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“Brave Miss World”: Raped Before Winning ’98 Title, Linor Abargil Campaigns Against Sexual Violence

StoryFebruary 19, 2013
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Linor Abargil, an Israeli national, was crowned Miss World in 1998 just two months after she was abducted and raped in Italy. After winning the title, Abargil would go to become a global advocate in the fight against sexual violence. Her story, from rape victim to Miss World to global activist, is told in the new documentary film, “Brave Miss World.” We’re joined by the film’s director, Cecilia Peck, and its producer, Inbal Lessner. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The new film Brave Miss World examines the remarkable story of Linor Abargil and her global campaign against sexual violence. Linor, an Israeli national, won the title of Miss World 1998 shortly after she was abducted and raped in Italy. She would go on to become a global advocate in the fight against sexual violence. She developed a website called LinorSpeaksOut.com, where she urged other survivors of sexual abuse to submit their stories. Let’s turn to a clip from Brave Miss World, where Linor won the Miss World award just weeks after she was raped.

RONAN KEATING: There’s only one more prize here tonight, and that’s the big one: Miss World 1998 is one of these girls!

ERIC MORLEY: And Miss World 1998 is Miss Israel!

NARRATOR: As crowds of Israeli fans welcomed the new Miss World, no one knew of her ordeal just two months earlier.

LINOR ABARGIL: [translated] I’m just in shock. It feels surreal to think that…

JULIA MORLEY: You know, I think that we’d like to thank you very, very much for this wonderful, warm welcome. I think that this is so much what she has wanted, to come home.

AMY GOODMAN: Linor Abargil, unable to speak at a news conference after winning the Miss World contest just weeks after she was raped. Later in the film, Linor travels to the United States. During a fundraiser at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, she describes what happened to her just weeks before she won Miss World.

LINOR ABARGIL: I entered the Miss Israel competition at the last moment. The prize was a trip to Thailand and a new car.


LINOR ABARGIL: I came from a small town. A trip and a new car was a big deal. Well, after I won Miss Israel, I was sent to Milan, Italy. But after two weeks, I felt out of place, and I missed my family. The modeling agency put me in touch with an Israeli agent in Italy named Shlomo Nur. I met with him and asked him to get me a flight home as soon as possible. He finally got me a night flight from Rome, and he was willing to drive me there. He took a secluded road, telling me that avoiding the freeway would save me the toll. Those were the longest hours of my life. Sorry. Rape is so isolating, because even if you tell people what happened, they’re afraid to mention it, so you’re surrounded by silence.

AMY GOODMAN: Linor Abargil’s story is told in the new film Brave [Miss] World. Last week, I sat down with the film’s director and producer, Cecilia Peck and Inbal Lessner. I started by asking Cecilia, the daughter of the legendary actor Gregory Peck and now a filmmaker and actress herself, to talk about Linor Abargil’s story.

CECILIA PECK: Linor was only 18 when she became Miss Israel, and she was sent to Milan to model. But she was homesick, and she didn’t—she wasn’t comfortable modeling in Milan, so she tried to get a ticket home. And her modeling agency introduced her to a Hebrew-speaking travel agent, who said there were no flights, but he could drive her to Rome for a night flight. So he got her in his car. Two hours later, they were on a secluded road, and he took out a knife and tied her up, put a gag in her mouth, a bag over her head, and stabbed and raped her repeatedly.

She managed to escape, the story of which—how she did that is told in the film. And she made it to Rome. She pressed charges against him. She went to the hospital. She flew home to Israel and very quickly had to go represent her country in the Miss World pageant. And to her complete shock, because she was in such trauma, she won the Miss World crown.

That year, she fought to put him in prison. And he turned out to be a serial rapist. She was the one who finally got him behind bars. And then she retreated for a period of healing. But all that time, she wanted to reach out to other women. So, 10 years later, she came to find a filmmaker who would document her journey, to talk about her experience and urge other women not to stay silent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that moment when you said she actually brought charges. So, before she leads a global campaign or just tries to reach out to women to tell them to tell their own stories of sexual abuse, she is known, because she brought charges. She went public early, isn’t that right? It is not common that a woman will stand up and go to court.

