LIBYA: No turning back for Libyan Women

Friday, September 16, 2011
The Globe and Mail
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Insherah Jernazi adheres to such a strict interpretation of Islamic modesty that she never leaves home without covering herself in a long black robe. Her veil leaves only a narrow opening for her eyes. She wears black gloves to avoid even accidental contact with a man who is not a relative.“He wanted me to leave the city,” she said. “I refused. I wanted to help the revolution.”

But as the six-month rebellion against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi closed in on Tripoli, Mrs. Jernazi did something she had never done before. She said “no” to her husband.

Across Libya, women like her played an integral role in the revolution – often in ways that surprised even themselves. They cooked and washed clothes for fighters on the front lines. They also tended the rebels' wounds, mopped up their blood, smuggled ammunition and passed along targets for NATO bombs.

Mrs. Jernazi helped transfer supplies in and out of Tripoli for the rebels by letting her car be used as a drop point. She has the scars to prove her determination. Her black gloves now cover a wound from a pro-Gadhafi sniper's bullet.

The risks they took in the war have now emboldened many women to demand a role in shaping post-Gadhafi Libya. They are also starting, they say, from scratch since the ex-dictator allowed no unions, associations, political parties or institutions that did not fall under his family's control.

The women's ideas and hopes spill out in conversations in living rooms and offices, hotel lobbies and on the street.

For some, freedom means women-only coffee shops and malls where they can meet without fear of harassment or transgressing the conservative strictures imposed by their male relatives. Others are bolder, demanding substantive positions in the transitional government and political training to prepare women to win election to a future parliament.

So far, their dreams remain just that. The rebel governing committee is a male-only group. Only one woman has a seat on the 45-member Transitional National Council. By next week, the rebel leadership is to name an interim government and the council chief, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has promised that Libya will have women ministers and ambassadors.

Women in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, whose own rebellions helped inspire Libya's, heard the same promises but are still waiting for them to be kept. Yet Libyan women say they have already broken through an important barrier – by taking independent action.

“This experience changed me forever,” said Ahlam Almari, a pharmacist who spent weeks in Tunisia buying medicines for Libyan refugees and called the FBI in New Jersey to pass on in halting English the street addresses of Col. Gadhafi's family. “It changed my attitude toward Libyans, and especially women.”

Since the fall of Tripoli, she has also done what she never imagined possible before.

This week, she knocked on the door of the Tripoli rebel council's health director to propose converting the offices of the once-ubiquitous secret police into public health research centres. She is still intoxicated by the experience. “We can't ever go back to the way we were.”

Many women also said their most basic dream for a new Libya is that it becomes a country where laws are enforced and lives are not turned topsy-turvy on the caprices and sexual threats of its leader.

Hajer Muni said that when she was in dentistry school in the capital 12 years ago, Col. Gadhafi suddenly announced that dentistry could only be taught in other cities. “I was in my last year and about to take my final exams,” recalled Dr. Muni. “It was a horrible thing. Our college immediately closed its doors.”

Finally, they all asked to go to the bathroom and then locked the door behind them. “It was a very nice bathroom, with great soaps and everything,” she said, laughing at the memory. “The guards kept knocking and telling us to come out, come out.”

After a month, her professors ordered all the female students to beg him to change his mind. Dr. Muni said she and her classmates, fearing they would catch Col. Gadhafi's roving eye, dressed as plainly as they could. A bus picked them up and took them to the Libyan leader's compound. There they were taken to a hall. Three hours passed. Col. Gadhafi, they were told, was sleeping.

When they did, they found a forest of guns pointed at them. Col. Gadhafi showed up, instructed his photographer to take a picture of each one and then left. The next day, the dentistry school reopened.

Under Col. Gadhafi's 42-year reign, women could work and study and drive. There are no rules requiring women to cover their hair, as in fundamentalist Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, although nearly all of them wear at least a head scarf. But the liberties they had came with unspoken constraints, some imposed by their families and others by the regime.

Fouzia Siyala for years had to operate her small charity in secret because the only authorized social service associations were run by Col. Gadhafi's daughter.

They were corrupt, she said, and she wanted to be independent. At first she operated out of her house, collecting donations for the poor, and then hiding her activities in a mosque thanks to a sympathetic imam. “One thing we did was give sheep to poor families during Ramadan, and I had to keep the sheep inside the house, too,” she said.

But since last week, the 66-year-old Mrs. Siyala now sits in the director's chair of what used to be the city's social affairs office. That makes her the highest-ranking woman in the Tripoli rebel government. She said she is confident she will not remain the only women in the new Libya with such authority. “They don't know us yet and what we did for the revolution,” she said. “Tripoli is just now liberated. It will come.”

But many young women say their challenge is not to be recognized for helping the rebellion but to mount a new revolt against the attitudes of Libyan men.

“If you ask a Libyan man if his wife works, he will say ‘I let her work' or ‘I gave her permission.' That's the language that's used,” said Alaa Murabit, a feisty Libya-Canadian medical student who has spent this week camped out in the lobby of a Tripoli hotel buttonholing rebel leaders and foreign aid workers to help her create Libya's first official women's rights group.

“Our challenge is the men,” she added. “They found their strength in making women weak.”

Ms. Murabit volunteered in hospitals, makeshift clinics and refugee camps during the uprising, as did her friends and women classmates. “We have to prove that we can continue to do that,” she said. “Now that we've had the revolution, we need to demand a voice. We want the privileges that other women in the world have.”

It is not the way Islam is practised in Libya that poses problems for women, according to other fledgling young activists. It is the culture of men.

“Here you can wear a total veil and still get felt up on the street,” said Hana el Gadi, an investigator with a Libyan human rights group based in London who has spent much of the past six months travelling in the Libyan hinterlands with the rebels.

“Your father's in charge. Your brother's in charge. Your husband's in charge,” she said. “There's nowhere to turn to. And I'm not talking about people who live in mud huts. This is also the way it is with educated people here in Tripoli. So the movement and change need to come from women themselves.”