Libya’s Real Women Coming Out Now!
Featuring: Yusra Tekbali and History Notes by Ronald Bruce St John
The world for a long time didn’t quite understand about Libya’s women. Thanks to the awful, negative and unfortunate faces that came out of the February 17 Revolution, many have wondered whether or not we were all victims of some sort or other.
In the relative absence of a loud positive media thud, this has worried many. Everyone wants to know who we are and where have Libya’s female role models been hiding. They are also curious as to whether or not we will participate in a future government to represent the political, economic and social interests of our sex.
Just this week, Mr Mustafa Abdul Jalil, in his first public Tripoli address in Martyr’s Square, declared that women would receive special attention and thanked them for their role in the revolution. To a large cheering crowd, he promised that women will be among Libya’s future ministers and ambassadors. (Although it must be said, he also spoke in a protective way about women, betraying some of the more conservative habits and traditions of our culture.)
The fact though that only three women are appointed to the National Transitional Council with only one, Dr Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali, publicly identified, has already angered some prepared Libyan female activists. They have set up an online petition under the Libyan Civil Society Organisation NGO, calling on the NTC to be more transparent in its appointments and selection.
I spoke to one signatory, Farah Abushwesha, who explained: “We are calling on the NTC to have greater female presence in ministerial positions. We want to highlight the importance of including women as representatives and equal participants at international conferences and future meetings to broker peace, security and the reconstruction of Libya. The link to their petition is: Women4Libya.
But let’s mention a little more about Libya’s women and steal an insight into their character which might explain why they didn’t get the world attention they deserved. Now that Tripoli has been freed, hundreds of women who were busy during the revolution are happy to come out and speak without fear of reprisal, after months of coordinating and tirelessly working underground.
In researching for this piece, I must admit I came across so many Libyan women and girls that I never knew existed and they have all added something personal and unique to the rebel movement. One can’t possibly do justice to each and every one of them. But even now, with an almost full victory, many don’t’ wish to take credit for their efforts and are super modest. I found this especially true with the older female members.
One very respected lady, who was very active in clandestine operations and who owns a private school in Tripoli, said: “We have lived through black days of horror, panic and fear. All that matters now is that the youngsters have a bright future ahead of them. Of course, we helped the young rebels in every way and we structured ourselves to make sure that if one group of us fell, the others wouldn’t go down with them. How could we not? It was worth it.”
Referring to yesterday’s visit by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Foreign Secretary William Hague and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, she added: “We are here to welcome these three men. They deserve a special present from Libya and we are thinking of what to get them. Some may accuse Britain and France of having an agenda. But any agenda is better than that of Gaddafi’s. Today, we are proud Libyans and can create mutually beneficial relations with whomever we want.”
I then spoke to Marwa Shellib, who has been a doctor at Tripoli Central Hospital since 2004. She said: “We were under so much pressure to begin with. Hana Gaddafi, the adopted daughter of the former dictator, was positioned with us and we were afraid. Until August 20, military police would come and check on us and didn’t want us to treat the rebels. So we had to smuggle out medication and ammunition to help the wounded in field hospitals. We also took food to the prisoners, where guards were on our side. I can’t though take any credit because the Libyan people all stood by each other.”
There is also the significant contribution of the younger females, especially in corresponding with the international media in the English language. For months, they worked under pseudonyms for protection and only now can show their faces and identity their voices.
Two I’d like to mention who were truly brave and courageous are the young widow of the late Mohammed Al-Nabbous, who has kept up the internet portal Libya Al-Hurra after his awful death. And, the other is the feisty 23-year-old Talis Aghil, who kept CNN, ABC, NBC and BBC Arabic informed of developments while hiding in her grandmother’s house in Tripoli.
A member of Global Change Makers, with many of her girlfriends and guy friends of similar age, Aghil said: “We were a part of the Libyan contact group which mobilized and coordinated efforts to connect the world to Libya during the revolution. We were first to challenge the system, hacked the internet while it was blocked and urged people to fight for the cause. Most importantly, we made sure that Tripoli stayed connected to Benghazi.
“I knew also that my warrant of arrest was issued and now I even have the copy to prove it! This I intend to show to my children and grandchildren one day as I am very proud of it and that I was lucky enough to almost be imprisoned!”
On the whole, Libya’s young girls are educated, modern in ways and technologically savvy. But as Libya was so out of touch for four long decades, nobody had the experience of openly communicating with others or making their views heard. Because there was never freedom as such to speak of. Until now.
Of course, nobody knows what the future holds for Libyan’s women and Libyan’s men. Only they can take this historic opportunity to be influential and cater to their specific needs and desires, next to each other. It is still on the whole a shy and conservative culture; and, socially, it does suffer from slight sexual segregation.
From the ones I’ve met, spoken to and emailed from in and out of the country, Libya’s women are not only real and aware, but they are strong, feisty, intelligent and motivated. They just need a little push to lose their media inhibitions and shed some of the fear and paranoia that were by-products of the old regime.
Yusra Tekbali and Ana al-Libeeya
To help remedy the Libyan female image vacuum in the more immediate term, I am so pleased to bring the work of the 27-year-old Libyan American journalist, Yusra Tekbali to Nahla Ink. She is eager to start work on a unique project and here tells me about her personal Libyan journey:
“Although I was technically born and raised in America, I have been visiting Tripoli, Libya most of my life, spending two or three months in the summer. I also went to school in Tripoli in first and fifth grade, so that influences and effects my viewpoint and my identity as a Libyan and as an American.”
