Examining data from all 86 civil conflicts from 1980 to 2009, Cohen found that the presence of two of the most commonly accepted explanations for mass rape -- a culture of gender inequality and ethnic tensions -- do not predict its occurrence. Instead, state collapse and the aforementioned need for bonding between combatants are more reliable indicators.
Her interpretation tracks with statements from captured pro-Qaddafi Libyan soldiers, who have claimed they were forced to rape by their commanding officers. "We felt scared, but when we refused to rape, they started to beat us," one 17-year-old soldier told the BBC. It was his first sexual encounter, he said. A Libyan soldier who was captured in Zintan as part of a group of loyalist fighters, which included men from Chad and Sudan, told Al Jazeera English that army troops "Were given orders no human being can accept. We were told that any house we entered was ours, any vehicle we wanted was ours, any girl we found, we could rape. Everything was for us." He also mentioned Viagra.
The international rights group Human Rights Watch says it has not yet been able to confirm these reports. But women's rights researcher Nadya Khalife, a specialist in the region with Human Rights Watch, said she "definitely believes there are cases out there." Indeed, el-Obeidy also told reporters that a 16-year-old girl suffered a similar assault alongside her. This lack of direct testimony, el-Obeidy excepted, is perhaps one reason why most American news outlets have been hesitant to report aggressively on this subject.
The process of documenting these attacks will be slow-moving and delicate, said Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who has researched sexual violence in Iraq. "I definitely think that the honour issue and the social stigma attached to rape is a big issue in terms of preventing women from coming forward," she said. "But then there is also the possibility that the soldiers are only boasting and are trying to hurt the rebel men this way."
As Leiby notes, the social stigma and the feelings of shame that come from being raped are not unique to Arab or Muslim societies, although attitudes about female purity are deeply rooted in Libya. But el-Obeidy's stunning bravery may have inspired some to discard the outdated views that hold women responsible for the honor of her family or tribe . Speaking from the safety of exile in Doha, Qatar, she told CNN that she has experienced an immense outpouring of support.
"In the past an Arab women that goes through what I gone through is something shameful but now our society has changed and now everyone feels with me and shows me love."