Libya’s Battle-Tested Women Hope Gains Last
By Anne Barnard
The New York Times
September 12, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Aisha Gdour, a school psychologist, smuggled bullets in her brown leather handbag. Fatima Bredan, a hairdresser, tended wounded rebels. Hweida Shibadi, a family lawyer, helped NATO find airstrike targets. And Amal Bashir, an art teacher, used a secret code to collect orders for munitions: Small-caliber rounds were called “pins,” larger rounds were “nails.” A “bottle of milk” meant a Kalashnikov.
In the Libyan rebels’ unlikely victory over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, women did far more than send sons and husbands to the front. They hid fighters and cooked them meals. They sewed flags, collected money, contacted journalists. They ran guns and, in a few cases, used them. The six-month uprising against Colonel Qaddafi has propelled women in this traditional society into roles they never imagined. And now, though they already face obstacles to preserving their influence, many women never want to go back.
“Maybe I can be the new president or the mayor,” Ms. Gdour, 44, said Monday afternoon as she savored victory with other members of her rebel cell. They are three women who under the old government ran an underground charity that they transformed into a pipeline for rebel arms.
But in the emerging new Libya, women are so far almost invisible in the leadership. Libya’s 45-member Transitional National Council includes just one woman. The council’s headquarters does not have a women’s bathroom.
In neighboring Egypt, women have had trouble preserving gains from their own revolution. And in his exceedingly eccentric way, Colonel Qaddafi may have had a more expansive view of appropriate female behavior than some conservative Libyan families.
Still, much as Rosie the Riveter irreversibly changed the lives of American women after World War II, Libyan women say their war effort established facts on the ground that cannot be easily undone. Women from many walks of life are knitting small rebel support cells into larger networks, brainstorming what they can do next to help build a post-Qaddafi Libya.
Men are also responding, with some who once objected to fiancées and sisters working late or attending protests now beginning to support such activities. Fear of sexual coercion by Qaddafi cronies, once a pervasive threat to prominent women, has evaporated. Perhaps most important, women here participated in such large numbers they helped establish the legitimacy of the revolution, demonstrating that support for the uprising has penetrated deep into Libyan society.
“People know the part women played in this revolution, even if it didn’t show up in the media,” said Nabila Abdelrahman Abu Ras, 40, who helped organize Tripoli’s first lawyers’ demonstration in February and then, late in pregnancy, printed revolutionary leaflets that women tossed from speeding cars. “Even if they don’t give us our rights, we have the right to go out and demand them.”
Women helped start Libya’s revolution.
On Feb. 15, female relatives of prisoners killed in a massacre in Abu Salim prison held a protest in Benghazi. Prominent female lawyers joined them and within two days, Qaddafi forces attacked the swelling crowds with machine guns. Watching her colleagues’ audacity on satellite television, Ms. Shibadi, the family lawyer, was electrified.
“I was jealous,” she said.
Ms. Shibadi, 40, helped organize 100 colleagues, including about 20 women, to protest in Tripoli. Soldiers surrounded them, but the crowds swelled anyway. Soon, she would do more.
Few female revolutionaries saw themselves as fighting for women’s rights. But in hindsight, many Libyan women, educated enough to dream large, said they were held back by dictatorship and tradition. When the revolution came, they were primed for action.
Colonel Qaddafi fancied himself a champion of women. In his Green Book, the musings he insisted that Libyans study, he devoted pages to the sanctity of breastfeeding and female domesticity. He cast himself as a bulwark against religious extremism and imposed a law requiring men to seek a first wife’s permission before marrying a second.
Yet many Libyan women viewed Colonel Qaddafi’s advocacy as superficial. Women, like most citizens, had virtually no say in government. Those he promoted, like his female bodyguards, were seen as cronies, sex objects or both.
Educational opportunities for the well connected made little difference to conservative and rural families who kept women out of the public sphere. Even in Tripoli, where many women work, drive cars and mix with men, leading less circumscribed lives than some Arab counterparts, female independence was fragile. Ms. Bredan, the hairdresser, lost her chance at medical school for making fun of The Green Book.
Ms. Bashir, the art teacher, who giggles as she recalls her days as a covert arms dealer, wanted to build a career as an artist. But the sponsor of her first exhibit of drawings, a government insider, demanded sex. She canceled the show, hid the drawings and focused her public life around raising her children.
“I forgot about everything I dreamed of,” said Ms. Bashir, 40.
But she found another outlet, one that proved valuable during the revolution. She ran an underground charity. Starting in 2005, Ms. Bashir and Ms. Gdour, the psychologist at her school, secretly raised $5,000 a month for poor families. Four or five families a day came to Ms. Gdour, the unmarried daughter of an imam, for money and clothing.
Across town, Dr. Rabia Gajun, whom they did not know but would meet during the revolution, was also secretly raising money, to build a clinic and offer free care.
When their male relatives left Tripoli to fight, the women’s charities acquired a new mission. Dr. Gajun spirited away drugs and a printer for the rebels. A neighbor of Ms. Gdour’s who was a fighter told her that rebels outside the city needed ammunition. So she purchased bullets from an acquaintance in Colonel Qaddafi’s military and delivered them in her handbag.
Ms. Gdour drove with her neighbor to deliver rifles hidden under a car seat. Another friend transported money for rebels inside her baby’s diaper.
As Tripoli quietly armed itself for a possible uprising, Ms. Bashir took orders for weapons — which she called “wax paper” and “meat” — from one group after another. Ms. Gdour’s mole delivered them in his military vehicle.
At the same time, Ms. Shibadi, the lawyer who once thought herself too emotional to be a judge and who was forbidden by her family to study English abroad, was helping determine airstrike targets.
She collected weapons and information on troop locations from friends and family in the security forces and relayed the news to a female friend whose cousin, a fighter, passed it to rebel leaders who, she was told, passed it to NATO.
Twice, a female friend living in a high-rise near the airport spotted soldiers carting in heavy weapons. Twice, Ms. Shibadi reported it, and NATO bombs soon fell. She could not be sure it was because of her, but the possibility was thrilling.
When fighting reached Tripoli, female revolutionaries converged on Matiga Hospital, abandoned by pro-Qaddafi doctors and nurses. That is where many first met one another.
Ms. Bredan, finally wearing scrubs and treating patients, has barely left the hospital since.
“Now, everybody calls me Doctor,” she said last week with a mischievous smile.
Down the hall, Fawzia al-Dali, 51, was cooking lunch. She had let her nephews build weapons in her house, which the authorities ransacked.
“Why did I risk it?” she said. “For God, for tasting freedom, for our land, for liberty, for the future.”
Libyan women have big plans and face big obstacles. But last week, Ms. Gdour, Dr. Gajun and others met to plan for continued action.
Dr. Gajun wanted to trace missing detainees. Ms. Gdour wanted to run for political office. Naima Badri, one of her charity partners, organized a women’s conference at the Tripoli city council. They are all working together on a charity fair.
“We will never again let anyone control us,” Ms. Shibadi said.