On March 26, Eman al-Obeidi burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and told reporters that fifteen of Gaddafi’s militiamen had detained her for two days and raped her. She named one of them as the son of a high-ranking official, and pleaded for her friends, who she said were still held captive. After a scuffle with journalists who tried to intervene, government security forces bundled al-Obeidi out of the hotel against her will and drove her away. At this time, her whereabouts remain unknown.
Since most of the international press corps were at the Rixos Hotel, al-Obeidi’s story received worldwide attention and extensive coverage. She became a symbol of the uprising in Libya, putting the methods of the Gaddafi government on display. The Washington Post described her as a “symbol of defiance against Gaddafi.” Others have described her as Libya’s Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, and compared the incident to Wael Ghonim’s TV appearance after his release from custody in Egypt.
What cannot be denied is that Eman al-Obeidi broke through the propaganda machine of the regime. At one point, just before a dark cloth was thrown over her head, she shouted: “Do you see their repression?” Charles Clover of the Financial Times, one of the journalists who tried to intervene, put it this way: “On Saturday morning…a little piece of the real world, named Eman el-Obeidi, came crashing into our surreal existence.”
The regime responded with a barrage of claims against the claimant. Initially, perhaps predictably, she was described as drunk and mentally ill, although that allegation of madness was later dropped. Instead, one spokesperson described her as a prostitute, as though that would better explain her claim of rape.