FEATURE - Through din of war, Libya women demand louder voice

BENGHAZI, Libya Mon May 23, 2011 6:06pm IST

A woman from Ajdabiyah sits at a refugee camp in Benghazi May 18, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

A woman from Ajdabiyah sits at a refugee camp in Benghazi May 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

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BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Just two women sat among 17 men on a podium in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi this month when rebels paraded new members of their National Transitional Council to the media.

For women who took a prominent role in an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, the lack of female rebel leaders points to a long struggle ahead.

"During the revolution, women were really strong and were leaders. They were multi-lingual and they were welcomed," said Hana el-Galal, who quit her role as head of education in Benghazi's local council, partly to further women's rights.

"Now there's competition, and we went back to a view that women should not compete with men, that men should be dominant."

Women in the east are taking advantage of their newfound freedom to speak out, try to change the political discourse and raise their social ambitions.

Early in the rebellion, the shrill ululating of women mixed with the sound of gunfire celebrating victories over Gaddafi's forces that prised the region from his grip in mid-February.

Women sat in the rebel headquarters planning their next moves, often taking the lead in speaking to the media and discussing with male rebel leaders their vision for a new Libya.

A group of female lawyers were conspicuous in the first meetings aimed at organising the rebel efforts, the eloquent and bi-lingual women mobbed by reporters after emerging from the closed-door sessions.

One of those women, lawyer Salwa Bugaighis, said she was unhappy that the national council now contained just five women out of 50 or so members.

"Maybe it will take some time to change the mentality, to be a leader, to be in a higher position," she said.

TABOOS

Libya remains a deeply traditional, male-dominated society that sits 91st out of 102 countries for gender equality, according to a 2009 index published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Gaddafi's official views on women are laid out in his "Green Book", a mix of socialist and Islamic political theory that is relatively enlightened when it comes to women's role in society.

As if to underline this, the idiosyncratic leader had an all-female entourage of bodyguards when he travelled abroad.

Higher living standards have helped make underage marriage much rarer since Gaddafi took power, according to a 2004 U.N. report, and many women hold high academic and other professional posts.

But is rare for women in Libya to travel alone or without the permission of their husbands or families.

Unchaperoned social mingling with members of the opposite sex is still taboo for most, and many coffee shops, restaurants and water pipe cafes -- where politics and religion are always on the agenda -- are almost entirely male bastions.

The few women who walk into them are greeted with gawps and stares, especially the few who forego a headscarf.

"If the men of our country lack the political and cultural experience because of 41 years of oppression and chaos ... women have even less experience and exposure," said Fawzia Bariun, who represents Tripoli on the national council and is an Arabic professor at the University of Michigan in the United States.

NEW AMBITIONS

The reality of political life in a country where Gaddafi had absolute control and his inner circle near legal impunity meant most women shied away from politics.

"For women to get in a very high position in the government, you had to pay. You had to pay in different ways. So it was better to be on the safe side," Bugaighis said.

Galal said: "In Gaddafi's time we tried to keep low profiles in politics because we didn't want to be part of his regime. It was dangerous for us. There was no rule of law. If you're a woman, there's nothing to protect you if you attract attention".

"Earlier, girls just spent their time saying 'Who am I going to marry? What dress will I wear and what will my wedding be like?'" said Aisha Mohammed, an English teacher. "Now they are all talking about things they want to do in the future."

Libyan university student Sumaia Adel, in a checked headscarf and tight jeans, dreams of becoming a journalist now that the media is no longer a Gaddafi mouthpiece.

"I used to think I'll get married and then I'll travel abroad and then do what I want," she said. "But now I want to stay here and work, become a reporter."

While Bugaighis acknowledged that women are far more politically active, she said they still had a long way to go.

"Women in this revolution are part of the political action, in demonstrating, in magazines, in the media, in helping NGOs. They've woken up, and feel this is the time to act," she said.

"But I'm afraid that when the revolution ends, they will stop. The end of the revolution when Gaddafi goes is not the end of the revolution for women."

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