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Feminism In Libya: After Gaddafi's Glass Ceiling, New Risk Is Islamist Repression

Often with multiple passports, the “foreign” vanguard in the battle for women’s rights in Libya must shift their attention from the evils of dictatorship to the risks of pious Islam.

Women marching last May in Tripoli (Magharebia)
Women marching last May in Tripoli (Magharebia)
Richard Werly and David Wagnières

TRIPOLI - They refer to themselves as the "strange women." And for good reason - they all grew up under the dictatorship, but through family ties and education managed to stay on the margins of Muammar Gaddafi's system and the traditional women's roles that are present everywhere in the Libya, a country dominated by conservative Islam.

The most audacious of them do not even wear the hijab, the veil that younger women carefully swaddle their faces with, "to look like a beautiful moon." Most of them are not married, having successfully resisted family pressure or arranged marriages. Their passports have often served as a shield.

Jamila, a veterinarian and painter, is Libyan and German. Hadiah, a teacher and potter, is French-Libyan. Sheherazade is originally American. Before the fall of the dictatorship abolished the barriers woven by four decades under Gaddafi, they all had access to the seaside suburb of Regatta, where expatriates mix with the local elite who come to westernize themselves away from malicious looks.

These "strange" women are accepted by the mixed population in the capital city. They were once promoted by the fallen regime in order to encourage a more modern image of the country, and today they are at the avant-garde of discussions about a free Libya.

"That ‘men's revolution" would never have triumphed without the support of the mothers and the wives, the sisters and the daughters," says Ibrahim Chellany, a former advertising professional and founder of the monthly magazine The Libyan. Three fourths of the magazine's editorial team are women under 30.

Sheherazade Kablan, an intellectual who just returned to Libya from the United States, was on the cover recently. "I consider her our model," says Iba Shebani, 24, a young television presenter who is half-English. Iba was in Oxford during the war, but returned to Libya right after the fall of Tripoli on August 21. "It was my duty. Libyan women of my generation have a lot to bring to the table."

Jamila, 40, is more reflective. Up to this moment the veterinarian, university professor and artist led a double life. As a state employee, she quickly experienced the glass ceiling that Gaddafism had in place for women who were excessively independent. "I was named department head. And then nothing," Jamila said. "The system expected from me something that I was not giving it."

Her mother is German, and married to a prominent Libyan lung specialist who knows many of the "Colonel's' comrades-in-arms. She knows how much her daughter has suffered. "All of the qualified women, whose education the regime encouraged, have found themselves in the same situation: marginalized trailblazers."

Jamila didn't hesitate to jump headlong into the void left by the revolution, and reactivated a scholarship to study in Italy, where she will be returning shortly. Her artistic work, however, underscore the silence around feminist causes in Libya. The articles on painting in The Libyan finally allow her to discuss her work. But opportunities for expositions are still quite limited. The human figures and nudes that she has been painting since adolescence are still taboo in a society corseted by religion and dominated by men.

High heels and polygamy

"People talk to me about sexuality and danger," the artist says as she shows her works. "I respond that I am an artist who is in love with life." She shakes her uncovered hair and adjusts her loose-fitting sweater. Her students, at the university, are almost all veiled.

Even with tight jeans and high heels, they are willing to accommodate the justifications for polygamy recently enumerated by Mustapha Abdul Jalil, the president of the Transitional Council, a pious Muslim. "It is all very complicated," Jamila says. "These young Libyan women work, they drive their cars and they admire life in the West, but they are still submissive toward men."

The question of divorce is one example. There were already laws that were favorable to women under Gaddafi, but they were rarely applied. There are also laws against harassment. But is it necessary to protest in the streets to defend these laws? " The fate of the Libyan revolution is in the hands of the fathers, the brothers and the husbands. Freedom of speech risks breaking up families," said Naima, a Tunisian woman in Misrata.

In this large port city, which along with Benghazi was at the heart of the insurrection, has always been conservative. The katibas (brigades) from Misrata weren't accustomed to seeing women on the street in cars and in offices before they arrived in Tripoli. Hadiah, whose mother is French, prefers to laugh about it. "When they see me without the veil, the revolutionaries attribute it to the fact that I am not 100 percent Libyan. For these kids, I am from planet Mars."

She notes that Gaddafi was focused on eliminating the different parts of Libyan society. "Everyone fell in line," says Hadiah. "The big challenge is to have a different way of thinking or a different attitude."

The two women walked together towards Martyr's Square in Tripoli to celebrate the revolution, just as thousands of others. The occasional un-veiled girl smiled at them. "Gaddafi's fall at least enabled us to see that we were not alone," Hadiah continued. "A discrete republic of strange women was born in Tripoli."

Photo - Magharebia

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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