Egyptian-born columnist and speaker on Arab issues.
A woman who says she was raped by forces loyal to Libyan Col. Muammar Gaddafi remains missing five days after she was arrested for bursting into a hotel full of international reporters in Tripoli and recounting her ordeal. The woman, Eman al-Obeidi, said she had been held against her will for two days and raped by 15 of Gaddafi’s men. Obeidi’s face and legs were bruised, and she had blood on her right thigh. We speak with journalist Mona Eltahawy about sexual assaults against Libyan women under the Gaddafi regime. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: An alleged victim of rape by forces loyal to Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi remains missing five days after she was arrested for bursting into a hotel full of international reporters in Tripoli and recounting her ordeal. The woman, Eman al-Obeidi, said she had been held against her will for two days and raped by 15 of Gaddafi’s men. Her face was bruised, so were her legs, and she showed reporters blood on her right inner thigh.
AMY GOODMAN: Government officials in the hotel pounced on al-Obeidi as she tried to tell her story. A member of the hotel’s kitchen staff drew a knife, shouted "Traitor!" Another staffer tried to throw a dark tablecloth over her head. One government official, who was there to facilitate access for journalists, pulled a pistol from his belt. Others scuffled with reporters and wrestled them to the ground in an attempt to take away their equipment. Some journalists were beaten and kicked. CNN’s camera was confiscated and smashed beyond repair.
AL JAZEERA ENGLISH: As officials tried to silence Eman al-Obeidi, then led her away, she called out, "They say they’re taking me to hospital, but they’re really taking me to jail."
AMY GOODMAN: Eman al-Obeidi has not been seen in public since security officers dragged her from the hotel, forced her into a car waiting outside. Obeidi’s mother said she has since been offered bribes to pressure her daughter to recant her accusations.
AISHA AHMAD: [translated] Last night at 3:00 a.m., they called from Gaddafi’s compound and asked me to convince my daughter Eman to change what she said. "And we will set her free immediately, and you can take anything you and your children would ask for — money, a new home. Just ask your daughter to change what she has said." I told my daughter, "Keep silent, keep silent, keep silent." She said, "I am not changing what I said already, Mother."
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Libyan government first said Eman al-Obeidi was mentally ill and drunk. Then they called her a prostitute. Her family denies the charges.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim says the men accused of raping al-Obeidi are under investigation. Meanwhile, the suspects have sued al-Obeidi for slander.
Despite the government’s efforts to discredit Eman al-Obeidi, hundreds of Benghazi women marched through the streets on Monday to condemn Gaddafi’s regime and to show solidarity with her.
PROTESTER: [translated] We are demanding Muammar leave. We do not want to see him again. He killed our people, and he should leave.
AMY GOODMAN: Three more women, all lawyers, are also missing in Libya. The whereabouts of Eman al-Obeidi and these women remains unknown.
For more, we’re joined by Mona Eltahawy, a columnist who writes about Arab and Muslim issues.
Mona, talk about the latest here and your own experiences covering Libya in Libya.
MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, Libya is one of those countries where when you go as a journalist, you’re really a prisoner of the Ministry of Information, as we’ve seen with the journalists who were roughed up in the hotel in Tripoli. I was there in 1996 with a group of journalists who were taken over from Cairo to Libya. And because I tried to escape from the minders and leave the hotel by myself, I was branded a troublemaker. And during a news conference with Gaddafi, one of his male guards twisted my nipple, in the middle of the news conference. I appealed to Gaddafi for help; he did absolutely nothing. And then I learned that other journalists heard them say, "Just shoot her." So, this is just an example of the kind of violence that the Gaddafi regime and the thugs from the Ministry of Information just kind of mete out, as we saw in the video.
Now, what Eman al-Obeidi has done is really surmount unbelievable obstacles, because in Libya, Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2006 describing so-called "social rehabilitation centers," where girls and women who were survivors of rape are taken, because if you press charges for rape in Libya, you stand to — you know, just as we’ve seen these slander charges from the men she’s accused of raping her, you could be arrested yourself. So these girls and women are taken to these so-called social rehabilitation centers, kept as virtual prisoners, as a way of shaming them into silence. And they can’t leave these centers unless their male relatives claim them or someone says he wants to marry them, or the rapist marries them and then walks off free. So, you can imagine what she had to surmount in order to say publicly that she was raped. And the fact that she has disappeared and we don’t know where she is and all these bribes are offered to her family are just further signs of how the Gaddafi regime tries to silence women, either through sexual violence and then later shame.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what do we know about her history before she appeared in the hotel?
MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, she’s an attorney. The Gaddafi regime, as we heard in your report, has tried to make her seem either a drunk, mentally unstable, or a prostitute. But her parents and her family, who I have to say, I mean, to their credit, they’ve been public in their support for her. So, again, this goes against this tide of, you know, "let’s shame these women into silence." Her family has said she’s an attorney. Her family had denied all the charges. And clearly, the Gaddafi regime is trying to make — you know, is trying to smear her, because they can’t believe that this woman has been so outspoken in showing their violence, their sexual violence, especially.
