Women: The Libyan Rebellion’s Secret Weapon

They helped overthrow Qaddafi by smuggling arms and spying on the government. Now the women of Libya are fighting for a greater voice in society

They helped overthrow the regime, but can they overcome tradition and win their share of political clout? (Here: Women rally in Tripoli.) (Michael Christopher Brown)
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Inas Fathy’s transformation into a secret agent for the rebels began weeks before the first shots were fired in the Libyan uprising that erupted in February 2011. Inspired by the revolution in neighboring Tunisia, she clandestinely distributed anti-Qaddafi leaflets in Souq al-Juma, a working-class neighborhood of Tripoli. Then her resistance to the regime escalated. “I wanted to see that dog, Qaddafi, go down in defeat.”

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A 26-year-old freelance computer engineer, Fathy took heart from the missiles that fell almost daily on Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s strongholds in Tripoli beginning March 19. Army barracks, TV stations, communications towers and Qaddafi’s residential compound were pulverized by NATO bombs. Her house soon became a collection point for the Libyan version of meals-ready-to-eat, cooked by neighborhood women for fighters in both the western mountains and the city of Misrata. Kitchens across the neighborhood were requisitioned to prepare a nutritious provision, made from barley flour and vegetables, that could withstand high temperatures without spoiling. “You just add water and oil and eat it,” Fathy told me. “We made about 6,000 pounds of it.”

Fathy’s house, located atop a hill, was surrounded by public buildings that Qaddafi’s forces often used. She took photographs from her roof and persuaded a friend who worked for an information-technology company to provide detailed maps of the area; on those maps, Fathy indicated buildings where she had observed concentrations of military vehicles, weapons depots and troops. She dispatched the maps by courier to rebels based in Tunisia.

On a sultry July evening, the first night of Ramadan, Qaddafi’s security forces came for her. They had been watching her, it turned out, for months. “This is the one who was on the roof,” one of them said, before dragging her into a car. The abductors shoved her into a dingy basement at the home of a military intelligence officer, where they scrolled through the numbers and messages on her cellphone. Her tormentors slapped and punched her, and threatened to rape her. “How many rats are working with you?” demanded the boss, who, like Fathy, was a member of the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest. He seemed to regard the fact that she was working against Qaddafi as a personal affront.

The men then pulled out a tape recorder and played back her voice. “They had recorded one of my calls, when I was telling a friend that Seif al-Islam [one of Qaddafi’s sons] was in the neighborhood,” recalls Fathy. “They had eavesdropped, and now they made me listen to it.” One of them handed her a bowl of gruel. “This,” he informed her, “will be your last meal.”

The bloody eight-month campaign to overthrow Qaddafi was predominantly a men’s war. But there was a vital second front, one dominated by Libya’s women. Denied a role as combatants, women did everything but fight—and in a few instances, they even did that. They raised money for munitions and smuggled bullets past checkpoints. They tended injured fighters in makeshift hospitals. They spied on government troops and relayed their movements by code to the rebels. “The war could not have been won without women’s support,” Fatima Ghandour, a radio talk-show host, told me as we sat in the bare-bones studio of Radio Libya, one of dozens of independent media outlets that have arisen since Qaddafi’s downfall.

Ironically, it was Qaddafi who first implanted a martial spirit in Libyan women. The dictator surrounded himself with a retinue of female bodyguards and, in 1978, ordered girls 15 years and older to undergo military training. Qaddafi dispatched male instructors to female-only high schools to teach young women how to drill, shoot and assemble weapons. The edict resulted in a major change in a highly traditional society in which schools were sex-segregated and in which the only option for women who aspired to a profession had been to enroll at a single-sex teaching college.

The mandated military training “broke the taboo [against mixing sexes],” says Amel Jerary, a Libyan who attended college in the United States and serves as the spokeswoman for the National Transitional Council, the government body that will rule Libya until elections for a Parliament are scheduled to take place in mid-2012. “Girls were suddenly allowed to go to university. There were male instructors anyway in high school, so [parents figured], ‘Why not?’” Since then, Libyan gender roles have become less stratified, and women enjoy greater rights, at least on paper, than many of their counterparts in the Muslim world. Divorced women often retain custody of their children and ownership of their home, car and other assets; women have freedom to travel alone, and they dominate enrollment in medical and law schools.

Even so, until the war broke out, women generally were forced to keep a low profile. Married women who pursued careers were frowned upon. And Qaddafi’s own predatory nature kept the ambitions of some in check. Amel Jerary had aspired to a political career during the Qaddafi years. But the risks, she says, were too great. “I just could not get involved in the government, because of the sexual corruption. The higher up you got, the more exposed you were to [Qaddafi], and the greater the fear.” According to Asma Gargoum, who worked as director of foreign sales for a ceramic tile company near Misrata before the war, “If Qaddafi and his people saw a woman he liked, they might kidnap her, so we tried to stay in the shadows.”

Now, having been denied a political voice in Libya’s conservative, male-dominated society, the female veterans are determined to leverage their wartime activism and sacrifices into greater clout. They’re forming private aid agencies, agitating for a role in the country’s nascent political system and voicing demands in the newly liberated press. “Women want what is due to them,” says Radio Libya’s Ghandour.


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