Last Year, during the holy month of Ramadan, I was in Tripoli researching the status of women in Libya's society, along with Journalist and Author Natalie Moore. We interviewed women across the spectrum: artists, housewives, teachers, government officials, university students and businesswomen. The stories were later aired on Chicago Public Radio.
Many of the Libyan women we interviewed tried to change society from within, but were repeatedly bogged down by the lack of bureaucracy and corruption in the law, saying the regime's tight restrictions and constant interference were a constant threat. As Salha, a former employee in the oil and gas sector put it, corrupt officials and unpredictable laws meant "your business, your life, everything you work for can be here one day and gone the next." On the other end of the spectrum, I met with Gaddafi supporters, such as the head of Tripoli's Women's Council and the commander of the Women's Military Academy.
Now, a year later and six months into Libya's revolution, I find myself thinking about those women, and the major transition taking place in Libyan society. Over the past 40 years, the Gaddafi regime clamped down on freedom of assembly and expression which prevented all Libyans from lobbying for change. When Gaddafi's rule was challenged, women also challenged society to stop them from participating in their fight for freedom. The presence of women from Day 1 throughout Libya's revolution is the best indicator of how unhappy society (both men and women) were under Gaddafi's nearly 42 -year-rule. Women continue to demonstrate how they were affected by the Gaddafi regime, not only by resisting it inside Libya, but by starting their own independent organizations and pushing for a more inclusive society.
Before the revolution, I met Libyan women who discouraged their sons from participating in Libyan society, even if the events were not political, because of the fear of government brutality. Over the past six months these same women became some of the biggest cheerleaders, encouraging their sons or husbands to go out and fight.
Now, a year later and six months into the people's uprising to oust Gaddafi and his family, I've met with countless women activists who are torn between where to focus their energy in the midst of a refugee and humanitarian crisis and the tragedy of on-going war. How can you gauge what has the most priority, when in Libya Gaddafi destroyed- and is destroying- everything that was ever built?
Here in Doha, there is Shahrazad Kablan , host of Libya al- Nass, who immediately after the uprising founded The Libyan Women Alliance, a group focused on helping and empowering Libyan women and children. Kablan resides in Ohio with her husband and children, and left Benghazi when she was 24.
"I knew women and children would be the most vulnerable," she says. "We already know that women are not empowered in Libyan culture, so the war put us all on high alert. " The Libyan Women Alliance will focus on empowering women by giving them access to technical training and education, and setting up social organizations where they can get proper healthcare and trauma related counseling. Kabaln is also part the Libyan Coordinating Group, which organized rallies in the U.S after the February 17 uprising.
The Libyan Women's Union, an activist grouped based in the United Kingdom, was founded by founded by Libyan Human Rights Activist Zakia Tayeb, who 20 years ago, was jailed and tortured by women belonging to Gaddafi's Revolutionary Committee for criticizing the Gaddafi regime. The Libyan Women's Union reached out to women before the February 17th revolution, and expanded its activities to include refugees and women victims abused or assaulted by Gaddafi forces.
Libyan activists Rihab Elhaj and Najah Dawaji started Relief and Aspirations In Libya /Raha wa Amal Li Libya, or RAIL, a rape and counseling group to help the women and children refuges in Tunisia. Elhaj, who worked with both men and women at Remada Refugee Camp, and in towns along the Tunisia-Libya border says, "The women assaulted and raped by Gaddafi's troops need to know that it's not their fault. "
In Cairo, I met with Libyan women activists involved in planning a conference to further address and recognize the role of women in Libya post Gaddafi. I spoke with women activists such as Zahra Langhi, Venus el Rayes, and Farida Al Alaghi, organizers of Libya-related workshops and events that focus on rebuilding Libya's civil society.
Zahra Langhi, coordinator of the Cairo-based activist group Friends of Free Libya, organized several workshops and forums that addressed the social, intellectual and bureaucratic vacuum in Libya. At a recent workshop I attended on developing Libya's civil infrastructure, Langhi said, "Women are the center of Libyan society. After the psychology of fear was broken, mothers were encouraging their husbands and sons to go out and fight Gaddafi, which is the biggest change we have seen. "
There are countless other Libyan women who demonstrate courage and leadership, and competence and humanity, with their work and efforts to support the Libyan people. Now that women are beginning to organize and participate in rebuilding Libya, we can expect to see more organizations spring up. The support from the broader Libyan society-inside and outside Libya- will be critical in the success of these organizations, as they evolve and find their footing in Free Libya.
This article was originally published at LibyaTV