“Woman vs Islamist” – Duelling Protests, Flag Switching and Zero Sum Games

The last few weeks in Libya have been tragic, depressing and hopeful by turn.  For months the militia situation in the country had been brewing, with increasing calls for disarmament and unification under a national army on the one hand, and on the other, calls for patience by those making the argument that the armed groups are needed to keep order and security. This simmering tension exploded on the 11th of September with the devastating attack on the US embassy, which took the life of the ambassador Chris Stevens, as well as other Americans and Libyans. As a Libyan myself, I was left enraged and speechless by the attack, and finally thankful that there was someone to articulate those feelings publicly on behalf of Libyans, as prime minister Mustafa Abushagur did in his article on the attack.

Initially there was some speculation about how far the attack was motivated by the protests against that obscure film, which is no longer so obscure, and how much it was a pre-planned terrorist attack. In the wake of the attacks, however, many people ascribed the blame to certain militias or factions of them, and so on Friday, there were two sets of protests in Benghazi – one called Save the Prophet, and the other Save Benghazi, the latter drawing many more people in a march against the militias, including many women. [Read more...]

The “Symbolic Step” of Women’s Political Participation in A New Libya

New Libyan Health Minister Dr. Fatima Hamroush, photo from the Irish Independent

Libya’s new interim government, which was announced on November 22, has been tasked with preparing for elections scheduled for next June, when voters will select an assembly to write the new constitution. As expected, given the challenges of rebuilding the country after four decades of dictatorship and nine months of war, the choice of ministers has come under scrutiny. International media coverage took an angle that suggested some fears had been allayed, noting that Prime Minister Abdulrahman Keib’s cabinet seems to be chosen on the basis of regional rather than ideological affiliation. In particular, the fact that two women were appointed has been described as significant for post-Gaddafi Libya:

“In a symbolic step for Libya, a deeply conservative Muslim society, the cabinet included two women, heading the ministries of health and social affairs. El-Keib said those appointments showed women enjoyed more equality than ever before.”

The issue of women’s rights in Libya as a “deeply conservative Muslim society” was placed under a spotlight in the wake of controversial comments made by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Jalil’s declaration that the constitution will be based on Islamic law, using polygamy as an example, prompted claims such as “TNC Rewards Rebels with Polygamy,” a response that feeds fears that the Arab revolutions are falling into the hands of frightening Islamists, overlooking the fact that polygamy, though increasingly rare in Libya, had always been practised under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. This not-insignficant fact was easily brushed aside in part due to the revolutionary narrative, which takes the “winds of change” metaphors of the so-called Arab Spring at their word, often presenting the actions of new governments as complete breaks from the previous regime, when those actions need to be read within a historical context.

In Libya, for example, women have been able to vote since the sixties and have served in government since the late eighties, following the regional model where a few notable women occupy prominent positions, without this having much effect on the empowerment of women in the general popualtion. The nature of women’s political participation in the Arab world has generally been symbolic and conditional, where it exists at all. Earlier this year, for example, when Lebanon’s cabinet was announced, the 30 appointees did not include a single woman.

In Libya the appointment of Fatima Hamroush as the minister of health and Mabruka al-Sherif Jibril as the minister of social affairs is symbolic in a sense: two women ministers is not a high number. However, in one of the two cases at least, the charge that the appointment is only a symbolic step, or more symbolic than substantive, does not hold up. While in the Arab world women’s political roles are often limited to smaller portfolios, newly liberated Libya’s first minister for health will have a lot on her plate.  The challenges will need to address include the rampant corruption in Libya’s medical sector, which she defines as one of her priorities, to say nothing of the sensitive issue of care for those wounded in the war, which has sparked protests across the country, with relatives calling for more to be done by the interim government to help the injured.

The appointment of Dr. Hamroush, a Libyan opthalmologist with Irish citizenship, has prompted some criticism that she may be out of touch with the day-to-day of Libyan hospitals after 15 years outside the country. However, Dr. Hamroush has gained a lot of recognition and praise both in the country and abroad for her efforts in delivering aid during the war and in co-ordinating efforts to bring Libyans wounded in the conflict to Ireland for treatment. Media coverage of Dr. Hamroush’s appointment, in particular in Ireland, has highlighted her work as the director of Irish-Libyan Emergency Aid and head of the Libyan Health Office in Ireland. In a radio interview after Gaddafi’s death, Dr. Hamroush noted that her role in the standalone entity of the Libyan Health Office would be equivalent to a health attache if Ireland had a Libyan embassy. Dr. Hamroush is quoted as saying that she felt she could not turn down the opportunity to be part of the transitional government: “I couldn’t refuse this challenge, it would be like a soldier refusing to go to the battlefield.”

This idea of civic duty has been central to the broader debate on the greater inclusion of women in the political process in Libya. The regional Arab women’s NGO Karama recently organized a meeting of the Libya Peace Platform, a diverse group of Libyan women who gathered in Cairo to set strategies to promote women’s political participation, with the hope of convening Peace Platform bodies in five key Libyan cities that will work to empower women as politically engaged citizens who can work to change their communities. Zahra Langhi, founder of Friends of Free Libya, pointed out that:

Women have played a pivotal role in the Libyan Revolution. In fact, Libyan women (as mothers, wives and sisters of the victims of notorious prison of Abu Sileem) were the first to come out and protest on the 15th of Feb, crying out ‘Rise up Benghazi. This is the day we have been waiting for!’

