Published April 14, 2011
[If you read Icelandic] You really should compare Icelandic and foreign reportage of Libyan Iman al-Obeidi, the woman who walked into a hotel in Tripoli Saturday March 26 and told a number of foreign reporters, gathered for breakfast, how she had been molested, violated and raped repeatedly by Gadhafi’s troops. The comparison is an interesting reflection on the use of language, and the state of mind of those who publicly use it.
Hadeel al-Shalchi, a reporter from AP, witnessed the woman’s outburst and—according to his version of the story, published on AP’s website—the woman was “distraught” as she “stormed into” the hotel to “tell foreign reporters that government troops raped her”. However, according to Vísir.is and Stöð 2 news (who seem to base their story exclusively on AP’s report—in any case they quote it and link to it), the woman “burst into the hotel” in “a strange condition” [Icelandic: í annarlegu ástandi, implying influence of drugs and/or alcohol] and “claimed” she had been raped. She wasn’t telling people about being raped; she was accusing someone of committing a crime.
Hadeel al-Shalchi writes:
“They defecated and urinated on me and tied me up,” she said, her face streaming with tears. “They violated my honour, look at what the Gadhafi militiamen did to me.”
“The woman, who appeared in her 30s, wore a black robe and orange scarf around her neck and identified herself. She had scratches on her face and she pulled up her black robe to reveal a bloodied thigh.”
This must have seemed too sympathetic to Icelandic reporters, who say that she “tore off her clothes” and demanded that pictures be taken of her body. Is it just me or does this sound more like a description of some attention-starved, panty-flashing Paris Hilton type starlet, willing to do just about anything for media exposure? There is absolutely no mention of the woman’s apparent sorrow or any talk of the violence she described so vividly to the press and was described in Vísir’s source story.
It goes on. AP explains in the very beginning of the story how al-Obeidi was immediately tackled by hotel staff and government minders. How some random Libyans at the scene, strangers to Iman, obviously wanted to silence her. Vísir fails to mention this but does remark towards the end of their story that the woman was soon “taken away” by security and therefore the press didn’t get a chance to interview her further. In AP’s version the story goes: “Before she was dragged out of the hotel, al-Obeidi managed to tell journalists that she was detained by a number of troops…” Can anyone honestly say that these two accounts of the same story are told with the same passion or empathy?
Note the different interpretation here. Vísir says:
A spokesman for Libyan authorities said the woman was mentally ill and drunk. Furthermore that the government intended to look into her background.
Whereas AP says:
At a hastily arranged press conference after the incident, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said investigators had told him the woman was drunk and possibly mentally challenged. “We have to find her family and see if she was really abused or not,” he said.
Language is a powerful tool. The responsibility of the press becomes very clear in cases of sexual and gendered violence. There does not seem to be a shred of sympathy in Vísir’s story and furthermore, they seem to want to undermine Iman al-Obeidi’s credibility for some absurd reason.
Ok, hell. I’ll just come out and say it: Doesn’t it reflect their true views on the importance of sex crimes in general? Isn’t a story like this written by a man who relates to other unidentified men who might be accused of rape, but can’t relate to an identified woman who might have been raped?
If you open a news report by saying that the subject of the report was in a strange condition, implying she is under some sort of influence, the rest is history. You must know that those who read your report will never find that subject sympathetic or believable.
These differences may seem subtle, but they are very important. It’s the little things that provide the very foundation for our sexist culture. A culture that endures violence against women. There is a clear difference in telling someone you have been raped and claiming you have been raped. Assuming that reported rapes didn’t really happen seems to be a policy among men in the Icelandic media. There is a consensus there: Until it’s been proven, we’ll assume the woman is lying.
I would sympathise and even agree with the policy if the same were true for robberies or assaults or any other crime for that matter. This is not the case. When a crime is committed, the story is: A crime has been committed. But in cases of rape the story goes: A woman claims a crime has been committed.
And don’t tell me it’s about protecting the possibly innocent man accused of rape—he is hardly ever identified and usually not even mentioned. The story only goes: A woman reported a rape. And just as they seem to say with such ease: A house was burgled/ a man was beaten/ a car caught fire, they should be able to say: A woman was raped. And if that’s too much to ask, how about asking them to change other reports to match those of rapes by saying: A car claims to have caught fire (and we feel compelled to add that the car was seen in the vicinity of a bottle of vodka and a short skirt)?