The Making of an Activist: Former Miss World’s Decade-Long Journey to Make Sense of Tragedy

Abargil at the Teddy Bear Clinic in South Africa during the filming of Brave Miss World. Photo courtesy bravemissworld.com

“I never for a million years thought this was what was going to come of my life,” says the raspy voice over the phone. Linor Abargil, Miss World 1998, is telling the story that has defined her life—again.

“The night she was crowned,” says Cecilia Peck, the director of the documentary that first captured it, “she vowed to herself to one day speak out and tell her story… It took her ten years to feel strong enough to do it.”

After winning the Miss Israel title earlier in 1998, then 18-year-old Abargil embarked on a trip to Milan, Italy for a modeling gig.  Entrusting a Hebrew-speaking travel agent, Uri Shlomo, to guide her home by way of a train leaving from Rome, Abargil got in a car with him to make the trip from Milan to Rome. During the ride to the train, he stopped the car and attacked Abargil: he held her at knifepoint, gagged, stabbed, choked and brutally raped and sodomized her. Begging for her life and framing it to him as a “one night stand,” she explains in the documentary Brave Miss World, he agreed to stop and resumed escorting her to the train to take her home. Claiming that she liked him and convincing him that it was mutual was a tactic that likely saved her life. Leaving her at the train station back in Milan, he told Abargil to call him when she got back home to Israel—because he was “concerned for her safety.”

Abargil and Peck. Photo courtesy bravemissworld.com

Abargil and Peck. Photo courtesy bravemissworld.com

In the weeks following the incident, Abargil, at that time dubbed Miss Israel and in competition for the Miss World title, was quiet to the public about what had happened in Milan, and the fact that she had pressed charges against her rapist that were largely ignored in Italy. Shlomo had been detained for a matter of days, but released due to the Judge’s claim of insufficient evidence, and the jurisdiction of the case was transferred to Israel. In those weeks while she was publicly engulfed by interviews and pageants and crownings celebrating her poise and beauty, Israeli authorities were privately piecing together traces of her blood, urine and DNA mixed and matted in Shlomo’s BMW. The police were working to learn Abargil’s story, gather the incriminating evidence and bring him to justice in Israel.

At the time, to those watching the competition all over the world who did not know what had just happened to her, her facial expression as she accepted the title seemed dumbfounded and stiff. To those who watch it in hindsight, her facial expressions are a heartbreaking show of the mixture of emotions that victims of rape experience: she is overwhelmed, terrified, and consumed by the memories.

“I was a child,” she says about her life before the rape. “I just wanted to go to the army (mandated after high school in Israel) and to go to university. I couldn’t see past the next day.”

Abargil says her life prior to the pageants and the attack was short-sighted, normal, and easy. Growing up outside of the northern city of Netanya, in Israel, she knew she wanted to do her duty in the Israeli Defense Forces, and then go to college to become a lawyer. She entered in to the world of pageantry after high school because of the promise of $100,000 and a new car. After she won the Miss World crown, with the combination of the brutal rape and nearly immediate projection into the international spotlight, she was paralyzed with emotion. When the news of the rape broke after Shlomo was arrested in a collaborative sting wherein he was coaxed in to returning to Israel and met at the airport by Israeli police, she had no choice in the matter that her very personal tragedy was going to be catapulted onto the international stage.

For the next ten years, Abargil tried to forget. She went to therapy and tried to live a regular life, whatever she could salvage: she married Lithuanian professional basketball player Šarūnas Jasikevičius—a marriage that lasted just two years. When she was first approached to do the documentary in 2005, she says she was against it.

“I said ‘no, absolutely not.’ I wanted to put that behind me. I had to go to therapy, I had to recover. I had a happy life, I didn’t want to bring that up again and I didn’t want it to define me,” she says.

The way in which Abargil responded to the incident is typical of a victim of sexual assault: they do not want to talk about the attacks, sometimes so much that they don’t even report it. In the United States, for example, one in six women are said to be subjected to rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But the rate is estimated to be much higher because the majority of women are afraid or too ashamed to talk about it.  According to RAINN, a staggering 68 percent of sexual assaults are not reported. Oftentimes, instead of talking about the incident, victims turn on themselves by cutting their wrists, arms or legs, changing their appearance by cutting their hair off or making other drastic life changes.

