Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Iman al-Obeidi


Sunday night, Journalist Lara Logan, did something extraordinary. She went on 60 Minutes and told the world about her rape in Tahrir Square during the celebration after the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. She looked purposefully at her interviewer and described the horrific details of the assault that almost killed her on Feb. 15, 2011. 
Lara Logan


Her interview was unprecedented not because of the nature of the attack but because many female reporters who experience sexual assault in the line of duty never publicly discuss it for fear it will affect their careers. These fears are substantiated by the initial reactions after learning of what happened to Logan. Many said women shouldn't report from dangerous places and more than one article referenced Lara's looks as justification for the attack. By telling her story, she has not only confronted the horror she personally experienced, but has given voice to her colleagues and illuminated the widespread use of sexual violence as a weapon.
Logan on assignment.


An especially interesting point in Logan's interview comes when she admits to having had no idea sexual violence is so prevalent in Egypt. This is part of what gave her the desire to speak openly about her experience. As a journalist with a will to tell the stories of those she encounters, it is important to her that people know the truth. The incredibly horrific truth is she is not the only woman or person to have lived through such an attack and that many people in conflict afflicted areas are survivors of sexual assault. 


Iman al-Obeidi is a 28 year old from eastern Libya who was detained at a check point in Tripoli. The Libyan soldiers who stopped her took her to a villa where she was held for two days and repeatably gang raped. She was tied up after she struggled and tried to fight off the men. She recognized one as the son of a top official in Gadhafi's regime. There was another woman who was held with her and was also raped. She did not resist so she was not bound. The morning of the third day, after the men became drunk and passed out, al-Obeidi convinced the other woman to untie her. She escaped through a window and was released by some guards who were frightened by the site of her bloody, naked body. Neighbors of the villa paid for her cab which took her to the hotel where there were international journalists. She knew this was her only chance to be heard.


Foreign Journalists protecting Iman from Gov't Handlers
While at the hotel, government aids and employees tried to violently detain her after they heard her loudly recounting the rapes. A top official reported that she was drunk and mentally unstable. This was later retracted and replaced by the admittance that she was in fact raped, but was a known prostitute who was trying to turn a criminal case into a political one. No investigators have visited the villa where she was held and foreign reporters are severely restricted in their abilities to cover any events in the country. They were barely able to protect her in the hotel restaurant from the handlers and waitresses who tried to silence her when she first escaped from captivity. 


She screamed in the hotel:
"They tied me up ... they even defecated and urinated on me," she said, her face streaming with tears. "The Gadhafi militiamen violated my honor."
She allowed photographers to take her picture so her condition could be documented and demanded to be taken to see the leader himself because he promised all victims would receive justice. She wanted him to be accountable for his forces egregious misconduct against her. 


All al-Obeidi seems to be receiving is further detention and humiliation as the government runs a smear campaign to discredit her. 


Before the revolutions began throughout the Arab world, I watched an episode of MTV's Vice Guide to Everything that high lighted just how insane Gadhafi's Libya really is. Scoff at MTV and/or the people at Vice all you want, however, the short series really took a lot of risks, providing a glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most intense dictatorships in the world today. They went to North Korea, secretly filmed an international arms fair, and met with members of the Russian mob. Their features were not typical nightly network news fluff stories.


While in Libya on invitation, the Vice group attended a pro-Gadhafi youth conference. Afterwards, the team set out to explore Tripoli without supervision from their government handlers. They were deemed spies and subjected to house arrest in their hotel to await their fate. After several days, they successfully bribed one of their guards and convinced him they were going out to dinner. They caught the first flight out of the country and ended their episode with advice to the Libyan dictator: if he wants to show how open his country is, it's best not to detain foreign journalists.


If that was the state reporters were subjected to after being invited into the country, imagine what it must be like to get real information after the rebels began their revolution. A few weeks after Iman first went to the hotel to tell her story, NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and a colleague snuck out of their guarded hotel for an interview with her. Not only was it insanely brave of her to seek out the international press initially, but these journalists had to risk their own lives to go to her. This is an example of the need to get the story out that Logan was speaking about during her story. These women believe in being journalists and their duty to give a voice to people who need to be heard. 


Rape, no matter what part of the world we find ourselves, is a multi-layered issue that is met with insurmountable misinformation. It is often confused as a crime of sexual passion instead of physical, forcible dominance, intended to shame and strip the victim of dignity. The world's violent conflicts have created an epidemic of rape used against innocent men, women, and children. Compounded by the belief in many Muslim countries that rape victims are tainted and ruined after surviving the initial attack, they are often shunned and outcast, left to die alone and suffer in silence. This is why many victims never come forward and why there really isn't much that can be done for them if they do. Justice is rare in seriously war torn nations.


We shouldn't think that we are free of judgement against rape victims here in America, however. In fact, over the past few years, light has been shed on the dire state of current anti-rape legislation in this country. Cities across the US have rape kits decaying, untouched in police stations and evidence lockers. Certain former governors of Alaska have even suggested that rape victims pay for their own kits in order to save funds. And with new attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, things are getting scary for women who may have to prove they were raped before obtaining an abortion. The GOP even tried to redefine what rape actually is by stating that "forcible rape" is the only justification for terminating a fetus. It's actually horrifying. And clearly another example of the gross misunderstanding about the reality behind this crime. 


Many victims are even expected to co-exist with their rapists as if nothing had happened. A cheerleader's appeal against her school for kicking her off the squad after she refused to cheer for her rapist was just rejected by the Supreme Court and there is a pending lawsuit against the military for allegedly turning a blind eye when victims, including some men, came forward. One female soldier, who gained weight from stress after her rape, was put in a weight loss program that was overseen by her rapist. It's all too much.
Spring '11 Cover


There are some bright spots at least that are opening up the discussion and changing the status quo. LA just cleared through its back log of untested rape kits which is a major accomplishment. The current issue of Ms. Magazine has launched a clear and blatant attack against anti-choice propaganda that aims to limit rape victims rights. And, brag moment, my friend Vanessa Weinert works at The Salvation Army Anew Center in Jamestown, NY and just put up her first billboard advertising the center's services for members of their community. 


Vanessa's Billboard!


As Americans, many of us believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, that acts justly and fairly.  If rape victims experience difficulty coming forward inside our legal system, it shouldn't be hard to imagine the great bravery it took for Iman to speak out in her war ravaged nation. She should be lauded for her efforts to bring her attackers to justice and seek help for the other woman she left behind who was too immobilized by fear to escape. Instead she is detained, separated from her family, receiving death threats from Gadhafi loyalists and revolutionaries alike. The odds are stacked against her.


Iman's saving grace right now are the journalists who are working to help her voice be heard internationally. By helping her tell her story, they are making it that much easier for the next victim to come forward and for the next rapist to think twice about the consequences. Just like Lara did. Speaking out will help break down the evil grip rape holds over countless communities around the world. 


Hopefully Iman will be able to return home soon and Logan's attack won't prevent news agencies from sending other female reporters on assignments around the world. If women's voices are deleted from international discussion, the consequences will be far reaching.


A thought I had while researching this post, was that when a man is killed in battle or a male journalist dies on assignment, we usually think "What a brave man, giving his life for what he believed in." I don't think it should be any different for a woman. In fact, after reading reactions to Lara's attack and Iman's rape, we seem to think "Well, it was unsafe for a woman. She shouldn't have been out there alone." Initial reactions tend to blame the woman. Lara was just doing her job that she believed in and Iman was just living her life, both as free thinking individuals who didn't let gender disparities get in the way. Why should we judge them any differently? How is their form of bravery any different than a man's?

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