By Sholeh Irani
Nov. 3 2011
There are figures mentioning 5000 rapes during the last few months’ of struggle against Gadaffi. Women will carry the wounds and the shame, mostly in silence and loneliness. The NTC rebel-soldiers, who also have participated in the ravaging of women’s bodies, deserve a “virgin” for a wife.
The triumphant speech that Abdul Jalil, leader of the Libyan National Transitional Council, NTC, delivered on the 23 October in Benghazi has been received with concern and anger by many, not least the women in the region. Within minutes it was possible to read the panicked reactions by Iranian women on social media. The Iranian women wished that the Libyan women would not have to live under the laws that the speech proclaimed.
In their reactions women expressed disappointment, talked about yet-again crushed hope, this time by an interim government allied to NATO but without the legal rights to change laws. The NTC leader Abdul Jalil – a former justice minister under Gadaffi – said that all the laws that according to him contradicted the Sharia laws immediately should be revoked in new Libya. One example he used was the men’s limited right to polygamy. The statement got immediate support by followers of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who is a part of the NTC and a founder of the Libyan branch of al-Quaida, reorganized as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Polygamy has not been prohibited in Libya, only limited with the condition that the first wife must give her permission and a few legal procedures involved. Not even this do the NATO-allied new rulers of Libya consider “Islamic” enough. Abdul Jalil explained later on to the surprised Western media that he was a follower of moderate Islam, and he was not an extremist. His claim does not fit well with his view of polygamy, one could claim. Unless he means “moderate” according to Saudi Arabian standards, of course!
The new rulers’ viewpoint on women’s issues and individual freedom does not have much to do with the religion, even though it is based on religious laws to silence the opposition. The control over women’s bodies and the legalization of discrimination is the code name for every undemocratic rule. The right to polygamy is the code name for male domination and women’s subordination. The Arab Spring has mainly revolved around “human dignity”. It is exactly this demand that the interim government of Libya is betraying by trampling on women’s dignity.
Warlords must consider their soldiers’ interests if they will maintain control and ensure their power. The rules of war, in simple words! Rebels that are turned into voluntary mercenaries shall be rewarded. The dominance of men in each new dictatorship is cemented so the whole society obeys the overarching hierarchical order. The rules of patriarchy, in simpl e words! There are figures mentioning 5000 rapes during the last few months’ of struggle against. Gadaffi. Women will carry the wounds and the shame, mostly in silence and loneliness.
The NTC rebel-soldiers, who also have participated in the ravaging of women’s bodies, deserve a “virgin” for a wife. Though men who are already married and have spent their right to a virgin, must come through for the unmarried, raped women. That is, more or less, how the followers of the NTC reason regarding the necessity to abolish the limitations to polygamy. In the patriarchal world of Abdul Jalil this is a gift to men but also to the – according to the estimation of women’s rights activists – 5000 raped women.
But Libyan women are strong. After all, they have survived Gadaffi! It takes a lot to dare revolting against such a regime, without weapons in their hands! The women have survived bombings, lynching, revolt and war. They have buried their sons and received their daughters’ ravaged bodies.
There are stories about how the Libyan uprising really started. On February 15th, several women who protested outside the notorious prison Abu Salim in Benghazi were massacred. They were mothers, daughters and wives of the political prisoners. They protested together with a number of prominent women lawyers. In Tripoli the pregnant lawyer Abu Ras was the first to dare organize the lawyers for an important demonstration against Gadafi. It was these events, with women in the forefront that broke the silence, defeated the fear, and initiated the uprising that a few months later led to the toppling of Gadafi.
As in many other countries in the region the women are pioneers in the modern struggle for freedom and justice. Certainly, the armed young men of Libya have struggled with their lives at stake and thousands died. They are the heroes of the liberation. But it is also the women who, without weapons, struggled and organized the revolt and were subjected to rape, kidnapping and murder. A revolt never leads to victory with only bombs and weapons.
The women of Libya have been a vitally important part of this revolt. They have printed leaflets and handed them out on the streets when no one else dared, they smuggled weapons and ammunition in their cars, they organized cooking for thousands of rebels, and care for the wounded. They hid people on the run, cared for raped children and women. They are the heroes of Libya!
The world has not seen many pictures of the women’s struggle and their heroic contribution for a new Libya. The journalists of the international channels often traveled on military tanks and reported about the military successes. The apparent invisibility of women that made the “revolution” possible, now feeds the circumscription of their rights.
“What can WE do?” is the question repeatedly posed in the West. The answer obviously differs. One answer could be that people should use all possible means as citizens to declare “the women” the “heroes of Libya”. To ally ourselves, as women’s rights activists, with the Libyan women who have already organized themselves and fight for equal rights. “Force” media to hear their voices! In the tradition of the Wall Street movement, act as amplifiers for conscious feminists in Libya.
Good initiatives have already been taken by the women’s movement in Egypt, with support from amongst others the Swedish NGO Woman to Woman. More forums for women should be created for meetings and discussions of how to approach the arguments and politics the patriarchal society uses to legitimize the oppression of women under the guise of religion and tradition, and to decide upon common strategies.
But there is also a need for more dialogue for a united, systematic and sharp offensive by the international women’s movement and feminists from all over the world. Now the international women’s movement has a historical opportunity to implement meaningful global changes for women’s conditions and lives. The will is probably there. The consciousness has increased dramatically. The Arab Spring has opened doors for dialogue and cooperation between women of different countries. It’s vital to act now.
Every historic era is marked by a challenge bigger than all others. The challenge of our time is “change” with the demand to respect the dignity of every human being. The dignity and equal rights of women constitute an important aspect of this challenge. Women in the most undemocratic countries rise up despite all cruelty and all dangers. They demand dignity and freedom. Now it’s important for women the world over to support each other, not just in words, without the prejudices and the paternalistic role that the women of the West easily slip into. It must be with the respect for the other woman’s dignity – to learn, not just to teach.
Translated from Swedish by Linn Hjort. This essay has also appeared on Feministisk Perspektiv
Sholeh Irani is Chief Editor of Iranian Women's magazine Avaye Zan, published since 1991. She also free-lances and is engaged in feminist struggles.