In college, Yusra double-majored in Journalism and Middle Eastern Studies. But it was after graduation, when she worked with her congresswoman in Washington, that she found her passion and niche in politics, civil rights groups and women’s interests. She also then began blogging for Muslimah Media Watch, where she met with the editors of ‘I Speak for Myself: American Women on being Muslim’ where her essay is published.
She said: “The idea of this book was to showcase the diversity of Islam, by giving a voice to women who are often talked about, but not always properly heard. It’s a powerful tool to combat Islamophobia, which unfortunately is still a reality in the West. I now want to apply the same concept to tell stories of Libyan women.
“During this arduous point in our history, its women who have found themselves in roles they never imagined, and as such have been breaking down gender stereotypes. The project of Ana al-Libeeya is still in forming but I hope it will take off in October. Working with me also is Nira Abada, a British-Libyan media executive and fashion consultant.
“The focus will be to promote Libyan women and support their creative and professional endeavors. There will be so much to say about Libya when it is fully liberated, and I want to make sure that women have a voice, show that they are present and can speak for themselves.”
One can say that Tekbali is an ideal candidate for this proposal. The middle child of seven children, including four sisters, she managed to carve out her own identity and making a name for herself in the Arab and Muslim blogosphere, writing for CNN, the Huffington Post and now she is based at Libya TV, in Doha, Qatar.
She is also very pretty and tells me that she was a finalist in the Miss Arab USA Pageant last year. But she insists: “People love definitions and labels, but I’m not about that. I hate preconceived notions or ulterior motives. I get along with everyone and I’m just not focused on the superficial. ”
Recently, Tekbali spent three weeks at the Ramada Camp working with Libya el-7urra charity. There, she met with Libyan activists from all over the world and heard about a group of Libyan women starting Relief and Aspirations in Libya, a rape and counseling group for women and children.
She also made contact with The Libyan Women Alliance, the Libyan Women’s Union, and Friends of Free Libya in Cairo. Attending various networking workshops, she is now signed up to help with a future conference for Libyan women supported by the United Nations.
I ask her to tell me more about Ana al-Libeeya:
“Libya is a country with a rich history and it is in many ways a maternal society, so I belong to that network of women that takes care of each other. Ana al-Libeeya will be a powerful testimony to that, and it also means: I am The Libyan woman that you see and don’t see, hear or don’t hear about. I will define myself and I will claim (or reclaim) my own identity.”
Finally, in her endearing American twang, when I ask her about her hopes for the country, she replied: “Oh gosh! So many: stability, dignity and equality come to mind, but right now I just want to see it fully liberated. And I want a Libya where Gaddafi’s terrorizing boot mark will be filled with high heels, tennis shoes, house slippers and bare feet of different sizes.”
History Notes – Kindly Provided by Ronald Bruce St John, Independent Scholar And Author of ‘Libya: Continuity and Change’ 2011
One of the more positive socioeconomic policies of the Qaddafi regime was the promotion of a more open, expansive, and inclusive role for women, and this was especially true in the field of education. In addition to providing nine years of compulsory schooling for all Libyans, females were also encouraged to take up administrative and clerical jobs and to engage in skilled professions like health care and nursing.
Consequently, the number of women enrolled in teacher training increased almost seven-fold between 1969-70 and 1974-5 while female enrollment at university increased well over four-fold in the same period. By 1974-5, over 50% of the people enrolled in teacher training were female; however, female enrollment at university was only 12.8% of the total, reflecting an ongoing gender gap in higher education.
Other steps taken by the Qaddafi regime to improve the status of women included legislation restricting polygamy and fixing for women the same minimum age for marriage as for men. Libyan women were among the first in the Arab world to attend a military academy with a special facility built for them on the outskirts of Tripoli.
In 1998, the World Bank estimated that nearly 100% of all girls and boys were enrolled in primary education, and by 2002, adult female illiteracy had dropped to 29%. Although female illiteracy was still 10% higher than male illiteracy, these were impressive results which compared favorably with similar statistics in neighboring states.
At the same time, a generational gap among women continued to exist in Libya. Women under 35 years of age were much more likely to have received a public education and to participate in the public sphere than older women who were more apt to stay at home and to enjoy lower levels of education.
Moreover, even though men and women in principle were guaranteed equality under Libyan law, a lack of application and control resulted in a notable level of inequality in practice. A survey of Gar Younis University students conducted in 1994 found that female students generally subscribed to full gender equality while their male counterparts were more apt to support the principle but to express reservations about its practical application.
The conflicted position of women in contemporary Libyan society has been a recurrent theme in modern Libyan fiction, including short stories by Najwa Ben Shetwan, Maryam Salama, and Lamia El-Makki, among others.
Women have been very active from the beginning in supporting the February 17 Revolution, demanding freedom and democracy together with additional rights for themselves. In this regard, the Transitional National Council needs to do more to broaden the representation and participation of women in the political process in general and in the interim government in particular. Given the opportunity, women
have much more to offer the new Libya going forward.
Note – St John’s book ‘Libya: Continuity and Change’ was published recently during the February 17 Revolution. It aims to help readers understand why Libyans think and act as they do. By focusing on the duel themes of continuity and change, it looks at Libya’s history since independence in 1951 and the driving forces behind its foreign and domestic policies under Gaddafi and leading up to the 2011 Revolution.
For more information: www.ronaldbrucestjohn.com