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False ending

Muammar Gaddafi is dead but the women of Libya remain fearful.

"I was one of the few women who went out to the first protest in Tripoli on 22 February, and shortly after that I joined 17 February Youth Coalition, a rebel group. We had a medical section, a communications section and later, of course, a military cell," says Mounia Al Saghir. She is 22, veiled, soft-spoken and fearless - a student, NGO worker and now a revolutionary.

We speak on 20 October, the evening of Muammar Gaddafi's death. Mounia says she is "overwhelmed", but she speaks calmly and steadily to describe her work for the Youth Coalition. She began on a guerrilla propaganda campaign, organising high-risk publicity stunts designed to prove that despite the bloody suppression of Tripoli's February uprising, the opposition movement was alive and unrepentant. Red, black and green balloons were released over Tripoli's skyline, opposition flags unfurled from high buildings and Gaddafi posters set alight in crowded public spaces.

When the military cell formed, the group's attention shifted. One female member helped organise a failed assassination attempt on Saif al Islam Gaddafi in July. She was later arrested, imprisoned and mercifully released, but not without suffering appalling abuse. "They electrocuted her, they beat her, she had 16 broken bones. She didn't drink, she didn't eat anything," Mounia says quietly.

Mounia too had a narrow escape after smuggling videos and instruction manuals abroad. When a police car pulled up outside her home, she was forced to spend a month in hiding while her father was repeatedly interrogated by secret services. "I was terrified, I thought they would beat or torture him," she says.

Her voice only falters once, when she describes why she joined the rebels. Her friend Ahmed had told her about the initial anti-government protests planned for the 17 February, but on the 11 February Ahmed was arrested. He died in prison. Only one of the thirty men in his cell survived to confirm the deaths. "So I joined because I had to," she explains. "For my friends who were killed, for me, for everyone who wanted to and didn't know how."

Mounia is a close friend. I met her in late 2008 when I first moved to Libya to work for the United Nations Development Programme, and until the uprising we met often, for dinner or coffee on sunny seaside terraces when Tripoli was still a sleepy Mediterranean town. Although she had spoken vaguely of her previous political work, I was unprepared for her stories. But war changes everything, a point that is boringly self-evident when considered in the abstract and yet takes on new meaning when, as I did, you watch unhappily and guiltily from the side-lines as your former home is ripped apart by brutal conflict.

Gaddafi's gory, televised death marked more than the removal of a figurehead, or even the dismantling of a political system: it tore through the fabric of Libyan society. In the coming months and years, Libyans will not only be renegotiating the relationship between citizens and the state, but also their relationships with each other. And women like Mounia, who worked alongside men in the anti-Gaddafi struggle, do not want to relinquish their new found freedom, power, and respect.

Politically, Libyan women had not fared too badly compared to other Arab states, in the sense that in his complete denial of any meaningful form of popular political expression, Gaddafi treated both sexes with equanimity. Women were not barred from any professions, female employment and education was slowly improving, forced marriage had been outlawed, and female divorce rights marginally strengthened. A handful of women even made it to high office, but figures like Huda 'the executioner' Ben Amer, who first earned Gaddafi's favour by tugging at the legs of a hanging dissident, had limited appeal as a role model for ambitious young women. In general, social conservatism proved a greater constraint on women than the legal system.

It was even okay to care about women's rights -- provided you adhered to Gaddafi's state-sponsored feminism. When Alaa Murabit formed a women's development NGO last year, things went "really well for the first month and a half", she says. She was excited when Watassemu, the charity headed by Gaddafi's daughter, Aisha, got in touch. "We thought we were going to get money," she explains, but instead they forced her to shut the organisation down.

Alaa's NGO, The Voice of Libyan Women, co-founded with her close friend Safiya El Harezi, now has around 60 signed-up members and a network of 1,500 volunteers. It developed from her activities during the revolution, when she began calling on the women of her hometown of Zawiya to help her smuggle medical supplies for her makeshift field clinic. This network of smugglers formed their initial membership base.

