LIBYA: Misrata Nurses Battle for Gender Equality Amid the Fighting

Thursday, July 28, 2011
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Women working at the main casualty hospital in Libyan city are seeing attitudes shift, though men still drive them to work.

The female nurses have a simple rule: no crying. No matter what comes through the doors of Misrata's main casualty hospital, there can be no tears.

"We don't cry in public," explained Amna Obied, 23, a medical student who volunteered in March for war work in the now besieged Libyan city. "If we cry we do it in a room away from the others."

Keeping their tears private is part of the nurses' mission to convince the men they can work on an equal footing with them. For all its liberal political credentials, Misrata remains a fiercely conservative city when it comes to the role of women.

War forced the authorities to draft in the women, and the women now want to keep their status after the fighting is over.

"We have more respect, the men see what the women can do," said Obied. "I have more responsibility now after Gaddafi because of the important work we do."

For parallels, think of England on the outbreak of the first world war. With the men at the front women were pressed into service, earning status they fought to keep after the guns went silent.

Something of the same is happening in Misrata. Before the war, the city was prosperous enough to have foreign nurses, mostly from the Philippines. When Gaddafi sent in the tanks they fled, along with local nurses who lived in nearby towns. The authorities scrambled to fill the gaps, offering an undreamed of chance for female medical students.

The result has been a mini-revolution. Normally, female medical students are not allowed near a patient for the first three years of study, unlike their male counterparts. All that has now changed. "When I came here I didn't know anything, not the names of the instruments, nothing," said Hannin Mohammed, 21. "Now I know so much. I am working with the patients."

War has brought other benefits. "Before the war we could not go to a café. Big trouble," explains 21-year-old student Faten Abd. "If you went to a café there would be too many eyes looking at you. They would be talking bad things. Now we can do it, nobody minds."

The nurses spend their days in a big white tent erected on one side of the car park of Hikma, a former private hospital with green tinted windows. It became the principal casualty hospital when Misrata's two main hospitals were destroyed in the fighting.

Their job is to process casualties who arrive in blood-soaked field dressings, as the all-male doctors decide which patients need immediate surgery and which can wait.

Hikma is cramped and overcrowded; on the far side of the car park is a refrigerated truck that once delivered orange juice and now serves as the morgue.

The nurses admit the work is traumatic, not least when they recognise a friend or relative among the mangled bodies. "Every time I hear an ambulance my heart sinks," says Fatma Mohammed, 21. "I hope that it is not someone from my family".

This dedication has rubbed off on male staff. "The attitude to the women has changed," says Dr Terek Bensmail, a Misratan doctor who works in Coventry but has returned since the fighting began. "Without them there would be a disaster. The way they have done things it's put them in front in the equality issue."

But changing attitudes across the city will be a bigger task. The female nurses, most of them unmarried, must be brought to work each morning by their fathers because Misrata custom dictates that they may not be in a car with a man who is not a close relative, and their brothers are on the front line.

In the quiet times, an unwritten apartheid takes shape in the tent, with the headscarfed women clustered in one corner of the tent away from their male colleagues. "This will not change even after the war," Amna says.

Obied is not optimistic about women getting equal status with men even if the rebels win the war. "This is about the tradition, not about Gaddafi," she said. But she has a plan.

"Inshala we will build a restaurant only for the girls and women. You can go with your friends to this restaurant and not any man or boy will talk to you in a bad way. Your father or brother will not be afraid for you because you will go to a place for you."

As an ideal, it is modest enough compared to the fiery declarations of freedom and justice trotted out by the (all-male) rebel National Transitional Council. But for the nurses of Misrata, it is a start.