A Face for the Libyan Revolution

Eman Al-Obeidi is the symbol of Libyan injustice. (AP / Jerome Delay)

The most successful revolutions sweeping the Arab world, in Tunisia and Egypt, have had a human face that inspired their people - and mesmerized the world, via Facebook. Now Libyans may have found a face for their revolt.

The face of the Tunisian revolution was Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire on December 17 to protest against constant harassment, humiliation, and confiscation of his wares by police. Protests over his death began in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid and spread to Tunis, where he became the symbol of the regime's corruption.

The face of the Egyptian revolution was Khalid Said, a blogger in Alexandria who was exposing police corruption. His head was bashed against a wall by police and a cell-phone photo of his disfigured corpse went viral over the internet. A Facebook page in his memory, called "We are all Khalid Said" and signed by nearly one million people, became the key organizing tool for the Tahir Square revolt.

Now the Libyan revolution has a face, but I'm wondering whether she will galvanize her people. She is Eman Al-Obeidi, a 26-year-old law student from Tobruk who was stopped at a checkpoint by Gadhafi soldiers, held prisoner, and gang-raped. She managed to escape and burst in to the Rixos hotel in Tripoli where the international media were staying. As she was pouring out her horrific story, she was seized by secret police, dragged off screaming, and driven away.

However, her passionate appeal was recorded, and she has become the international face of an otherwise faceless revolt. What I wonder is whether Libyans will see her, as westerners do, as the symbol of a regime that has raped its own people. After all, the subject of rape is often taboo in Arab society where family honor is linked with a woman's purity, and a regime spokesman has branded her as a whore.

There have been demonstrations in her name in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, holding up a banner blazoned with Obeidi's face, and her influential tribe has stood behind her. Her mother, Aisha Ahmed, has bravely defended her, insisting she was proud of her daughter and that she would like to "strangle" Gadhafi. Ahmed refused the regime's telephoned offer of a bribe if her daughter would recant.

But can her daughter, who broke all taboos by telling the world how the regime defiled her, inspire Libyans to fight back against the molestation of a country? It's not clear how many Libyans have seen the photos and videos of Obeidi; social media have not played the role in Libya they've played in other revolutions. But if the rebels are looking for a human symbol of their struggle, Eman Al-Obeidi provides that face.