victims do: speak out, and not do what most victims do: blame themselves, allow others to blame them, and hide.
During the course of making the documentary, Abargil’s rapist became eligible for parole. The fear that Abargil had held at bay for so long came roaring back, and she had to once again face down the agony of reliving what happened. But Abargil did more. Not only did she provide testimony against his release, Abargil conducted her own investigation and uncovered the critical evidence that the man who raped her was a serial rapist – she found other women he had raped, and she added their voices to her own indictment.
In the film, Abargil spends time with child rape survivors in Soweto, Africa. The stories told by the children, and the support Abargil shows them, is a moving testament to the strength of shared experiences. She also visited U.S. college campuses, always emphasizing how important it is to report the violence, and to do what is counter-intuitive, that is, not to destroy the evidence.
Despite her strength, there were times when the trauma pierced through. One of the sources of support Abargil eventually found was through turning to Orthodox Judaism. Her secular mother, the force whom Linor credited with providing her with the strength to survive the ordeal, had great difficulty with this change.