CECILIA PECK: Linor credits her mother, when she called her from Italy that night, who said, “It’s not your fault. Go to the police. Go to the hospital. Don’t take a shower. And we’ll support you.” Linor says that’s the reason she felt confident enough to pursue justice, because when the assailant is known to the victim, even when there’s DNA evidence, they’ll so often say it was consensual. And that’s what Linor’s rapist’s lawyers said. They claimed that she seduced him. But she fought and battled to put him behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: And she continued to fight, and she fought the judicial system, as well. Let’s turn to a clip of Linor as she reads out a letter for a parole hearing scheduled for Uri Shlomo, who was convicted, sentenced to 16 years in 1999 for her rape. She doesn’t want him out of jail before he serves his term.

LINOR ABARGIL: [translated] “To the parole board, This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. How can I summarize in one page what I’ve been feeling all these years and what Uri Shlomo did to my life, the brutal way that he raped me twice, with a knife at my throat, my hands tied with rope and my mouth taped shut? To this day, I can’t fathom that I went through all of that and survived. If it wasn’t for the negligent Italian police work, he would have also been in prison for attempted murder. But because of their inept investigation, there was not enough evidence. Every time I think about the rape, I feel like I’m falling into an abyss, and I can’t breathe. I pray that this person, Uri Shlomo, will spend the rest of his life behind bars. But unfortunately that won’t happen. So I hope that at least he will serve out the entire sentence he was given.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Linor Abargil reading her letter to the parole board—she couldn’t read it in person—saying that Uri Shlomo shouldn’t get out of prison. Inbal Lessner, you are the editor and the producer of this film. Why couldn’t she go to the parole hearing?

INBAL LESSNER: So, in Israel, the law doesn’t allow rape victims or any other crime victims to appeal to the parole board in person. The only way she could voice her rejection—her objection was through a letter. And she wrote this letter and read it to the Prison Service—victim liaison at the Prison Service. She—in the U.S., the law is different: Women are allowed to appear in the parole—at the parole board hearings. But it’s a repetitive thing. You can be asked to appear at the parole board every couple months or every six months, whenever the prisoner is up for parole. So—

AMY GOODMAN: How long did Linor succeed in keeping him in prison?

INBAL LESSNER: Well, he is due to be released in July of next year, July 2014. So he’s been eligible for parole now for three or four years, but he hasn’t been able to go out, to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: You not only follow Linor’s story but, through her, rape victims around the world, because she establishes a website, Linor does. Cecilia?

CECILIA PECK: She does, and she immediately, in the first week it was up, got hundreds of emails from women, many of whom had never told their stories before but found a place online where they could share what happened to them and find a community out there of women who had been through the same thing. And Linor really believes that the healing is in speaking out. And the film really takes her from teenage victim of a violent crime to this empowered advocate, and that’s what happens to many of the women she meets with in the film, because in meeting a Miss World who’s had the same thing happen to her, who believes them, they find their voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to South Africa, a clip from the voices of the Teddy Bear Clinic, an organization working with abused young women in Soweto in South Africa.

RAPE SURVIVOR 1: I was raped by the person that I know, and he was related to my aunt.

LINOR ABARGIL: How old are you?


LINOR ABARGIL: Oh, my god!

RAPE SURVIVOR 2: I came here to the Teddy Bear Clinic last year in the middle of June, but I got raped February by my biological father.

LINOR ABARGIL: Do you have a mom?

RAPE SURVIVOR 2: No, my mom passed away when I was a year and four months.

RAPE SURVIVOR 1: They want to spread HIV and AIDS. When they rape a little young girl, they think, “You know, that girl is still a virgin. I’m going to spread that disease to her, and then I’m going to get cured.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was from the Teddy Bear Clinic in Soweto, South Africa, these young women saying that the men believe if they rape or have sex with a young woman, they will be cured of AIDS. And you also go to another survivor in South Africa, Alison Botha. She explains what happened to her.

ALISON BOTHA: I had just parked my car outside my house. I just arrived home.

LINOR ABARGIL: Oh, inside your house?

ALISON BOTHA: Yeah, I didn’t have a garage, so I had to park on the street, so they just opened my door.