"To ask for rights, women have to do something," Alaa explains. "And during the revolution they did that, they did everything a man could do, so now no-one can say 'you don't deserve this, you can't handle this.' We saw an opportunity in that."

For every woman smuggling weapons, information or medicines, planning bomb attacks or fighting alongside rebels, there were countless other women taking up vital, sometimes equally dangerous, support roles. Women stitched opposition flags and operated safe-houses and the famous 'mothers for all rebel fighters' cooked for hundreds of soldiers. With the men at war, women broke widely-accepted social rules against driving, grocery shopping and running the household without male oversight.

This has changed women's self-perception, says Issraa Murabit, a 19 year old medical student and citizen journalist. "Women are starting to realise that their importance doesn't rely on the men in their lives," she observes. Mounia agrees the biggest transformation has been internal: "Now, if a man talks to a woman on the street she speaks back clearly, she's confident and not scared anymore. Women were shot or raped, they saw all sorts of things, so they are not frightened anymore."

The women I speak to all reject the 'MTV model' of female liberation that has made such a profound, often confused, impression on the Arab world. They are more interested in choice and education than in sexual liberation, more concerned with freedom than with imposing any particular lifestyle on women. "I want to be clear that everyone's model of liberation is different. We're not telling anyone to go out and work if they don't want to, we're just saying 'know that you have a choice'," says Alaa. "My parents were very strict about going to friends' houses or parties, but if I'd said 'I have to go to the moon to get educated' they would have said 'fine'. And that's the kind of model we're pushing for. I'm not saying let your daughter go out partying all night, I'm just saying 'let them have an education, give them the same opportunities as your son'."

A small number of women protesters have made it into Libya's National Transitional Council. Najla El Mangoush, a mother of two, lawyer and university professor, was one of a handful of women to join the first public demonstrations in Benghazi in February and is now head of public engagement. She insists she is not interested in political power. "A political role is not my dream. My dream is to play a big role in my community, to give something to my country, to be in a position where I can make a difference. A lot of women are like me. Political ideas are new for Libyan women. Women don't have any experience of this; they feel like it is not right for them to be there. And most Libyans lived normal lives, in a closed community, they don't have dreams to be something political, because we feel all these years that those involved in politics are bad men."

The women interviewed represent a small yet influential segment of the population: highly educated, politically aware and from the relatively liberal coastal cities. The deeper you travel into the desert hinterland and the further you stray from urban areas, the more conservative Libya becomes. What has become, I wonder, of the shy, cloistered women I met in the oasis town of Kufra, where I didn't see a single woman walking on the streets? Or the forgotten Libyans living in abject poverty in the desert -- the Bedouin family I came across who, in the absence of healthcare, were forced to amputate their three year old child's leg without anaesthetic to save him from a snake bite -- what say will they have in Free Libya?

Despite their hopes, none of the women I speak to feel optimistic for the future. The Libya liberation speech issued by the head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on 23 October has not helped. The Voice of Libyan Women has already issued an angry response. It wrote: "He had so many more important issues to address. However, he focused on polygamy, and not only that but [he] thanked women for their roles as "mothers, sisters and wives." Need we remind him of the countless women who got arrested, killed and raped during this revolution?"

Mounia sounds sad when I call her after the speech. "Sometimes I worry that things could get worse for women, rather than better," she says. But she is also defiant: "I will keep on fighting for women's rights. They can throw me in prison, I'm not scared," she adds, and I know that she means it.

The women know that ultimately success will be measured in years, not months. "I always tell people you should be more patient. You waited more than 40 years, we suffered a lot. But now if we want to build Libya, we'll build it from zero," says Najla.

The aftermath of Libya's devastating civil war and revolution presents both near-endless opportunity and near-endless risk for Libyan men and women alike. But the Libyan women who risked their lives in the hope of freedom wouldn't want it any other way.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood