ZINTAN, Libya — Libyan men have had to reassess how they view the fairer sex since the start of the uprising, and when the dust settles the role of women in the north African country may well have changed for ever.
The women of Libya — especially in the Nafusa Mountains — were among the protesters before the fighting started, and since then they have readied their sons and husbands for battle and nursed the wounded.
Meanwhile, they are also fighting for their own emancipation in the new Libya they are helping their men to forge.
Women do not exchange glances on the streets of the conservative Arab city of Zintan at the foot of the Nafusa range in western Libya. Behind walls daubed with graffiti proclaiming a “Free Libya,” they move like black phantoms, hidden behind the full veil of the niqab.
At home, the arrival of an unfamiliar male guest sparks panic, and the ladies of the house scatter like bees. In times of war, they spend most of their time cloistered within four walls.
However, the ladies of Libya have felt the winds of change at their backs.
They were chanting “Down with Kadhafi” at the start of the insurrection, alongside the men, calling for veteran strongman Moamer Kadhafi to go.
“I’ve rallied with plenty of young women, even some pregnant ones. The men were so impressed they fired their Kalashnikovs in our honour! That showed them we were equal, and changed their opinion of us,” says Afaf Abusaa, a 20-year-old technology student.
With the men away at the battlefield, the women secure the home front with housework and by providing moral support.
“Men have seen the women nurse the wounded, do volunteer work and cook for the fighters. They’ve seen mothers tell their sons: ‘Go and fight. I will support you.’ They hadn’t expected that,” says Hana Akra, a 24-year-old medical intern.
Women in Libya have come to see the revolution as a route towards their own emancipation, a way to break free from the jobs reserved for them: nurse, secretary or teacher, trades that leave time to take care of the family.
Not they can see a future in which they are not overlooked for a position because a man, albeit a less qualified one, has applied for the same job.
They hope that in the new Libya, their parents will allow them to select their own husbands, that their fathers and brothers will stop bossing them around and forbidding them from actively choosing their own path through life.
“Society is very conservative here,” says Najiah Hamza, a 26-year-old medical student. “Women don’t really have the chance to control their own destiny. We are always told: ‘Don’t say this, don’t do that.’ I hope the revolution helps us.”
Forty-year-old Salma Abu Rawi recalls how her parents refused to let her marry her childhood sweetheart because he wasn’t from Zintan, while Abusaa would rather not have to wear the veil after she is married.
Akra explains how she has to fight to become a surgeon, a profession reserved for men. “A woman must break the glass ceiling,” she says.
“Parents are afraid to let their daughters go out, or work, for fear of gossip. We hope this will change, that men change, that they stop wanting us to be devoted primarily to the house, to the cooking and the children. We also want to be ourselves,” says Alazumi Asma, a 22-year-old trainee laboratory assistant.
In the Berber villages of west Libya, women traditionally enjoy more freedom than in other parts of the country.
In Yafran, women do not have to wear the veil in public. They can be seen behind the steering wheels of cars or discussing contraception in front of men. And no one at home can order them around.
Berber ladies feel they have been leading the way towards women’s liberation in Libya for some time. “Even under Kadhafi, we wanted to show the way,” says Twzeen Ali Abud, a 20-year-old student.
They want to go further still. Women’s rights groups are popping up in Zintan, where there is talk of changing the laws on divorce and allowing women to participate in politics.
“The revolution gave us a chance to play a role” in society, says 23-year-old pharmacist Anya Ali Abud.