A new dawn for Libya’s women?

By Rebecca Davis 15 September 2011

Imagine you’re a teacher, or a hairdresser, in a society where women are granted little role in public life. Then suddenly a rebel uprising takes place and you’re a fighter, an arms runner, a Nato spy – and you don’t want to go back to your old life. This is the situation currently facing many Libyan women. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi saw himself as a protector of human rights. In attempting to curb Islamic extremism he did introduce some pro-women legislation and women were also given opportunities to enter most professions. In practice, however, those who rose to the top under Gaddafi’s regime tended to be either his political cronies or, as in the case of his female bodyguards, his personal sexual playthings.

But from the beginning of the rebel uprising, women played a significant part. Rebel officers taught women how to use guns, and some did. Others smuggled weapons for the rebels, helped Nato find airstrike targets, tended to the wounded and contacted journalists. Having tasted freedom, they are reluctant to return to their old domestic lives. The New York Times spoke to women with new aspirations: to trace missing detainees, to run for political office, to work for women’s rights.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the national transitional council will offer them the status they now know they deserve. Disturbingly, there is just one woman in the leadership so far, and no women’s toilet in their HQ. But a positive sign was this week’s first speech of the interim leader, Mustafa Jalil, in which he spoke of a desire for women to play a substantial role in the new dispensation. That will have given hope to Libyan women that they may yet hold onto their newfound autonomy. DM

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