08 May

Women Against the Hangman


Benghazi, Libya

Amal Abdullah-Ali is 44, so she has known only two years without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and one effect on her of his life-draining 42-year Libyan dictatorship has been that she “never wanted to give birth in this rubbish country.”

She looked at me hard through thick glasses, the childbearing half of her life lost in Qaddafi’s grim labyrinth. When she was in high school, she had to read his Green Book, which lauds the masses in a state that tramples the masses. In college, her class was taken to see people Qaddafi had hanged — pour encourager les autres.

“He’s tried to change everything, even our memory,” she said. “Now we win or we die.”

People ask: Who are the Libyan “rebels”? Who are the people who now control the eastern part of the country, and besieged western pockets, and battle to wrest Libya from Qaddafi’s brutal hired hands? They are women like Abdullah-Ali, a teacher, people who want a state where, in the words of her cousin Farija Mohamed, “The walls don’t have ears.”

In Tehran, where in 2009 they prodded more cowardly men to face down the regime’s thugs, and in Tunis and Cairo, where they were at the barricades, I’ve watched brave Muslim women who, like the majority of people across the Middle East today, seek a balance between faith and modernity — embracing both, denying neither. It’s not the West or the Islamist anti-West they want. It’s their own expression of a decent society where a child has a future.

Qaddafi’s Libya is a rubbish country. With oil and gas and a small population, it might have been Dubai. Instead, Benghazi makes Lagos look gleaming. The only recent construction I saw in the east was transmitter towers for the two cellphone companies controlled by one of the despot’s squabbling sons. Every institution has been dismembered for the dictator’s whimsical pleasure. Dust and debris and decay dot the eastern Libya he distrusted. One name alone exists, that of the leader whose book, to Libyans, was black.

We were seated in Mohamed’s apartment, with her 14-year-old daughter Najjije, who said she was happy she would not have to study the Green Book. Her dark hair curled around her bright-eyed face. Her mother, elegant and straight-backed in her headscarf, said she was having some issues: Najjije was refusing to cover her head.

“She tells me, ‘No, forget about it.’ ”

Najjije smiled, yep that’s true. No way she will wear a headscarf, although all her friends now do, except one. Would her mother insist? It would, Mohamed said, be better for her daughter to find her own way to what was appropriate.

Eastern Libya, beneath its new-old tricolor flag, is a rather wondrous place, a tabula rasa where everyone is trying to make their way to what is right. One thing about a personality cult is that when the personality goes there’s nothing left.

Bullets and shrapnel pockmark the walls less than 20 miles south of Benghazi, the point at which NATO’s bombardment stopped Qaddafi’s advance in March. It’s imperative now to finish the job, use every military, diplomatic and economic pressure to oust Qaddafi. So that Najjije and her generation are not poisoned by the Green Book.

“When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say,” President Obama said of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Good strong words — and equally applicable, I’d say, to the tyrant behind the downing of Pan Am 103.

Amal Obeidi is a social scientist trying to conjure up the society that will fill the blank. She’s helping coordinate committees of academics and professionals — on a post-Qaddafi transition, the economy, media, security, oil. Despite the chaos, the vacuum, people are excited, she told me. “They have nothing to lose.”

With a doctorate from a British university, Obeidi, a bundle of energy, has emerged as an important figure. She once worked on a project that Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the dictator’s most ambitious son, had for a new constitution offering — of all things — some basic rights. Seif al-Islam means sword of Islam. She now calls him “Sword of empty dreams.” He’s the loser who imagined his father’s megalomania had bounds.

Obeidi had to make a speech recently outside the Benghazi courthouse that is a symbol of Libya’s uprising for a state of laws. A friend advised her to wear a headscarf. She declined. This is a transition period. It’s important to make some things clear. One, for Obeidi, is: Accept women as they are, with a veil or not.

A great mystery of the Arab world has been its immobility. All these women, in different ways, are saying, “It’s time for us, it’s our turn, our turn to have a say over our lives.” Time for the West to ditch the binary thinking that saw only terror or antiterror, Western values or Islamism, and so contributed to the dictators’ lockdown. Time to make sure Najjije keeps that smile and the hangman departs.

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