With the recent release of the suspected Pan Am 103 bomber, the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s coup, and improving relations with the west, Libya’s been in the news a lot lately. Next week, Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi (Libya’s quirky dictator, known as much for his peculiar fashion sense as his outrageous statements) will make his first-ever trip to the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly. The media’s attention will undoubtedly be fixated on Gaddafi, who always travels with a high-profile entourage, tent, and a string of female body guards. Yet given Libya’s waning pariah image and its current “face lift,” it’s worthwhile to take a look at how the media portrays Libyan women within the Gaddafi circle.
Like all things in Libya, this is easier said than done: reports on Libyan women are almost slim to none. This is not surprising, considering Gaddafi and his sons are so adept at hogging the media spotlight with their controversial headline-making shenanigans. Media portrayals of Gaddafi’s wife Safiyah are rare, as she’s almost absent in the public sphere.
The colonel’s only daughter Aisha (pictured here), a 30- year-old lawyer who recently married his cousin, rarely gives any face time for media requests or speaking engagements. She is rarely interviewed by western media (she recently gave a statement about her brother’s arrest in Switzerland), but is written about occasionally. You may remember reports about her joining Saddam Hussein’s legal team. If you don’t, its because they were somewhat underplayed cut-and-dry accounts without her take on anything.
Like this story from the BBC. It doesn’t even quote Aisha, so we don’t understand her reasons for choosing to defend Saddam Hussein. Are they political reasons? Was it a public relations stunt? Did Iraqi officials approach Libya? We don’t know because the main source in the story doesn’t have a say in it. The same is true with TimesOnline story, which ran a short blurb of the matter accompanied by a tall photo of Aisha. It claims rather obscurely that she’s said to “covet her father’s job.” Not only is this not true, (as Gaddafi’s son Saif is the chosen one) but it leaves the impression that Aisha defends dictators because she wants to be one. The woman the Libyan media nicknames the “Claudia Schiffer of North Africa” (presumably because of her statuesque frame and blonde locks), is according to the Times, a power-hungry dictator-ess in waiting.
The bulk of media reports abut Aisha are imbedded in articles about Libyan politics and her father’s political actions. This story about Libya’s release of six Bulgarian nurses convicted of infecting Libyan children with the HIV virus, mentions Aisha met with Cecilia Sarkozy, then married to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Accompanying head shots of the women are welcome, but some quotes from either of them would have added to the story. Or better yet, why didn’t the media run a full story detailing Mrs. Sarkozy’s visit with Aisha in Tripoli? Did Mrs. Sarkozy, acting as a free agent, think that meeting with a female would help bring the nurses home? What is Aisha’s role in all this and how did she receive her? Surely some editor would deem this newsworthy, yet there was no press about it.
Libyan media often reports on Aisha’s public appearances and accomplishments: she heads Wa’tassimu, Libya’s main charity group, and serves as Libya’s National Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Development Program. Yet these are usually third-person accounts that rarely include an interview with her. When she was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N., The Tripoli Post, Libya’s only English-language paper, ran the story without ever interviewing her!
Local media rarely talks to Aisha. This results in stories being told about her, without her really in them. It’s not difficult to understand how this connects to the media’s history of portraying Muslim women as unattainable, shy and oppressed beings without a voice or a say in anything. That’s not to say that Aisha (who has six brothers) is necessarily a victim of Islamic patriarchy. She received her law degree from Paris, travels frequently and generally fits in with Western ideals of modernity.
So why all the mystery surrounding her? Why don’t journalists quote her? My experience is it’s because she’s not interested in communicating with the press.
I put in a formal request to see her while in Tripoli this summer and was denied (although not flat-out. Her chief-of-staff said he was awaiting her response and I left the country shortly thereafter). But the vibe I got after meeting with him and explaining my intention to interview her was that she doesn’t like doing one-on-one interviews.
I didn’t walk away empty-handed, though. He made sure to give me a copy of Aisha’ biography Amirat asSalam, or “The Princess of Peace”. The cover is a soft, noble-looking Aisha in a loose white headscarf, blonde locks peeking through. Many of the facts stated in the book surprised my Libyan friends and family–all consumers of Libyan media, adding weight to the theory that the media simply does not report about Aisha. This is understandable in a state-controlled society, as saying the wrong thing could land you in jail or worse. This also explains the scant international knowledge about Libyan women (how many of you even knew Gaddafi had a daughter?) as the local setting influences international reporting.
Libya’s history of isolation makes reporting difficult to say the least, but women living in similarly oppressive regimes and in war-torn countries like Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq are reported on at length. At the least, shouldn’t we be hearing more about the women in Libya’s elite circle by virtue of their status if nothing else? Shouldn’t working-class Libyan women be given some media attention, especially now, as Libya begins to restore political ties with the west and globalize its market?
I hope we begin seeing more news coverage of Libyan women, by local and international outlets. Something like this story about a prominent Libyan fashion designer (who has designed for Gaddafi’s wife) is an excellent example of the potential stories waiting to be told. Granted, it’s in Al Jazeera and not The New York Times, but it balances how a woman has the responsibility of designing for Libya’s powerful while maintaining her own aspirations as an individual.
More stories on Muslim women as individuals, portrayed in their own words, helps abolish the stereotype that Muslim women are seen and not heard. Yet when prominent Muslim women decline to speak out for whatever reason, they are wasting an opportunity of service and a chance to show the world who they are.