March 08, 2013
On an April day in 2004, 15-year-old Soraya’s life turned into a living hell. The Libyan girl remembers thinking that morning that it was going to be a special day. "Our leader is doing us the great honor of paying us a visit tomorrow," the principal at her high school in Sirte had said the day before, telling everybody to take extra care with their appearance so that they made a good impression.
Pretty Soraya had been selected to present Muammar al-Gaddafi a bouquet of flowers. When she gave him the flowers, the “revolutionary leader” laid his hand on the girl’s head and stroked her hair.
Filled with excitement about the visit, after school Soraya ran to her mother’s hairdressing salon to tell her all about it. What she didn’t know was that life as she had known it had come to an end the minute Gaddafi put his hand on her head. To those in the know, the gesture was a sign that meant: I want her.
The next day at school, Soraya noticed that something seemed different. The teachers, who were usually quite strict, were suddenly very nice to her. They asked her strange questions, wondering if she was still going to continue coming to class.
That afternoon, when she had once again gone to her mother’s salon, the door opened suddenly and three of Gaddafi’s uniformed female body guards walked in. One of them was Mabruka, the most notorious of the female thugs that the press always liked to call with a wink as the “Amazons,” glossing over their brutality.
The guards said they needed Soraya to come and present another bouquet to Gaddafi, and over her mother’s protestations they took the girl away.
She was driven out of the city and into the desert, to the dictator’s tent. He ordered for her to be “prepared.” Soraya was measured, weighed, washed, and shaved. A Ukrainian nurse took a blood sample. The girl was then made up and clothed in a dress with a deep décolleté over a tanga.
Useless to resist
Then she was led back to Gaddafi’s tent. He was sitting naked on his bed. Shocked and confused the girl refused to get into bed, and the dictator, although angry, let her go. But he shouted at Mabruka: "This whore isn’t doing what I want, make her understand and bring her back."
Mabruka explained to Soraya that it would be a while before she could leave the dictator’s camp, that resisting was useless, and that Gaddafi would “open” her. But she still resisted when she was brought back to Gaddafi a second time, after which she was taken to the Katiba al-Saadi barracks in Sirte.
The next time she was brought to Gaddafi, he raped her brutally. Over the next few days he whipped the girl, raped her again and again, even urinated on her. After a week, Soraya was taken to Tripoli to Gaddafi’s headquarters at Bab al-Azizia. There she was given a dark, damp room in the cellar.
Soraya wasn’t the only girl the dictator was holding there. When he felt like it, he had one or the other of them and sometimes several at once brought to his chambers where he abused and raped them. Afterwards they were sent back down to the cellar.
Soraya was to spend seven years here as one of many of the dictator’s slaves -- at the whim of this mostly cocaine-fueled sex addict and his vicious band of female guards.
French journalist Annick Cojean recorded Soraya’s story as part of her thorough research into Gaddafi‘s bizarre “sex dictatorship.” After reading her book, one gets the impression that Gaddafi’s Libya was a grotesque and horrendous case of Viagra totalitarianism.
Gaddafi, who in the third chapter of his Green Book sounds off moralistically about the liberation of women and their equal rights, used sex systematically as a form of terrorism against his own people. He regularly had young girls across the country abducted. A usual means of further subjugating subordinates was to help himself to their wives and daughters -- and he not infrequently raped the men themselves. The extent of the humiliation was such that few even dared talk about it, much less rebel.
When Cojean recounts these horrors, at first it’s impossible to imagine this delicate, cheerful woman, sitting comfortably before us in the Café de Flore in St. Germain, deep inside the chaos of post-revolutionary Libya. But this is a star reporter for Le Monde, winner of the Albert-Londres Prize (France’s top journalism award), and Cojean had decided to go to Libya in October 2011 to research a story on the role of women during the Libyan revolution.
Cojean had noticed that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where pictures show many women in the front ranks of protesters, this was hardly ever the case in Libya. She soon found out why. In a country where rape was a routine means of oppression, women were forced into greater public reserve. But that also meant that they had a particularly strong stake in seeing the revolt through to a successful outcome, which they did as behind-the-scenes organizers and motivators. "Women were the Libyan revolution’s ‘secret weapon,’” Cojean says: “They had personal agendas against Gaddafi.”
That rape was routine in Libya, and that the Libyan leader was the biggest perpetrator of all, was an open secret. Yet even after the fall of Gaddafi, most Libyan women were reluctant to talk about it. The sense of shame, and the fear of contempt and retaliation, were too great.
As she compiled information, Cojean spoke with a large number of doctors and representatives of human rights organizations, but in Tripoli she couldn’t find a single woman willing to speak about her experience. She was just about to leave for Paris – mulling over writing a story about how it was impossible to write a story about rape in Libya – when a doctor told her that a woman living in the same hotel he was staying at had reported being raped by Gaddafi. The woman was Soraya.
Cojean and her interpreter met the girl, now 22, in her hotel room. "She was traumatized, Gaddafi destroyed her, and her family had cast her out," Cojean recalls.
Soraya poured out all that happened to her, and spoke so freely Cojean wondered at one point if what she was saying was true. "I believed her, she seemed to be telling the truth, all she had experienced just welled out of her – but I still had to follow up and make sure,” she says.
She wrote the story up for Le Monde, and then went back to Libya for five months and listened to Soraya relate the events over and over again, following up all possible points she could double-check. Thus began her own descent into the abyss of Gaddafi’s sex dictatorship whose victims were as unwilling to talk about it as were its perpetrators.
This research and additional interviews fills the second half of Cojean’s book. It adds up to an impressive journalistic achievement, not least because it makes abundantly clear that Gaddafi’s regime of horror was playing out right under the noses of a Western public amused and fascinated by manifestations such as the "Amazons" without going beyond the farce of the telegenic façade to the underbelly of violence and misogyny.
Cojean’s book has also been translated into Arabic, and is now available in Libya, which Cojean says especially pleases her. "It would make be happy if the book contributes even just a little to help advance the cause of women in Libya," she says.
Annick Cojean and Marjolijn de Jager: Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya, is due out in English in September.
Die Welt ("The World") is a German daily founded in Hamburg in 1946, and currently owned by the Axel Springer AG company, Europe's largest publishing house. Now based in Berlin, Die Welt is sold in more than 130 countries. A Sunday edition called Welt am Sonntag has been published since 1948.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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