The question of how to ensure women’s political participation post-revolution has to face the paradox that in portraying women’s political participation as a symbolic sign of democracy, women’s rights may continue to be used as a democratic facade, as cosmetic signs of change, as with the autocratic secular regimes who manipulated these issues for their own political interest. For this reason, covering women’s participation as a “symbolic step” needs to be framed by questions about how Arab women can narrate their responsibilities as political actors, representing women’s political participation as a prerequisite for and inseparable from any Arab awakening.

The Libyan Woman’s New Libya

This piece was written by a Guest Contributor, Summar Shammakhi.

The interim Libyan leader, Mustapha Abdul Jalil declared Libya liberated on the 23rd October. The content of his twenty or so minute speech was a tribute to the February 17 revolution. He thanked all the brave men and women, all the martyrs, all the injured and all who suffered not only during the eight months of fighting for freedom but for forty two years of extreme imprisonment and oppression.

Screen shot of an interview with Dr. Iman Farhad, via Voice of America

Jalil’s speech, however, was noted by Western media more on its religious nature than it being a historic speech about freedom, democracy and rebuilding the nation. Jalil made obvious references to Islam, for example saying celebratory gunfire, which causes unnecessary deaths as “forbidden”. He made sure to emphasis “Islamic” banking and said that “Any law that violates Sharia (Islamic law) is null and void legally.” One prominent example was that Jalil announced that previous restrictions on polygamy would be lifted.

BBC news published an objective account describing Jalil’s speech on Libya’s liberation day, titled “Libya’s new ruler’s declare country liberated.” The writer makes a fleeting observation in one paragraph about Islam, including the two examples given by Jalil, Islamic banking and polygamy, but there is no further elaboration on the topic or any mention of fears of Libya becoming an Islamic state. Sky News, on the other hand, approached Jalil’s speech from a different slant, the title being “Beat Gaddafi And Win An Interest Free Wife.” In this article, polygamy is given precedence over liberation. Polygyny is even foregrounded in the title itself. The phrase “interest free wife” plays on the concepts of both Islamic banking and polygyny. The interpretation of polygyny in this article also carries negative connotations, for example the following paragraph:

“What this means is that men can now legally marry more than one woman and do not have to tell each about the other. Lose interest in one wife and you can have another with no penalty. And another.”

Following the statement about polygamy in the Libyan leader’s speech many other articles also focused on the topic too, for example “Libya Liberation Speech Raises Hackles on Polygamy,” “Libyan leader favouring polygamy stirs women’s fears of repression,” and “Hinting at an end to a curb on polygamy, Interim Libyan leader stirs anger,” amongst many others.

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Libya’s Girl Executioners and Gun-Brandishing Newscasters

al Forgani
Nisreen Mansour al Forgani, centre, with fellow Gaddafi female militia members. She is now under armed rebel guard in a Tripoli hospital. Picture: AFP

Gender roles are nowhere more prominent than in war, as we see male political and military leaders taking the most visible roles in armed conflicts, promoting the tendency to see the capacity to inflict violence as inherently male. During the six months of Libya’s revolt, amid stories of women working in hospitals and sending food to the fighters, the stories of women who have ventured into the frontlines, like Fawzia Al Ferjani, have been few and far between. Tellingly, the fact that women were again out on the streets in Tripoli, including coming out in force for a celebration in the renamed Martyrs Square, were reported as signs of normality. 

Since the opposition entered Tripoli, however, there have been a number of interviews with women formerly employed as guards and fighters by the Gaddafi regime, reports previously limited to the evidence of women’s IDs at the frontlines and rumours of female snipers and mercenaries.

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The Symbol of Eman al-Obeidi

On March 26, Eman al-Obeidi burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and told reporters that fifteen of Gaddafi’s militiamen had detained her for two days and raped her. She named one of them as the son of a high-ranking official, and pleaded for her friends, who she said were still held captive. After a scuffle with journalists who tried to intervene, government security forces bundled al-Obeidi out of the hotel against her will and drove her away. At this time, her whereabouts remain unknown.

Eman al Obeidi

Eman al-Obeidi being dragged away from the Rixos Hotel.

Since most of the international press corps were at the Rixos Hotel, al-Obeidi’s story received worldwide attention and extensive coverage. She became a symbol of the uprising in Libya, putting the methods of the Gaddafi government on display. The Washington Post described her as a “symbol of defiance against Gaddafi.” Others have described her as Libya’s Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, and compared the incident to Wael Ghonim’s TV appearance after his release from custody in Egypt.

What cannot be denied is that Eman al-Obeidi broke through the propaganda machine of the regime. At one point, just before a dark cloth was thrown over her head, she shouted: “Do you see their repression?” Charles Clover of the Financial Times, one of the journalists who tried to intervene, put it this way: “On Saturday morning…a little piece of the real world, named Eman el-Obeidi, came crashing into our surreal existence.”

The regime responded with a barrage of claims against the claimant. Initially, perhaps predictably, she was described as drunk and mentally ill, although that allegation of madness was later dropped. Instead, one spokesperson described her as a prostitute, as though that would better explain her claim of rape.

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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.

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