The media’s surface-level fixation on Libya’s female bodyguards

The first thing anyone, male or female, Arab or not ever says to me when they find out I’m Libyan is, “Wow, I’ve never met a Libyan before.” The follow-up question almost always involves a snide comment about Libya’s female bodyguards.

Qaddafi with bodyguards. Image via Reuters.

Qaddafi with bodyguards. Image via Reuters.

These lovely ladies, trained in combat, accompany Colonel Qaddafi, Libya’s head of state, everywhere he goes and are credited to helping him endure 39 years of power, making him the longest serving Arab leader. These women, many of them married with children, wear their hair long  and sport matching camouflage military uniforms, high leather boots and gigantic guns. They’ve been sensationalized as Bond girls, dubbed “Laura Croft badasses,” and “Revolutionary Nuns” who “wear Kalashnikovs like Gucci fashion accessories.” They have and are expected to step into the line of fire (The woman said to be Qaddafi’s top bodyguard reportedly took a bullet for him in Athens in 1998).

The bodyguards do more than help the Colonel make an entrance, (which he is quite capable of doing on his own); they make sure the world knows they are armed by clashing with Nigerian police and standing outside Qaddafi’s Bedouin tent, which he takes on diplomatic trips.

The women don’t usually talk and are fascinating because they are in the public eye. For many, they are a chance at seeing not only the Libyan woman, but the Muslim woman, who is often kept behind closed doors. It is no wonder then that the media always describes what they are wearing. Still, the media’s Orientalist fixation of Muslim women as sexy, exotic toys for men, is not aided by this description. The Colonel’s “accessories” or  harem entourage is demeaning, even if it is kind of hot. It reinforces the notion that Islam objectifies women, and they will never acquire the status of men.

Ironically (or not given Qaddafi’s inconsistency), Libya’s plan to have women enlist in the military was a gesture toward full social integration. Qaddafi proclaimed, “Women will not be free or respected or exercise their rights until they are strong and have taken possession of all the weapons: firearms just like the weapons of science, knowledge, culture, and revolution.”

In 1979, Tripoli opened a women’s military academy  for women aged 13 to 17. Four years later, about 7,000 women graduated, but the attempts to require women’s military service never caught on, and the school closed. The women still exist and by some accounts are hand-picked and trained privately, as no public school currently exists.

Ajamis film. Image via imdb.com

Ajami's film. Image via imdb.com

Since that is the case, it is unclear if they have a choice, and it is not unwise to assume many of them do not. Given the generally oppressed conditions in Libya and the low-level of women’s rights, it seems out of place when Lebanese student film-maker  Rania Ajami’s tells the The New York Times that Libya’s female bodyguards “are really a symbol of this new feminism that exists.” Ajami’s documentary Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards: Shadows of a Leadern looks at Qaddafi’s female guards and has won acclaim at several Western film festivals.

As a Libyan woman, aware of how other Libyan women view the bodyguards, I can assure you, they are by no means the archetype of liberty or the crusaders of women’s rights. I for one do not define liberal values as trailing in the footsteps of a dictator.
Ajami absurdly says the bodyguards’ sexuality “demonstrates modern views on gender equality and family life under the Qaddafi regime. They present themselves well. The girls are trained in weaponry, but at the same time they want to look good.“

Hold up, please. Certainly a modern view on gender is more than that which mimics Hollywood’s? So  women who don’t look good using a gun are somehow given more rights by women who can?  Ajami assumes the female bodyguards are liberated simply because their image kowtows to the western world’s fascination of hot women kicking ass.

Ajami, if you ever decide to follow up your film with a Qadaffi’s Angels  sequel, call me.

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