Post Revolution, Libyan Women Seek Expanded Roles

Oct 4, 2011

One recent day in Tripoli, hundreds of people strolled through a charity fundraiser organized by the women in Libya's capital city.

Ladies sold baked goods and handicrafts in rows of stalls. For the kids, there was a moon bounce and face painting. There was even a rock band that could use some practice.

It was a lot like charity bazaars in towns across the U.S., with a couple of notable exceptions: most of the women wore headscarves and among the more popular items for sale were hand-knitted versions of the Libyan flag.

The women running this fundraiser are revolutionaries, and they played a large but often unsung role in the uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi back in August. Now, they want a larger role in the new government and political system under construction in Libya.

Taking Risks During The Revolution

Isra bin Mahmoud, 26, is part of a group called Flower of the Capital. During the war, she says the group specialized in undermining the loyalty of Gadhafi's army in Tripoli. The group made a CD with video of atrocities committed by the regime and passed it to government soldiers.

"We gave them some CDs to show them the truth, to inform them that what they do is very wrong," she said.

This was at a time when showing any hint of dissent was enough to get a person jailed, tortured and quite possibly, killed.

"It was very dangerous, actually, but we are here. Thank God that we safe," Mahmoud said.

Now, she said, her group of 22 young women is staying together to work on postwar needs, like this fundraiser for wounded veterans.

Fatima al-Gadrub worked for the revolution under the name "Samoud," which means "steadfastness." Her group wrote and distributed a newsletter and helped smuggle weapons. She used a satellite phone to call outside news outlets and report on what was happening in the capital.

The women made many of the red, black and green revolutionary flags that kept appearing on the streets of Tripoli, in defiance of Gadhafi's police, who were under orders to suppress them.

Now that those flags fly everywhere in the city, Gadrub says she wants to stay active, but doesn't feel qualified to take a role in politics.

"Because I'm 30, and I have lived 30 years in the Gadhafi regime where there are no parties, where there are no political elections, I have no political attitudes. But there are others who have lived outside Libya and have ideas about politics," she says.

Next Step: Preparing For Political Role

Huda Abuzaid finds that kind of attitude frustrating. She is one of those women who lived outside Libya, as a filmmaker in Britain. She came back to volunteer with the Transitional National Council, which led the revolution.

She notes that there are no women on the council, and says it's not because there aren't capable women available. Abuzaid says she's looking to what she calls "Libya's senior professional women" to step forward into a tough and unfamiliar arena.

"Politics is rough, and it's incredibly rough at this point, when everything is at stake, and everyone wants to shape Libya's future," she said. "Nobody's going to give them those roles. And if you look at history, women have always had to fight."

Iqram abu Besh Iman is one of those professional women, and she's lived all her life in Libya. She is an architect who also works as a volunteer to improve facilities for disabled people.

She said Libyan women achieved success in many roles before the revolution — in medicine, law and academia. But, she says, most women refused any role in Gadhafi's government, because, as she puts it, "We care about our reputations."

Forging New Path Amid Uncertainty

Now, Besh Iman said, women have had successful roles in the revolution, and that has helped prepare them for the next step.

"Because now we have confidence in free Libya, we have confidence about people. Since we have educated women, since we have active women, there will be a lot of women in the election," she said.

The date for those elections is still uncertain, and the Transitional National Council is still struggling to form an interim government.

A list of candidates for various Cabinet posts was leaked to the news media last week, and though the council insists that it was only tentative, it did include the names of three prominent women.

More and more, Libyan women are saying that's not enough.

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