An Interview with Yusra Tekbali on Libya

MMW Contributor Yusra Tekbali was in Libya during the outbreak of the February 17 Revolution. She was evacuated to Malta, and now speaks to us from The United Arab Emirates, where she is attending Insight Dubai, a conference on Muslim Women’s issues sponsored by Dubai Women’s College. Krista and Azra interview her about her experiences.


MMW: Yusra, we’re so glad you are safe. How was it being in Libya during the beginning of the people’s movement?

Yusra: In one word: Stressful!  It tested our patience and took a toll on my mental health–just being in Libya in the middle of uncertainty, censorship, and the beginning of a violent crackdown was extremely trying. Thankfully, I got out before all hell broke loose, but I still think about Libya constantly.

MMW: We noticed you tweeting constantly. What can you tell us about the voices of women in Libya’s Revolution in social media and on the ground in Libya? For instance, when we see photographs and video of protests, it’s still uncommon to see significant numbers of women in the shot (unless it is a special collection of “women protestors”).  Are women protesting in other, less media-visible forms in addition to going out to the street?

Yusra: I can tell you when I was in Tripoli, and news that Gaddafi was in Venezuela was circulating, I saw women from balconies cheering. I know Libyan women who encouraged their husbands and sons to join the protests. In Benghazi some women actually did. Generally, Libyan women play a less public role in the revolution, but that’s not to say it’s not as important. Who do you think tends to the men’s funerals, washes their wounds, cooks them warm meals, comforts children, an boosts morale? Women have been killed, wounded and scarred by Gaddafi forces. Women play an extremely important role in Libya’s revolution, and the high death toll (nearly 9,000 reported dead as of this interview) means they’ve lost husbands, and sons and brothers.

MMW: If there are any media myths you would like to address related to the role of women in the protests, what would they be?

Yusra: I thank the media for keeping its radar on Libya, especially as the situation gets more and more desperate. I would of course liked to have seen more detailed reports, which would include specific stories about Libyan women and the strife and daily hardship and unbearable conditions Gaddafi’s regime has brought upon them; however this is Libya–getting reporters in and getting reports out is extremely difficult.

MMW: What will you most remember about having been in Libya during this time?

Yusra: I remember the anxiety I felt leaving a baby shower on the 17th of February.  I remember the drive home that night, and the young men I saw on every single street corner, ready to defend their ‘hoods. I remember being holed up at home for a week, and that experience with my family is something I will remember forever. We played charades to occupy our time, we secretly made phone calls to press, switching sim cards like no one’s business. We heard machine gun fire and government protestors and loud noises coming from God knows what.  I remember my mom’s face, her reluctance to leave, and her desire to join the streets in protest.

I remember looking out the balcony at a man running to join the protests, and thinking of ways I could climb down and join my brothers in protest. On the 19th of February, after my brother came home from protesting, I remember our hope and laughter and joy and pride in our brothers on the streets in Tripoli. And I remember that being crushed the next day. I remember my mental angst and my emotional health…I remember dreaming of making it to Dubai to stay sane…I remember writing myself a note saying “You are not gonna die; you will get through this.” I remember a lot of things.

You promised this would be a “light” interview!

MMW: We’ll revert back to Dubai. Can you tell us a little more about why you wanted to come to the Gulf in relation to Arab and Muslim women?

Yusra: Well partly yes, but I’ve been trying to come to the Gulf for the past three years of my life. It just never worked out. I originally had planned to come to the UAE in December of 2009, and was selected to attend The American Muslim Women’s Leadership Training Program, but it was unfortunately cancelled last minute. So being here is a big deal to me! Also, having lived in America my whole life, I really craved being around Arabs and Islamic culture, which is one reason why I decided to take the first step and move to Libya in January. As an Arab-American writer who focuses on Muslim women, I knew I was missing out by not getting the whole picture being in the Arab world. Also, (as I’m sure you can relate) I’m sort of obsessed with Islam, and Islamic culture. I felt comfortable enough with my knowledge and experience of Islam in America; I wanted to explore a new terrain. And a friend recommended Insight Dubai because it groups you with women from around the world, but the focus is also local.

MMW: Well, we’re glad it worked out with Insight Dubai, and we expect a full report about that! After Dubai, are you planning to go back to Libya?

Yusra: Yes, absolutely. A part of me is itching to go back now. I fantasize about a journalist caravan that will take me under their wing and transport me back to Tripoli, Ajdabya, Misrata, Sirte… kind of like my own little night journey back to somewhere sacred. For me, one of the most rewarding things about these revolutions is the reaffirmation of faith, of brother and sisterhood, and the spirituality coming from young Arabs and Muslims in the region. It’s definitely strengthened my iman, and given me a reason to be hopeful, and a reason to dream again.

MMW: What do you hope will be the long-term changes for Libya as a result of this revolution?

Yusra: One republic, in which Libyans have a say in the affairs of their country and in who their leaders should be. I’d like to see a peaceful, prosperous and forward-thinking society, which includes women in all aspects. Libyans are progressive, and I’d like to see a government that strives to be a part of the global economy while respecting the rights of its citizens. A new Libya will be more aware of the value of human life, human rights and women’s rights.