By Mary Beth Sheridan,
TRIPOLI, Libya — Like many Libyan women, Siham el-Zentani was consumed by family responsibilities, staying at home to care for her four teenage children. But when she saw the TV images of Libyan refugees fleeing Moammar Gaddafi’s troops this year, she announced to her husband that she had a new mission. “I want to go,” she said.
Within weeks, the 54-year-old Benghazi resident recalled, she was hiking into the western mountains with two female friends, their backpacks stuffed with cash they had collected to help displaced Libyans and anti-Gaddafi rebels.
Previously, men in this highly traditional society had been wary of allowing their wives or daughters to travel by themselves, fearing harassment by Gaddafi security forces. “It was a huge event for Libyan women to participate in the revolution,” said Zentani, a blond, bespectacled matron in black jeans and a head scarf.
Zentani is part of a vast network of Libyan women who played an under-the-radar role in the war, running weapons, gathering intelligence and smuggling medicine. Now, with the fall of Gaddafi, they are savoring a new freedom to move about the country and organize.
Although many foreign observers have focused on the new Libyan leader’s recent vow to lift restrictions on polygamy — and the negative implications for women of such a change — women’s role actually appears to have expanded here, with large numbers joining nongovernmental groups.
The male-dominated, tribally based society is not being completely transformed. Already there are signs of the difficulties women face in gaining more political representation: The 51-member Transitional National Council has just one female member. But the revolution has raised women’s expectations and changed some of the dynamics of everyday life.
“Libyan women have become very strong,” said Sonia al-Shagruni, 42, a teacher who smuggled explosives to revolutionaries during the war. “Since we struggled so hard during the revolution, we will definitely not sit around now. We will not sit in the back seat, as in the past.”
During his 42-year rule, Gaddafi sent contradictory messages on women’s rights. His Green Book of political philosophy decreed that a woman’s place was in the home. Yet he expanded educational and employment opportunities for women and signaled a commitment to gender equality by traveling with a contingent of gun-toting female bodyguards.
In reality, though, women were constrained — not so much by laws as by the perceived brutality of his government. Many Libyans saw Gaddafi’s security forces as bullies who could mistreat women with impunity. Rumors flew that pretty young women were vulnerable to being yanked away from a restaurant or university for sexual abuse by the leader or his powerful sons.
As a result, men limited their wives’ and daughters’ movements, especially discouraging them from taking part in activities related to Gaddafi and his official Revolutionary Committees.
“The Revolutionary Committees were very violent and scary people. They were in every city and government space,” said Amira Alshokri, 25, a computer engineer in Tripoli. “Everyone didn’t want women to get involved in such a dirty sphere.”
Source: Washington Post