“People don’t talk,” Abargil says about the victims she has met. “They change their whole lives, they make these drastic changes because they don’t talk about it. They need to speak about it or else it will just be something that they fight about silently with themselves, and it will consume their whole life. It’s every day.”

“Keeping it to yourself is like taking a gun and shooting yourself in the head,” she said to thejc.com in 2009.

Abargil herself only agreed to speak out and do the documentary years after interested parties first approached her. Abargil was outspoken about the need for women to speak up, and her refusal to be stifled by the courts incited dozens of women to tell her that she was brave. Calls to rape centers in Israel nearly doubled the year following her trial in 1998, which has largely been attributed to Abargil.

“Brave? I thought ‘I am not brave,’” she says, explaining that she felt like she didn’t deserve the recognition.  But simply being adamant that her attacker should remain in jail and forthright about justice was an action greater than what most women were, and are, willing to do.

Peck says it was this factor that had inspired her and producer Inbal Lessner to do the documentary. “For us, it had a lot to do with how open and unashamed Linor was in talking about the rape,” she says. “We thought that it was very powerful not to be embarrassed and ashamed. We had never heard somebody so up front about it.

And she said ‘why should I be ashamed? The fault was his, not mine.’”

A combination of the army of supporters that followed her trial, an increasing religious devotion and a draw to do something good for the world pushed her to open an online forum, linorspeaksout.com, calling for girls and women to share stories of their sexual assault. She was shocked at the sheer number and the geographic span of the feedback she received.  Today, says Peck, linorspeaksout.com was merged with bravemissworld.com, which serves as a platform and beacon of hope for over 900,000 survivors and their families around the world. A scroll through the site reveals pages upon pages of tales of rape and sexual assault, and the thoughts and reflections of the confused and shaken victims who are writing them, as well as hope and support from survivors.

As a victim of rape, Abargil’s ability to listen to countless stories of familiarly horrifying situations functions as a sponge that absorbs other victims’ traumas. Her extraordinary calm, cool and collectiveness serves as a point of hope for those who can’t imagine feeling inside as relaxed as Abargil appears to be on the outside.

“I think she felt ready to take on the work of reaching out to other women and helping them to heal, but she didn’t anticipate how triggering it would be for her,” says Peck, in reference to a point in the documentary where Abargil asked to stop filming because of its emotional impact.

“And we didn’t either, because we all had to adjust to and face and learn how to protect her during the shooting of the film. She did ultimately have to face the most traumatic, painful event of her life. It wasn’t easy, and when she did leave, she definitely felt like it was too much for her to handle. But it was her who came back and said ‘I’m ready, let’s do this’ six months later,” Peck says.

“At some point you have to become numb to it, because you hear so many stories,” says Abargil.

“Seeing her go through this trauma and pain, in order to help other women heal, was extremely inspiring to us,” Peck continues. “You can see Linor touch the most difficult parts of her past just to help other women. That’s why it’s such a compelling narrative and what makes it so deep and powerful.”

Abargil during the filming of Brave Miss World. Photo courtesy bravemissworld.com

Abargil during the filming of Brave Miss World. Photo courtesy bravemissworld.com

Abargil credits her relatively newfound religious devotion and an inspiration to do good things for the world as her motivation. Through her journey, Abargil transitioned to Orthodox Judaism, and began dressing modestly according to Orthodox Jewish law: covering her arms and legs, and eventually covering her hair.

“When you go to sleep at night, everyone is searching for something, something bigger than themselves, and that’s what it is for me,” she says, referring ambiguously to both religion and activism.

Abargil speaks about her religious awakening and her awakening as an advocate interchangeably, a transition that Peck says she had aimed to capture.

“It’s about the making of an activist and her transformation—the most unlikely activist: an Israeli beauty queen, who answered a call to action. [Brave Miss World] looks at how you can pick up the pieces of your life and move forward, because it’s not going to go away,” says Peck.

“There’s a positive message of hope for healing. It’s about the bravery that it takes. It’s about the trust that you were a victim but that you can be a survivor, and the courage to move forward in your life.”