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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I met Fathy in the lobby of the seafront Radisson Blu Hotel in Tripoli one month after the end of the war. The usual crowd of do-gooders and mercenaries bustled around us: a team of French medical workers wearing stylishly coordinated tracksuits; burly former British soldiers now employed as security “consultants” to Western businessmen and journalists; former Libyan rebels in mismatched uniforms, still euphoric about the news that Qaddafi’s second-oldest son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, had just been captured in the southern desert.

Like many women in this traditional Arab society, Fathy, round-faced and soft-spoken, was not comfortable meeting a male reporter on her own. She showed up with a chaperon, who identified himself as a co-worker at the new NGO, or nongovernmental organization, she had founded to assist former prisoners of the Qaddafi regime. Fathy eyed him for reassurance as she recounted her story.

She isn’t certain who betrayed her; she suspects one of her couriers. In mid-August, after 20 days locked in the basement, with rebel forces advancing on Tripoli from both the east and the west, she was moved to Abu Salim prison, notorious as the site where, according to Human Rights Watch, Qaddafi’s troops had massacred nearly 1,300 prisoners in 1996. The place was now filled to capacity with regime opponents, including another young woman in the next cell. As rumors flew among the prisoners that Qaddafi had fled Tripoli, Fathy prepared to die. “I was really thinking it was the end,” she says. “I had given away so much information to the fighters, so I thought that before they left they would rape and kill me. Some of the guards told me that they would do that.”

Meanwhile, though, she was unaware that Tripoli was falling. The guards vanished, and a few hours passed. Then a group of rebel fighters appeared, opened the jail and set the inmates free. She walked home to a joyous welcome from her family. “They were convinced that I would never come back,” she says.

I met Dalla Abbazi on a warm afternoon in the Tripoli neighborhood of Sidi Khalifa, a warren of mosques and concrete bungalows a stone’s throw from Qaddafi’s now-demolished residential compound. The final battle for Tripoli had raged up and down her block; many of the houses were pocked with bullet holes and scarred by blasts from rocket-propelled grenades. Standing in the tiny front courtyard of her three-story pink stucco house, with a flag of the new Libya hanging from the second floor, Abbazi—a strong-looking woman of 43 wearing a multicolored hijab, or headscarf—said she had nursed a quiet antipathy toward the regime for years.

“From the beginning, I hated [Qaddafi],” she says. In 2001, her three older brothers fell afoul of Qaddafi after a questionable call in a national soccer game—the sport was controlled by the Qaddafi family—led to an eruption of street protests against the regime. Charged with insulting the dictator, the men were sentenced to two years in Abu Salim prison. Their parents died during the sons’ incarceration; after their release, they were shunned by potential employers, Abbazi told me, and lived on handouts from relatives.

Then, on February 20 in Benghazi, protesters overwhelmed government forces and seized control of the eastern Libyan city. In Tripoli, “I said to my brothers, ‘We must be in this uprising, in the center of it,’” recalls Abbazi, who is unmarried and presides over a household that includes her younger siblings—five brothers and several sisters. Tripoli, the seat of Qaddafi’s power, remained under tight control, but its residents engaged in increasingly brazen acts of defiance. In March, Abbazi’s eldest brother, Yusuf, climbed into the minaret of a neighborhood mosque and proclaimed over the loudspeaker: “Qaddafi is the enemy of God.” Abbazi sewed liberation flags and distributed them around the neighborhood, then stored weapons for another brother, Salim. “I told him, they will never expect to find guns at the home of a woman,” she said.

On the night of March 20, NATO bombs fell on Tripoli, destroying air defense installations: Abbazi stood in the street, ululating and chanting anti-Qaddafi slogans. Tipped off by a neighborhood informant, military intelligence came looking for her. They appeared at her house after midnight. “I began screaming at them and biting the arm of one of the brigade members. They tried to get into the house, but I blocked them and fought them off. I knew that all of the guns were there and the flags.” As Abbazi told me the story, she showed me the marks on the wooden door left by a soldier’s rifle butt. The troops fired in the air, drawing neighbors into the street, and then, inexplicably, abandoned their effort to arrest her.

Not far from Abbazi’s home, in the Tajura quarter of Tripoli, Fatima Bredan, 37, also watched with exhilaration as revolution engulfed the country. I had learned of Bredan from Libyan acquaintances and was told she was working as a part-time volunteer at the Maitiga Hospital, a single-story compound set on a former army base. The hospital and adjacent airport and army barracks had been the scene of fighting during the battle for Tripoli. Now there was a heavy presence of former rebels here; some were guarding Qaddafi’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who had been badly beaten in one of many alleged revenge attacks against members of the deposed regime.

Sitting on a cot in a bare, sunlit hospital room, Bredan, a statuesque, dark-eyed woman wearing a brown hijab and a traditional gown known as an abaya, told me that she had seen her ambitions destroyed by the dictatorship years earlier. As a teenager, she never hid her contempt for Qaddafi or his Green Book, a turgid ideological tract published during the 1970s. The Green Book was compulsory reading for schoolchildren; extracts were broadcast every day on television and radio. Bredan perceived the document—which advocated abolition of private property and the imposition of “democratic rule” by “popular committees”—as fatuous and incomprehensible. When she was 16, she informed her politics teacher, “It’s all lies.” The instructor, a die-hard Qaddafi supporter, accused her of treason. “We have to get rid of this kind of person,” he told her classmates in front of her.


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