2016-05-25 / Home

‘Brave Miss World’ encourages rape survivors to talk about their ordeals


Welcoming Keynote Speaker Linor Abargil (center) to Federation’s Event for Women were mother-daughter Cochairs Pattie Feinerman (left) and Valerie Linden. Welcoming Keynote Speaker Linor Abargil (center) to Federation’s Event for Women were mother-daughter Cochairs Pattie Feinerman (left) and Valerie Linden. By the tender age of 18, Linor Abargil had two life-changing experiences. A beauty-contest winner from a small Israeli town, she was brutally raped in Italy by her trusted travel agent. Then, just six weeks later, Abargil was crowned Miss World 1998 to much fanfare and international coverage in the beautiful Seychelles Islands.

It took years before Abargil truly understood how the two incidents were connected and how her strength to prosecute her attacker while enduring a high-profile trial gave her the fortitude to become the public face of rape survivors worldwide.

“I really believe I won this stupid crown just to speak to all of you today and to make women know there is a better way to live,” Abargil said to a multi-generational group of women gathered for Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey’s annual Event for Women on May 18. “I want them to know there is somebody that can believe them, someone who can help them and they can trust, and they can move on and it’s not their fault. This is really the gift that I got from God.”

A statuesque former model who now dresses modestly, Abargil is a married mother of three children under the age of three, an actress and law school graduate. Since 2008, she has been traveling the globe telling her story and reaching out to rape survivors. Well-known in Israel—where she is celebrated both for her advocacy and her acting—she has gained an international following through 2013’s “Brave Miss World,” an Emmy nominated documentary that weaves her story with interviews she conducted with fellow rape survivors.

Abargil’s path from beauty queen to activist was a circuitous one, she explained at the event, which was held at Cong. Beth El and co-chaired by Pattie Feinerman and Valerie Linden, a mother-daughter team. Following her talk, Hillary Platt, director of Project S.A.R.A.H. at Samost Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS), spoke about the Federation agency’s domestic abuse program.

Hailing from Netanya, 20 miles from Tel Aviv, Abargil was, admittedly, not the typical beauty contestant when she was crowned Miss Israel, the event that brought her to Italy later that year. “I never wanted to be in pageants. But the prize was a trip to Thailand and a new car,” she wrote on her website. “I came from a small town. A trip and a new car was a big deal.”

But while modeling in Italy, Abargil was homesick. The Israeli travel agent she connected with through the modeling agency duped her into driving with him from Milan to Rome for a flight home. Instead of delivering her safely to the airport, he bound her and raped her at knifepoint multiple times on a dark, secluded road. It was “the longest hours of my life,” she recalled. He also intended to kill her, but she managed to talk him out of it.

Once safe, her first call was to her mother, who was nothing but supportive, helping her to report the crime and never questioning how her daughter got into such a terrible situation.

“I never blamed myself all because of my mom,” she said, noting she has since learned that not all rape victims have such an amazing support network.

In fact, she said, one of the major reasons so few women speak out about rape is that they are shamed into silence.

“To live with a secret like this, this is not to live a life,” she said. “You have to take it out of your system to really move on, so you can really breathe.”

She cited statistics that one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 80 percent will never speak of it. In “Brave Miss World,” Joan Collins revealed for the first time that she too was raped as a 17-year-old. But the story, revealed 64 years after the crime, gets worse; she married her rapist.

Abargil said she has learned through subsequent interviews that it is not so unusual for victims to marry their attackers— believing that no one else would want them after their ordeal.

In her own case, she was ready to back out of the Miss World contest after her attack, wanting only to escape her life. But then she realized that the glitzy affair—being surrounded by gorgeous women vowing to ‘save the world,’ practicing catwalks and undergoing multiple wardrobe changes—was an ideal escape.

“They wanted to save the world, and I just wanted to die,” she recalled.

Abargil is convinced she didn’t win because she was the prettiest or most talented, but because her survivor instinct kicked in.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could win my life back,” she recalled.

After she won, the hard part began. Although her attacker was let free in Italy, he was prosecuted in Israel. She had to very publically relive the events and face her rapist’s denials in the year following her crowning. But justice prevailed. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail, the maximum sentence for rape. According to her website, there was an increase in the rate of rape victims reporting the crime in Israel following the trial.

Abargil stayed out of the public eye for a few years after that to concentrate on her healing. In 2008, she launched a website and a speaking tour to encourage survivors to speak out.

“I dedicate my life for this cause,” she said. “I really believe everything happens for a reason.” .

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