Moammar Gaddafi’s outlandish behavior has long been a gift to comedians. Making fun of the Colonel clearly does not require much effort: all the news channel Al Arabiya had to do for their segment Gharaib Al Gaddafi (Gaddafi’s Oddities) was put together a montage of clips of the Brother Leader and his fern fly-swatter.
One of Gaddafi’s eccentricities in particular, his retinue of women bodyguards, has over the years come in for much speculation and endless ridicule. Recently on the Colbert Report, they were imagined as “choreographed waves of six-foot-tall Libyamazons spin-kicking protesters in the jaw” and likened to a Janet Jackson video. This isn’t far from how international media tends to portray them. As Lynn Harris wrote, they are seen as “a badass bunch of Lara Croft clones…They’ve been described as ‘wearing their Kalashnikovs like Gucci fashion accessories.’”
Rania Ajami’s documentary Shadows of a Leader: Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards hoped to dash such simplistic ideas about the bodyguards, investigating “the tensions these women embody: tensions between Islam, modernization in a nomadic society, a militarist feminism and an urban dictatorship.” In an interview about her documentary (ironically interspersed with many comments on Ajami’s appearance), Ajami’s own opinion was more clearly laid out in stating that the “bodyguards are really a symbol of this new feminism that exists.”
With Libya back on the map following the uprising in the country, the women bodyguards debate and whether they are “Lara Croft clones” or “liberated women,” has been revived. Some have again taken issue with the way the “the media has been so insistent over the years on figuring the bodyguards as “Bond girls,” “Glamazons,” etc.” pointing out that “the fact remains that these bodyguards are real soldiers, trained to kill. They are not—and this apparently needs saying—a cute harem.”
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. While not a cute harem, these women have been used by Gaddafi to support his claim of having “liberating” Libyan women from backwardness. As his daughter Aisha Gaddafi is once alleged to have said, they are intended as a literalization of the saying “behind every great man is a woman.”
Rather than debating the extent of their agency, I would argue attention needs to be shifted to the role these women play in the performances put on by that “great man.” To that end, I subtitled this interview with a Lebanese woman who claims to have been one of Gaddafi’s bodyguards. As she narrates some of her experiences, the woman smiles wryly while quoting from Gaddafi’s Green Book, which states that “the woman is a female, the man is a male, the woman bears children, the man cannot.” One of the many Gaddafi lines used as a joke by Libyans include a comment when he announced that “a woman has the right to run for parliament, whether she is male or female.” This kind of tautological, and nonsensical, rhetoric marks the limits of Gaddafi’s “feminist” agenda – as As’ad Abu Khalil points out, “his regime did not advance women’s rights one bit there.”
The only real action Gaddafi undertook, apart from the privileges given to his wife and daughter, was to promote a select number of women loyalists, including Huda ben Amer, nicknamed “Huda the Executioner” for her role in the public hanging of Sadek Al-Shuwehdy. The title of the Telegraph’s article on Ben Amer, describing her as “the devil in female form” raises the same questions as Gaddafi’s bodyguards: how to “deal with” strong women aligned with dictatorships?
Speaking of the bodyguards, Millicent concludes we should “regard them as a group that chose to side with and defend a dictator for reasons that to them may have seemed compelling, and with which we’re free to disagree” since “it’s the only sane and respectful choice.”
For me, this raises several questions: would a similar, “respectful” statement have been necessary if the bodyguards were men? If Huda Ben Amer were a man, would the title have read “the devil in male form”? If women are exactly as responsible for their actions as men, why go that little bit further to defend or demonize them based on their gender?
What interests me is comparing the attention paid to Gaddafi’s “Libyamazons” with the lack of attention to women involved in this uprising. Gaddafi has tried to manipulate exactly this issue. His conflation of Al Qaeda, Nescafé and hallucinogenic pills might be comical, but in speaking of Islamic emirates being established in the east, he blatantly brandished the scare-mongering tactics western-backed Arab leaders have wielded with more decorum.
Specifically, he singled out Derna, which he claimed had now become an Islamist state where the poor oppressed women were locked in their homes, while Zarqawi-style beheadings became the new local hobby. My mother, born and bred in Derna, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his words. But the irony is that it is Gaddafi’s female bodyguards who seem to have disappeared from the scene, while the women of Derna responded to his speech by coming out in a large protest. On International Women’s Day, thousands of women attended the rally in Benghazi in support of the revolution. It’s easy to forget that on the first day of Libya’s uprising, women in Benghazi were among those on the streets, many of them relatives of the 1200 prisoners killed in the Abu Sleem massacre.
Even as the uprising turned into an armed revolt, women have not been passively hiding at home. They’ve been sending meals to the front, and working in the hospitals, media centers, and local councils. With the bakeries struggling, my aunt told us of her sons learning to bake bread to serve the community while she worked at the hospital. When the Coalition of the February 17 Revolution was set up, among the members were Amal Bugaigis, interviewed here about the Transitional Council, and attorneys Hanaa Al-Gallal and Salwa Bugaigis, who led the first sit-in at Benghazi’s courthouse. These women are driven by their need to do their part for their country, a role more significant than accompanying and standing behind Gaddafi to represent the women behind a “great man.”