Women in Libyan public life: a seismic shift

Amena Raghei writes: During the Gaddafi regime, women’s participation in Libyan public life was perceived as little more than a tool in Gaddafi’s arsenal of oppression. Recent interviews with female activists and candidates repeatedly echo the sentiment that, unlike today, women who took on public roles during Gaddafi’s time were considered women of ill repute, literally tarnished by Gaddafi’s hands.

While this attitude has been entrenched in the Libyan cultural mindset, it is currently undergoing seismic shifts. As a result of the February 17, 2011 revolution, women have started participating in public life at unprecedented levels. For some members of Libyan society, these changes have been difficult to accept. Nevertheless, Libya’s newly empowered women seem undeterred and determined to protect their new few found public roles.

In Libyan society, it was once implicitly understood that women holding positions in the Gaddafi government or pubic positions in general had been chosen not for their ostensible bureaucratic qualifications but, more often than not, as an expression of the “brother leader’s” personal interests, tastes, and worse. Libya’s traditionally patriarchal society did not easily allow women to be objects of public scrutiny, especially as decreed by the arbitrary rules of a silently hated dictator.

Gaddafi’s infamous female bodyguards, Benghazi’s female mayor, Huda Ben Amir (better known as Huda the Executioner), and the ubiquitous Revolutionary Committees (which were known to recruit young women and girls to satisfy Gaddafi’s perverse predilections) are a few of examples of female public positions abhorred by the average Libyan.

In order to avoid these negative associations and protect themselves, women often willingly took a backseat to men and refrained from participating in political – or any other public – activities. While this may have preserved women’s reputation, it also created a culture where women’s social roles tended to be restricted mainly to the household. In cases where women ventured outside the home, they were often limited to traditionally acceptable posts with little public exposure or decision-making ability. Their involvement in society remained socially acceptable as long as they stayed away from the limelight and did not seek public attention.

The revolution of February 17 would see a quick and decisive change in this attitude as women, out of necessity, became active, productive, and respected members of a national movement. No longer would their political activity carry Gaddafi’s imprimatur.

This summer marked a turning point in Libya’s swift evolution from dictatorship to democracy. It was doubly special for Libyan women, who made their voices heard and took their role in building the new Libya very seriously. Women’s new political roles extended from and even surpassed the contributions made during the revolution. They not only helped in their country’s rebirth, but also took on a new identity as collaborative members in Libya’s public sphere. [Continue reading…]

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