“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.