AMY GOODMAN: The mother of Eman al-Obeidi called on the youth of Tripoli to rise up against Gaddafi’s regime.
AISHA AHMAD: [translated] Muammar is the criminal. My daughter, she was mistreated by those criminals and cheaters, Muammar and his followers. Where are you, youth of Tripoli? Where are you? Eman was kidnapped in front of the camera. She was trying to appear to the world. She wanted to tell them what is happening in Misurata, Benghazi and the east. She wanted to reveal that. Where are you? She was kidnapped from your hands. Where are you? Make a move, youth of Tripoli.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the mother of Eman al-Obeidi. Mona Eltahawy?
MONA ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s unbelievably moving to watch her family speak out. Her cousin has spoken out, her father, her mother. And, you know, you have to tie all of this into, you know, the idea that we’re very familiar with, unfortunately, of sexual violence being used as a weapon against women. I mean, in Egypt, my country of birth, we’ve heard of the female activists who were arrested from Tahrir Square on March 9th, who have since gone on record — again, on camera, speaking out, without shame, because they want to confront head-on this idea of sexual violence and silence — have said that the Egyptian military subjected them to virginity testing and threatened those who were found not to be virgins with being prostitutes. So it ties it in right to the story in Libya: you know, if you’re not a virgin, you’re a prostitute; if you speak out about rape, you’re a prostitute. So I think it’s very important that her mother has spoken out so movingly. And these revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have really brought to the fore all this ugliness that regimes used against people. And clearly, against women, they would use sexual violence. So, that we’re seeing more and more women speak out, you know, on camera, in front of the international media, you know, clearly says that women will not be silenced anymore and that these regimes face a lot head-on.
AMY GOODMAN: Mona, you are Egyptian. Talk more about what women face in Egypt. I mean, even on the liberation night, the night of the tremendous celebration, the story of the CBS reporter Lara Logan, we still don’t know exactly what happened to her, but she was sexually abused in Tahrir.
MONA ELTAHAWY: Right. Well, you know, sexual harassment in Egypt, street sexual harassment, has been on the rise over the past few years. The levels are horrendous. You know, myself and every Egyptian woman I know have been subjected to groping or other kinds of street sexual harassment. And, you know, this is all a result of this growing conservatism in Egypt during the Mubarak regime, where the Mubarak regime would not only use an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam against its Islamist opponents, but the regime itself sexually assaulted women. In 2005, again to silence and shame women activists and journalists, the regime’s security forces and hired thugs would target women. Women showed their clothes that were ripped off. You know, women had headscarves ripped off. Simulated rape on women journalists and activists as a way of getting women off the street. And so, if the regime does that, then it’s green light that anyone — you know, women are fair game. So these are the obstacles in Egypt. And you saw it coming out on International Women’s Day, when women tried to march for women’s rights.
And, you know, what happened when Tahrir Square was opened was, those who didn’t join the revolution came out to Tahrir Square. So this kind of utopian atmosphere we had in Tahrir Square, you know, was ruined by people who came either from the Mubarak regime supporters or others who were not part of the revolution. So, women in Egypt and their male allies recognize that the revolution must continue not just politically, but also culturally and socially, as a way of ensuring that women’s rights do not disappear just because the Mubarak regime has been toppled and that women must continue this fight, along with their male allies.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, it’s often been seen as Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most misogynist nation in the entire region, although we’re talking here relative.
MONA ELTAHAWY: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But do you see any signs of any kind of movement developing within Saudi Arabia, as well?
MONA ELTAHAWY: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Saudi Arabia had women revolutionaries back in the 1990s, when 42 women got into their cars and staged a protest against the ban on driving. Now —- and they were all arrested, and they were -—
AMY GOODMAN: Women driving.
MONA ELTAHAWY: Women driving, yeah. And they were called, again, prostitutes, just because they dared to confront this ban. Now, the daughter of one of these women — several daughters, actually, of these women revolutionaries from the '90s have themselves now taken part in this new campaign to gain more rights for Saudi women. Just a couple of days ago, officials said Saudi women would not be able to vote or run as candidates in upcoming municipal elections. So there are Saudi women now who are demanding that right. And one Saudi woman has launched a manifesto, which she calls "the Saudi women's revolution." So, even though we don’t hear about it, Saudi women activists are definitely fighting for their rights. And, you know, I salute them, because they are fighting unbelievable obstacles and odds there.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, do you think Eman al-Obeidi is still alive?
MONA ELTAHAWY: You know, I’m really worried for her safety. I would like to believe that she’s alive. The fact that the Libyan regime is trying to bribe her family and saying "if she retracts, we’ll release her," says to me she might be. But I really worry, because we know what a thug Gaddafi is. And, you know, I hope we see her on TV soon. And I hope this — what she’s done, you know, she’s like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and Wael Ghonim in Egypt and all these other unbelievable young men and women who have become these icons of the demands for freedom and dignity in their country. So, I salute her for shattering the silence. And I hope that it continues, so that those brutal regimes no longer silence us with shame and sexual violence.
AMY GOODMAN: Mona Eltahawy, thank you very much for being with us, Egyptian-born columnist, speaks on Arab issues, based right here in New York City.