The Symbol of Eman al-Obeidi

The Symbol of Eman al-Obeidi April 4, 2011

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.

Eman al Obeidi
Eman al-Obeidi being dragged away from the Rixos Hotel.

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.

But by far the most slanderous, recriminating, and misogynistic response came from Libyan State TV, from presenter Hala Musrati’s smear campaign against al-Obeidi. On state TV, Musrati claimed she had visited al-Obeidi and provided footage from a hidden camera that she said was duplicitously “filmed to show Eman refusing to be filmed by Libyan TV.”  Musrati concluded that al-Obeidi was a liar and a traitor to her country, and that she was worse than a prostitute, because even a prostitute could have national pride.

Musrati’s words are a particularly virulent example of how women can inhibit and oppress other women. It is not the only example – a woman was the first to shout at al-Obeidi, and another woman attempted to silence her by throwing a dark cloth over her face. At that moment, a woman was trying to silence another woman carrying out the injunction of speaking the truth against a tyrant, according to the hadith that “the best jihad is to speak the word of truth against the tyrant ruler.”

The government has not been content with simply silencing al-Obeidi. Most recently, she has been charged with slander for her claims of rape, since accusing someone of rape is “a very grave offence.” In an even more manipulative twist, the government avoids talking about the event by invoking the “conservative” society, even suggesting her family would not want her to be interviewed, a claim laid bare when her family asked for journalists to be allowed to see her.

For the most part, the international media coverage of al-Obeidi’s story has presented her as a victim of the Gaddafi regime’s violent repression. For some however, al-Obeidi is nothing more and nothing less than one more oppressed victim of Islam. As a victim of Shariah, she is essentially every Muslim woman, as Wafa Sultan affirmed to Bill O’Reilly.

It is incredibly tempting to ignore the right-wing media’s exploitation of al-Obeidi’s story to further their Shariah hysteria, mainly because that exploitation is so transparent. The idea of the autocratic Gaddafi regime as an upholder of Shariah law is a good premise for a tragi-comedy, given Gaddafi’s fear of Islam extended to a policy of imprisoning men who prayed the dawn prayer or grew their beards. Apart from that complete misrepresentation of the Libyan regime, and the misinformation about what in actual fact “Shariah law” even means, any story of a Muslim woman being raped necessitates, of course, some outraged rhetorical flourishes on how Muslim men treat Muslim women like chattel, as though rape was some kind of cultural crime restricted to barbaric Middle Eastern countries. It is not.

Much I would like to, there’s a problem with ignoring the right-wing media’s exploitative use of Muslim women’s stories–and that is the effect that exploitation has. For example, one comment on a CNN article about al-Obeidi noted “I love that her family is standing by her. Muslim rape victims are usually disgraced and subjected to an honor killing but I applaud them for standing up.” In response, someone commented:

I understand why you would make this generalization, as most of the unfortunate cases which get air time in the mainstream media fit this profile. But you can only make such claim if you back it up w/ statistics from a credible source. Otherwise you are perpetuating the stereotypes so prevalent today about Islam and Muslims (while mixing them with abhorrent cultural practices which have nothing to do with Islam)… [sic]

Following the widespread publication of al-Obeidi’s story, there was a lot of talk in western media about “honor” and “tribe” and “protection,” usually prefaced by “in this culture.” Some of this was factual and explanatory, and some of it veered into frank neo-Orientalism.

But when media outlets actually interviewed al-Obeidi’s family, there was no talk of dishonor or tribalism; only a mother’s pride in her daughter’s actions and her fear for her daughter’s safety, and just as importantly, for the women who were with her and who have not been heard of since.

Her mother refused bribes to get her daughter to change her story, tellingly saying “I will not sell my daughter’s honor for money.” The honor she’s speaking about has nothing to do with rape. In her cousin’s interview, similarly, there was no mention of dishonor, only worry about her and pride in what she had the courage to do. The family’s support for her has been unwavering, and what is surprising to me is that this is surprising to some.

Every Libyan I speak to sees al-Obeidi as a hero. Demonstrations for her were held throughout the opposition-held part of the country, The Transitional Council released a statement demanding her release, and her family arranged protests, put her photo up in the main square in Tobruk, and held her engagement party in absentia as a show of support.

She has become a symbol of the resistance – perhaps too much of a symbol, to the extent that Abderrahman Shalgham, Libya’s ambassador to the UN, appropriated al-Obeidi’s symbolic status to play upon the connections between women, land and nation, by concluding that “Eman is Libya – Libya the victimised, raped and silenced land.” This nationalist fantasy, or more accurately Shalgham’s appropriation of it for emotional effect, is problematic and disturbing on multiple levels.

However, for all Hala Musrati’s mocking the idea that al-Obeidi’s actions could be conceived as resistance, she is now being treated as a hero of the resistance, and within this view is an inversion of the deeply embedded stereotypes and beliefs about rape and dishonor in Arab and Middle Eastern societies. As Shalgham put it, the only person dishonored by what happened to al-Obeidi has been the Gaddafi regime.


Browse Our Archives