When fighting erupted in Misrata, Libya, its women stepped up to nurse wounded rebel soldiers, cook meals for the front-line brigades, raise money for weapons and care for orphans.
Medical student Hannin Mohammed got a rare opportunity for a young woman in Libya: to work in a hospital beside men during the six-month siege.
“When we were students, we were not allowed even on the wards for three years, unlike the boys,” said Mohammed, 21. “Now, I know so much.”
With Muammar Qaddafi driven out, she and other Libyan women are anticipating more freedom and greater opportunity. Yet, looking to the new government, there is only one woman on the 43-member National Transitional Council: head of legal affairs and women’s representative Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali. In May, with the war at its height, the NTC had two women members.
That doesn’t bode well for the likelihood women will emerge with more rights after four decades underQaddafi, whose attitude toward them was full of contradictions. His Green Book, setting out his governing philosophy, condemns gender discrimination. It also states that men and women can never be equal due to biological differences.
Few Women in Hallways
“There aren’t many women’s faces that you see in the hallways” of the NTC, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who visited Tripoli Sept. 14. “This is something that is of concern to us.”
Feltman noted a commitment made by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the NTC, to appoint women as ambassadors and ministers.
“I don’t doubt the sincerity of the leadership,” Feltman said in a conference call with reporters, “But the sincerity needs to be translated into something that people can see.”
Since the first protests began in Benghazi in February, women have been involved in “all aspects of the revolution, from protesting to smuggling arms, delivering humanitarian aid and lobbying governments for support,” the rights group Women4Libya said in a petition circulated on the Internet in Arabic and English. “We must ensure that we never again submit to oppression and marginalization.”
Under Qaddafi, there were no independent women’s rights groups. Hundreds of civil society groups sprung up in Benghazi alone during the uprising, many run by women, said Fadwa Al Mughairbi, a United Arab Emirates University psychology professor who recently visited Benghazi.
“The young generation, older women, housewives, they are all involved in these associations,” she said. “It is amazing the belief they have in themselves.”
Libya’s first female judge was named in 1991, about ten years after the position was opened to them. Between 1977 and 2006, six women were appointed to the General People’s Congress, the former national legislature. And in 2009, Libya ranked near the bottom of the political rights and civic voice for women scale issued by Freedom House, a Washington-based non- governmental organization, scoring 1.8 out of 5.
Qaddafi, who jetted around the world with an all-female cadre of bodyguards, had his own ideas about advancement for women. During a 2009 visit to Rome, he summoned 500 “beautiful Italian girls” to a gala evening at his ambassador’s residence, where he told them to convert to Islam.
As he fought the uprising, Qaddafi called women to his side. A few were among his most visible supporters, such as daughter Aisha, who has fled to Algeria, and Libyan TV anchor Halal Misrati, who was arrested by rebel forces when they entered Tripoli in late August. Qaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, wrongly predicted in July that every woman would “become a killing machine” to defend Qaddafi.
Outside the capital, Tripoli, and other major cities such as Benghazi, customs remain conservative. Women are frowned upon if they enter a restaurant alone or are seen in a car driven by a man who is not a close relative. At the beach, women are expected to bathe only in long robes that expose only their hands, feet and face. As a practical matter, such rules are enforced by societal pressure, not by law.
“We were living under a dictatorship for 42 years, which left negative thinking and a negative atmosphere towards women,” said Benghazi-born Shahrazad Kablan, founder of the U.S.-based Libyan Women Alliance.
‘Whole New System’
Similar uncertainty is evident in Egypt, where women took part in the protests leading to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February and now feel sidelined. Libyan women say that, more than in Egypt, their nation will be creating new laws and institutions.
“What happened in Egypt was the change of a figurehead,” said Kablan. “In Libya, we are building a whole new system, and people are changing their attitudes dramatically every day.”
Women in Libya have been “side by side with men during the Italian revolution, during the times of the king, and now,” said Al Mughairbi. “Once all this is settled, I am sure the new government will have women.”
Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, which promotes women’s rights and economic advancement, said that in political transitions “usually women are not the first point of the agenda. Of course, we don’t need to be the first but need to be part of it.”
“We’re trying to have more women leaders in Libya, but we are also working to encourage men to meet women’s groups and bring those issues to the table,” Bachelet, who was Chile’s first female president, said in a Sept. 8 interview in New York.
Nisrin Krayem, a 20-year-old arts student in Misrata, complained she’s expected to study hard for exams and then, rather than having a career, she’s supposed to marry and live in servitude to her husband.
Her frustration is evident in the scribbles in English on her bedroom wall: “You can’t go out, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything.”