A tale of rape in a republic of fear

The case of a distraught Libyan woman who showed up at a Tripoli hotel where foreign journalists are housed and told them she had been raped by "militiamen" loyal to Moammar Gadhafi has largely been ignored by U.S. women's groups and rights organizations, writes Neil Macdonald.

Libyan Iman al-Obaidi dragged away after telling of rape by pro-Gadhafi militiamen

Every year during his state of the union speech, the president of the United States invites certain people to sit in the special presidential box with the first lady. Generally, these are people who have committed extraordinary acts, often of great courage — people like the pilot who put his passenger jet down in the Hudson River two years ago, saving the lives of everyone aboard.

This country adores heroes.

So, allow me to nominate one for inclusion in the presidential box next year, if, indeed, she is still alive by then: Iman al-Obaidi.

Al-Obaidi is the woman who pushed her way, weeping, into the five-star Rixos Hotel in Tripoli last weekend. That's where the Libyan regime keeps international journalists penned up under the supervision of government "minders." The minders try to ensure the journalists see only those things that may assist the regime's propaganda efforts.

Bruises are seen on the face of Iman al-Obaidi as she cries at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli on March 26. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters )

(Not that I blame the journalists, having been penned up and minded myself on more than one occasion. You do what you can do to be where you have to be.)


Al-Obaidi confronted journalists eating their breakfasts with a pretty harrowing story. She said she had been detained by a gang of "militiamen" loyal to Moammar Gadhafi earlier in the day and gang-raped.

Why? Almost certainly because she's from Benghazi, the rebel-held city in eastern Libya where Gadhafi has been denied the opportunity to slaughter the disloyal population wholesale.

So intent was al-Obaidi on convincing reporters of her story that she lifted up her black robe, which goes against the grain of nearly any woman in Arab society, and displayed the trauma inflicted on her thigh. There were also, reporters at the scene wrote, marks on her face, and on her wrists and ankles, indicating she'd been tied up.

"They defecated on me," she told the reporters who scrambled with cameras and notebooks. "They urinated on me. They violated my honour."

Rape rarely reported in Arab world

In places like Gadhafi's Libya (or Bashar al-Assad's Syria, or, until recently, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt or Saddam Hussein's Iraq), a public act like al-Obaidi's is not just incredibly courageous but near-suicidal, which is why rape is almost never reported in the Arab world, even though it is routinely used as a punishment by security forces.

Even in less repressive countries like Jordan, the rape itself is often less hurtful than what can come next. I once interviewed a young woman in Amman who had the misfortune of being raped by an uncle.

When her family found out about it, the stain on their honour was so unbearable that they locked the door, turned the music up loud, drew the curtains and shot her. When she had the nerve to recover in hospital, she was sold off to an old man who was willing to lend his name to the bastard child who resulted from the rape. All the girl had to do was agree to a life of indentured servitude scrubbing her saviour's floors. She was rescued by a group of women's advocates.

In Libya these days, you can add the viciousness of the regime's enforcers to the day-to-day misogyny Arab women face.

According to reporters on the scene, al-Obaidi was instantly set upon by waitresses in the restaurant, who grabbed knives and attacked her. One threw a coat over her head to shut her up. And these were the women who responded. The male "minders" from the government just grabbed al-Obaidi and began dragging her away.

Al-Obaidi reacts as she is grabbed by a Libyan official, left, preventing members of the foreign media from reaching her. As reporters gathered to hear her story, security guards grabbed al-Obaidi, bundled her into a car and drove her away. Several journalists were beaten during the scuffle. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Journalists who tried to protect her were beaten. One "minder" pulled a gun. Another one smashed the camera of a CNN cameraman who'd filmed the scene.

But, finally, the international press had a real story, and the damage control began, in the ham-fisted, dull-witted manner that only officials of regimes like the one in Tripoli can manage.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim immediately announced that al-Obaidi was drunk and mentally deranged.

Subsequently, when reporters insisted on speaking with her again, Ibrahim announced she may not have been deranged and drunk after all and assured the media her allegations were being investigated. Indeed, four men had been questioned, he declared. Al-Obaidi, he said, was safely back in the bosom of her family.

Except her family told reporters their daughter remained locked up. Her mother said the regime had told her that if her daughter would just change her story, there would be a reward of cash and new accommodations for the family.

Her mother not only said her daughter stands by her story, she dispensed with the family-honour nonsense. She declared her pride at her daughter's courage and denounced Gadhafi and his thugs as "dogs."

Now, the regime has changed its story again. Ibrahim now claims that al-Obaidi is a prostitute, a "sharmuta," to use the nasty Arabic invective. Further, the men she accused of raping her are now so offended at this slight to their dignity that they've filed a lawsuit against their victim.

And, of course, they will win, if Gadhafi's regime lasts long enough for it to get to court, even though al-Obaidi is, according to her mother, a lawyer. She will be punished further.

Story rings true

Now, a word: Beyond a certain point, reporters cannot do normal due diligence on al-Obaidi's story. It may, indeed, be that she will turn out to be crazy. As noted, you'd almost have to be to challenge a regime like Gadhafi's.

But her family confirms her account. To anyone who has worked in an Arab country, it has the ring of truth. I have watched Arab policemen brutalize a helpless woman.

Plus, al-Obaidi took the extraordinary step of publicly acknowledging rape in an Arab society. And most importantly, the regime has tried to shut her up. So, I'm just going to go ahead here and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Women hold a picture of al-Obaidi during a protest in Benghazi, Libya, on March 27. Women's groups abroad have not been so quick to take up her cause. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

But here's my question. The reporters whom she confronted are clearly outraged. Libyan women, at least in Benghazi, are outraged and protesting. So, where is all the outrage here in the West?

As far as I can tell, there has been no comment from organizations such as the U.S. National Organization for Women, despite the eyewitness dispatches from Tripoli. Shouldn't Iman al-Obaidi be a symbol of something?

I can only hope it's not a matter of opposition to U.S. militarism trumping support for women victimized in the Arab world. 

In any event, if Canadian pilots and the other coalition members charged with protecting Libyan civilians manage to hit the swine who tied up al-Obaidi and debased her humanity, well, they'll have done their jobs.

I know, I know: the West intervenes selectively against tyrants, and yes, America and its allies have supported some pretty disgusting sociopaths over the years, and sure, there's hypocrisy everywhere.

But aiming cannon and bombs against Moammar "no mercy" Gadhafi and his hired enforcers seems to me as good a use as any for Canada's fighter jets.

I'm ashamed to say I once wrote a column in this space saying how amusing I used to find Gadhafi's eccentricities when I covered the Middle East.

Heaven knows what has become of al-Obaidi. But if she survives, and there is justice, she should be sitting next to the first lady next February.