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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In the Tajura district, where Bredan lived, Qaddafi’s snipers were still firing from high buildings when Bredan’s brother, a fighter, handed her a Kalashnikov—she had received military training in high school—and told her to guard hundreds of women and children who had gathered in a shelter. Later that morning came another request: “We are desperate,” he said. “We need volunteers to work in the hospital.”

He guided his sister past sniper fire to a house in a back alley, where she worked for the next 24 hours without sleep, dressing the bullet wounds of injured fighters. The next morning, she moved to Maitiga Hospital—the government compound that had just been liberated. Gun battles continued just outside its walls: “We still didn’t know if this revolution was finished,” she said. More than 100 people filled rooms and spilled into corridors: an old man whose legs had been blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade, a young fighter shot through the forehead. “There was blood everywhere,” Bredan recalled. For days, as rebels cleared out the last resistance in Tripoli, Bredan joined surgeons on rounds. She comforted patients, checked vital signs, cleaned instruments, changed bedpans and caught a few minutes’ sleep during her down time. One morning rebels carried in a comrade bleeding heavily from a bullet wound to his femoral artery. As his life oozed away, Bredan looked on helplessly. “If only I had been properly trained, I could have stopped the bleeding,” she says.

Today, in Sidi khalifa, Abbazi has turned her house into a shrine to the fighters who fell in the battle for Tripoli. As her brothers’ children play in the courtyard, she shows me a poster taped to her window: a montage of a dozen rebels from the neighborhood, all killed on August 20. She disappears into a storeroom inside the house and emerges carrying bandoleers of bullets, a live RPG round and a defused pipe bomb, leftovers from the war.

Abbazi is euphoric about Libya’s new freedoms, and about the expanded opportunities available for women. In September, she began raising money and food for displaced people. With other women in the neighborhood, she hopes to set up a charity for families of war dead and missing. In Qaddafi’s time, she points out, it was illegal for individuals to form private charities or similar groups. “He wanted to control everything,” she says.

After liberation, Inas Fathy, the computer engineer, formed the 17th of February Former Prisoners Association, an NGO that provides ex-prisoners psychological support and helps them retrieve property confiscated by Qaddafi’s forces. Sitting in the hotel lobby, she seems a strong, stoic figure, bearing no apparent scars from her ordeal in Qaddafi’s prisons. But when asked by a photographer to return to Abu Salim prison for a portrait, she says quietly, “I cannot go back there.”

Fatima Bredan will soon cease her volunteer work at Maitiga Hospital, a far calmer place now than during the battle for Tripoli, and return to her job as an Arabic teacher. Bredan stops at the bedside of a former rebel crippled by two bullets that shattered his femur. She promises the man—who has large surgical pins in his heavily bandaged leg—that she’ll help him obtain travel documents from Libya’s (barely functioning) government, to allow him to receive advanced treatment in Tunisia. Leaving the room, she consults with a young medical student about the man’s condition. Knowing that the next generation of doctors will escape Qaddafi’s malign influence, she says, gives her a measure of satisfaction. “When they feel depressed, I cheer them up, and I tell them, ‘This is for Libya,’” she says. “I lost my chance, but these students are the physicians of the future.”

Despite their wartime achievements, most of the women I interviewed believe that the battle for equality has barely begun. They face tremendous obstacles, including a deep-seated resistance to change commonplace among Libyan men. Many women were outraged when the first chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, in his Declaration of Liberation, failed to acknowledge women’s contributions in the war and, in an apparent bid to curry favor with the country’s Islamists, announced that Libya would reinstitute polygamy. (He later softened his position, stating that he personally didn’t support polygamy, adding that women’s views should be taken into account before any such law was passed.)

Two of 24 members of Libya’s new cabinet, appointed in November by Prime Minister Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, are women: Fatima Hamroush, the minister of health, and Mabruka al-Sherif Jibril, the minister of social affairs. Some women told me that represents substantial progress, while others expressed disappointment that female participation in the first post-Qaddafi government isn’t greater. Yet all the women I interviewed insisted there will be no going back. “I have political aspirations to be in the Foreign Ministry, to be in the Ministry of Culture, which I didn’t think I could ever do, but now I believe I can,” says Amel Jerary, the U.S.-educated spokeswoman for the transitional council. “You have charity organizations, aid groups, in which women are very active. Women are initiating projects now that before they could not dream of doing.”

In Misrata, Asma Gargoum now works as national projects coordinator for a Danish development group that administers a training program for teachers working with children traumatized by war. Her house has been damaged, her brother lies buried in a local cemetery. Tripoli Street, once the vibrant main thoroughfare, is an apocalyptic wasteland. Yet schools and shops have reopened; thousands of displaced residents have returned. Perhaps the most heartening change, she says, is the ascendance of female power.

Misrata now boasts a half-dozen aid and development groups run by women, who have channeled organizational skills honed during the three-month siege into rebuilding post-Qaddafi Libya. In concert with women across the country, Gargoum wants to see more women in the new government and enactment of legislation that would protect women from violence, as well as guarantee them access to justice, health care and psychological support. She, like many others, is prepared to fight for those rights. “We have a brain, we can think for ourselves, we can speak out,” Gargoum told me. “We can go to the streets without fear.”


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