ALISON BOTHA: They had a knife. They put the knife up to my throat and said to me, “Move over, or else we’ll kill you.” They took me out to like a bushy remote area just outside the city.

LINOR ABARGIL: With your car.

ALISON BOTHA: Yeah, with my car. There was no one to shout for for help. I just thought, don’t make them upset. And I just put my hands on the ceiling of the car, so I didn’t have to touch them. And I tried, while they both raped me, to think of other things. Like, what do you say? I remember just saying to them, “Please don’t kill me.”


ALISON BOTHA: And he just said, “Sorry.” They dragged me out of the car and stabbed me in my abdomen about 35, 36 times.

LINOR ABARGIL: Oh, my god!

ALISON BOTHA: While that was happening—I think it must have just been a reflex reaction—my leg kind of gave a twitch, and he read that as I was still alive. So he took his knife, and he cut my throat. I remember even hearing one of them say to the other, “Is she dead?” And the other one said, “No one can live through that.” And then they got in—


ALISON BOTHA: They got in my car and drove off. What happened, they had cut my neck, amazingly missing the jugular vein here by less than millimeters, but they cut this muscle. And when I stood up, without this muscle, I couldn’t control my head, and my head flopped right back onto my back. I just kind of put my hand to the back my head, and I literally held my head on and everything else in. I don’t know how long it took me. I don’t know how many times I fell. I don’t remember most of that journey, but yeah, made it to the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Botha. Inbal Lessner, this is the most horrific story. She wrote a book about her—what she went through?

INBAL LESSNER: Alison wrote a book called I Have Life. And she’s been like a national hero in South Africa. She’s, I guess, one of the first women who came out publicly about having been raped. And I remember our local crew members were so excited they were going to meet her when they saw her name on the schedule. She speaks publicly. She—and when Linor met with her, it was at a point where she was really having a hard time with doing this work. And I think she got a lot of strength and—from Alison, as an activist who was trying to find her voice, as an activist what she can give others. And she got a lot from Alison, I think, a lot of direction.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, she gave, Cecilia, the women, the young girls at the Teddy Bear Clinic in Soweto. Linor was there giving to them.

CECILIA PECK: Those girls—

AMY GOODMAN: This was the same journey?

CECILIA PECK: It was. And they could not believe that a Miss World was in their tiny clinic in Soweto listening to them. And they said, “People just tell us, 'You cry too much.'” And Linor said to them, “You know what you tell them? Say, 'Yes. And if you don't give me support, I’ll cry louder.’” And she embraced them. And it’s a turning point in the film when Linor becomes that activist, that woman who can help others. And she left those girls saying, “I know that you’re in turn going to help other girls.”

AMY GOODMAN: And Linor goes to the United States. We heard her at the Cleveland Rape Crisis event in Cleveland, Ohio. And she talks to people who are known and not known, or they’re very famous, actresses like Joan Collins, who is speaking in your film for the first time.

CECILIA PECK: She does. When Joan found out about the film, she said, “I want to help you.” And she does the most moving interview about her rape, which I won’t tell now, but it came at a point when Linor realized this problem is so widespread and so prevalent, and she wanted to have voices of women who were notable, who could help her get the message out.

AMY GOODMAN: She also speaks with Fran Drescher, the film and television actress most famous for her role in the TV series The Nanny. This is Fran Drescher talking about her own life.

FRAN DRESCHER: I’m Fran, and I was raped at gunpoint when I was 27. We had just finished dinner. A girlfriend of mine was joining my husband and I. Then suddenly we heard a big boom, and the door had been pushed down, opened. And two men with guns, who turned out to be brothers, they tied my husband up, and one brother stole everything in the house, and the other one raped me and my girlfriend. And Peter’s mom had called when it was all happening.


FRAN DRESCHER: And the rapist untied him, Peter, and, you know, took the gag off and held the phone to his ear, and so he talked to his mom. It was this little moment where somebody could have rescued us, but we didn’t know what to do, because there was a gun to Peter’s head. And we just did what we were told. And, um—but—oh, God, there goes all your makeup. But the detective told us that we did everything right, because we lived. And if you live, then—then it’s OK, you did everything right.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Fran Drescher survived—talking to Linor Abargil, who is a rape survivor herself and is Miss World, raped and crowned within two months of each other. Cecilia Peck, that interview that Linor did with Fran Drescher, had she known her from television?

