One day after International Women’s Day-celebration of which was banned under Qaddafi-several thousand Libyan women gathered in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the de facto capital of the opposition movement to oust Qaddafi. Civil protests against the dictator began peacefully on Feb. 15 but rapidly ratcheted up into a full-fledged, armed movement which many observers are now terming a civil war.
These women had gathered to mourn the shuheda “witnesses, martyrs,” and celebrate the causes of freedom and democracy for which they fell. They agreed that no one individual had stepped forward to organize the march, rather the idea was born of phone calls and casual meetings. They concluded their march near the coastline of the clear blue Mediterranean by shouting ” Libya horra! Libya horra! ” (Free Libya! Free Libya!) in front of the Benghazi courthouse, whose shot-out, fire-blackened windows betray how it came to be the headquarters of the eastern Libyan opposition.
Many came to protest misperceptions in the media about the role of women in eastern Libya’s opposition. Libyan state television, Qaddafi’s propaganda organ, has accused the opposition of being a male-dominated, al-Qaida fueled movement in which women do nothing. The women also believe that Western media downplay their efforts. Women have protested in the hundreds every day in front of Benghazi’s courthouse, and they have served as nurses and doctors in the hospitals throughout Libya’s opposition-dominated eastern provinces. They speak openly with the press about their relatives who have fallen victim to Qaddafi’s brutality and repression over the last 42 years, as well as in the massacres of Feb. 17 , which left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
What does freedom mean to Libyan women? Crossing over from Egypt to Libya, it is immediately obvious that there are far fewer women on the streets in Libya than in their neighbor state to the east. Yet Libyans, both men and women, are eager to point out that women here are very well-educated and enjoy full rights under the law. “Legal and education rights are the first step, but there are no women’s rights groups here, and it is still a men’s society, as in many places in the Middle East,” says Naima Gebril, one of Libya’s first female judges. Unlike most Libyan women, she does not cover her hair. The one woman on the Transitional National Council is the lawyer Selwa Bugaighis, who represents women’s and children’s interests.
For Libyan women, the revolution means being able to speak their minds, not adopting Western norms. Even working women continue to take primary responsibility for the household. “Libyan women, we love our babies, we love cooking. We take care of the house and our families,” said Dr. Abrir Ben Ismail, a 35-year-old gynecologist.
Bushra El-Moghrabi, an 18-year-old engineering student, had just arrived from a womens’ meeting. “Aside from learning first aid, they said the most important thing for us to do is to encourage our sons and brothers and husbands to go and fight for freedom.”
Schoolteacher Amina El-Tarhuni explained: “Arab men are proud. Their dignity is very important to them. When they don’t have it, we suffer too. Young men used to have no aim in life, and they would harass girls in the street. Now that they fight for freedom they have a goal and feel a responsibility to protect the girls.”
Even in Libya, traditional gender roles have their limits in this violent and chaotic situation. Said El-Moghrabi with grim determination: “Now the women are supporting the soldiers, not fighting. But if Qaddafi keeps killing the men … we will take guns and we will kill him ourselves.”