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Small role for women with rebels in Libya

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BENGHAZI, Libya » In recent days, after weeks of delays and closed-door meetings, rebel leaders here have announced a slate of new appointments, including a new defense chief and a minister for reconstruction and infrastructure. They have added members to a national council, to represent areas in southern, central and western Libya, all in an effort to bolster the revolution, better represent the country as a whole and — in the event that Moammar Gadhafi bolts — make civil war unlikely, the rebel leaders explained.

But one group has been lost in the reshuffling — women. While the fledgling rebel government has more than doubled in size, women now occupy just two of the 40 or so positions in the rebel leadership structure. A woman had been expected to be named to be education minister, but after a number of candidates were passed over or refused the job, a man is now expected to take over the ministry.

For a revolutionary movement that was started by women — the female relatives of men killed in one of Gadhafi’s jails — their exclusion at the highest levels is alienating longtime democracy activists and has added to concerns about decision making in the three-month-old movement, which seems to grow more inscrutable by the day.

"We are having a problem now," said Hana el-Gallal, a prominent human rights lawyer who was said to be a candidate for the education position. "In the old regime we didn’t have any voice in the economic and political sector. Now, in these two sectors we don’t have any presence."

Enas Eldrasy, a 23-year-old radiation therapist, recently quit her job working for the national council, in part because she said she was relegated to busy work. "When the revolution started, women had a big role," she said. "Now, it’s dissolved, it’s disappeared. I don’t know why."

Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer who took an early, leading role in the revolution, said: "We want more. I think it’s important to be in the place where they make the decisions."

Other women say they are not overly concerned about the lack of women in leadership roles, saying that the governing structures are temporary and reflect the rush to keep the rebel areas from descending into chaos.

"I’m not at all worried," said Molly Tarhuni, an independent analyst in Benghazi who is studying the rebel movement.

"This is so temporary and transitional. I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s microcosmic of what will happen in the future. I think women are going to play an immense role."

Amina Megheirbi, who runs a group called Tawasul that provides skills training and other services for young people and women, said: "We want people who are qualified. The revolution was led by women. I’m sure we will have an important role."

The warnings come as Libyan women face growing dangers. Public health officials say they have received evidence that scores of women were raped by soldiers in Gadhafi’s forces, and though several organizations are mobilizing teams to help the rape victims, the effort remains fractured and without central leadership. The war is also leading to increased incidents of domestic violence, doctors say.

Some women also admitted to worries that progress they had made in recent decades could be undone. Despite Gadhafi’s violent suppression of political dissent, women made strides under his rule, entering secondary schools and universities in large numbers. Many became doctors, lawyers and judges, and several women also held senior government positions.

Their concerns have spurred calls for a greater voice. At a conference in Benghazi this week, where speakers discussed the role of women in the revolution, several people mentioned the example of Eman al-Obeidy, who burst into a hotel full of journalists in March to tell her story of being raped by Gadhafi militiamen. "We will not be silent," one speaker said. But most of the talk at the conference revolved around the more pressing issues of the war against Gadhafi and the need to support the men fighting on the front lines. For mothers, there was advice: Don’t raise another dictator.

One of the speakers, Dr. Muna Sahli, a university professor, said the conference, which was aimed at housewives, was intended to lay the base for democracy in a society that had been closed and monitored by the government for decades. "We are preparing women, to accept the other, to raise children, to understand their role in a democratic society," she said. "Lots of women are still at home. Political work is not confined to taking a position in the country."

And she and others said that despite setbacks, women — including gynecologists, economists and judges — were still driving the revolution. "There is such a willingness to push to the forefront, by a groundswell of female activists getting things done," Tarhuni said. The majority of active initiatives are being done by women."

Some have blamed the realities of war in a conservative society for the lack of female leaders. Dr. Fawzia Bariun, an Arabic professor at the University of Michigan who declined the education post because she could not leave her family and job in the U.S., said that she and others asked Mustapha Abdul Jalil, the head of the national council, why women were not better represented. They were told that men in smaller, conservative areas of the country were unlikely to send women alone to Benghazi to serve.

"From one side I look at it as dealing with reality," said Bariun. "From another side I see that women will have to request more representatives." As the national council continues to add permanent members, several people said that more women would be among them.

Still, the process of selecting representatives remains invisible to the public. The daily council meetings are private, and there is no public record of the proceedings.

El-Gallal, the human rights lawyer, who said she now planned to start a women’s rights group, said she "had no idea" how decisions about executive appointments were made. Women, she said, would have to carve out positions by themselves. "It’s time for us to be presented more equally," she said. "The person who leaves a vacuum pays a price."

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