CECILIA PECK: Well, Linor had asked for help in reaching out to some prominent women to spread the message about the importance of talking about rape crimes. And she managed to reach Fran, who immediately said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And they met for that interview. But they had a lot in common. The bonds between the women who have been through this experience are so strong.

AMY GOODMAN: And Linor goes to college campuses, where she speaks out, in the United States, and talks with young women who have been through what she has been through. There is this unbelievable video you have in the film from Yale University during a fraternity pledging ritual. I want to go to a clip of Delta Kappa Epsilon members that went viral. They’re chanting in areas on campus where freshman women live.

DELTA KAPPA EPSILON MEMBERS: No means yes! Yes means anal! No means yes! Yes means anal!


CECILIA PECK: “No means yes. Yes means anal.”

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get this video?

CECILIA PECK: From CNN. But it’s not just at Yale, and I’m sorry we had to call out Yale. It’s on every campus. Universities, it’s not in their interest to disclose cases of rape. And I think it’s so important for university presidents and healthcare workers at schools to think twice about listening to students who dare to report a sexual assault, a rape on campus.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip of some of the survivors who Linor meets with. And I met them up at Barnard College, as they are still so emotional, so wrecked, and also strong, you know, all at the same time, some of the survivors Linor meets here in the United States, where they talk about the failures of the criminal justice system to address the issue of rape. This is Morgan.

MORGAN: I went to the DA. It was the first time I met with her, and I went in. She sat down, and she said that she thought that he was cute. And she tried to convince me that I had just had a weak moment and that it was my fault.

AMY GOODMAN: Another survivor Linor spoke with is Debra.

DEBRA: He got one year in jail.

LINOR ABARGIL: Oh, my god.

DEBRA: And I never understood that, because he had done it to me for nine years and did it to two of my friends, did it to his own daughter. It’s so unfair that he’s out there, probably still doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Cecilia Peck, tell us about Debra and, before that, Morgan.

CECILIA PECK: Debra was raped by her stepfather, by her mother’s husband from the age of four to 14 years old. And like so many kids who are victims of domestic abuse, who are frightened to say anything or intimidated or made to feel complicit in it, she kept quiet for all those years. And when she finally was able to report it to someone at the hospital, her mother disowned her. She gave her up as a ward of the state, because she was in denial and wanted to save her marriage over her daughter. And Debra has never spoken about it before, but we met her through a friend. And she is one of our incredibly brave survivors who finds her voice in this film.

AMY GOODMAN: And before that, Morgan saying the prosecutor said to her, “But he’s so cute,” her rapist.

CECILIA PECK: Right, “Maybe you just had a weak moment.” You know, again, for victims of domestic rape or rape with the use of drugs, when you know the rapist, it’s so hard to get the law enforcement or justice system to believe you, because the rapist will always say, “But she knew me. She wanted it.” And that’s what happened to Morgan. She knew the guy, but she was raped, but the DA said, “You have no case.”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is really the coming together of two remarkable women, Linor and you, yourself. You are a documentary filmmaker, Shut Up & Sing with Barbara Kopple, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, about the Dixie Chicks. And you have done another film, also with Barbara Kopple, about your own legendary father, Gregory Peck.

CECILIA PECK: Well, he also was a quiet crusader. You know, he was such a legendary movie star, but he managed to make films about important issues that were controversial, like anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement, and he dealt with racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. So, you know, I’m really grateful for that legacy that I come from, and trying in my own way—could never live up, but—to do stories that count.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cecilia Peck, director of Brave Miss World, and Inbal Lessner, the film’s producer and editor. The film chronicles the story of Linor Abargil, who won Miss World 1998 just two months after she was raped. Linor went on to became a global advocate for victims of sexual violence. For more information on the film, you can visit LinorSpeaksOut.com. You can also go to our website to watch Cecilia Peck, the director, talk about her own legendary father, Gregory Peck, the actor. The film has yet to get a distributor. We interviewed them just after a sneak preview of the film at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College last week.

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