The Iraq War led to numerous media criticisms that George W. Bush destroyed the rights of women in Iraq. But in Libya, the media is keeping a careful distance between Obama and his war and stories like these are being reported without clarification or context.
On her way back from her job as a lecturer at a university near Tripoli, Libyan poet Aicha Almagrabi was stopped by a group of bearded militiamen. They kicked her car, beat up her driver and threatened to do the same to her. Her offense: being alone in a car with men without a male relative as a guardian.
“You have violated the law of Allah,” the militiamen told her, Almagrabi said.
Not that the university is immune to increasingly bold conservatives’ views on the role of women. Almagrabi said one student recently told her she shouldn’t be giving lectures because a woman’s voice is “awra” — too intimate and shameful to be exposed in public.
The incident in February, which ended with the militiamen allowing Almagrabi to drive home, underlined the bitter irony for women in post-revolution Libya. Women played a major role in the 8-month civil war against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, massing for protests against his regime, selling jewelry to fund rebels, smuggling weapons across enemy lines to rebels.
But since Gadhafi’s fall more than 18 months ago, women have been rewarded by seeing their rights hemmed in and restricted.
The same thing has happened in Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutions have led to the rise of Islamists and the decline of rights for women.
Women fear worse may yet to come. The country is soon to begin work drafting a new constitution, which activists fear will enshrine the relegation of women to second-class status, given the influence of hard-line Islamists.
“What we aim for right now is not to lose what we had,” said Hanan al-Noussori, a lawyer in Libya’s second biggest city, Benghazi. “I don’t know which path we are heading in. But this is a matter of life or death for us.”
In one of the first addresses by then-head of state Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. He declared invalid all laws not conforming to Shariah and specifically vowed to end limits on polygamy. Islamic law allows men to take up to four wives, if they are treated equally, but under Gadhafi men had to get court permission and often permission from their first wife to do so.
“I felt like we were taken like spoils of war,” Almagrabi said. “This nation rose up for the sake of the supremacy of the law and now there is a plan to push women back into their homes.”
In 2012, at a televised ceremony celebrating the transfer of power to a newly elected parliament, Abdul-Jalil ordered a young presenter, Sarah al-Massalati, to leave the hall because she was not wearing a headscarf.
“We believe, respect and emphasize personal freedoms, but we are also a Muslim nation,” Abdul-Jalil said at the time, to cheers from the audience. “I hope everyone understands these words.”
More recently, militiamen stormed a conference on women’s rights and the constitution, held by Magdalene Ubaida and other women rights activists in Benghazi. The gunmen detained Ubaida and two of her colleagues. When they were released and heading to the airport to return to Tripoli, they were seized by more militiamen and beaten.
The incident came after one of the top security officials in Benghazi, Wanis el-Sharif, accused Ubaida of “spoling women” and criticizing Libya’s top Muslim official, the grand mufti. The 25-year-old Ubaida, a co-founder of a rights organization called My Right, has since fled to Britain, saying she fears for her life.
The mufti, Sheik Sadeq al-Gharyani, took a hardline on women in a speech he delivered a year ago to a conference titled “the role of Muslim women in reconstruction.”
“The state must put an end to the mingling of the sexes in the university, to close this door, this big door for corruption,” he said. He urged school and university directors to start separating men and women without waiting for the state to order it.
He also cited a warning by the Prophet Muhammad that women who wear revealing clothing or don’t cover their hair are “the people of hell.”
These are the wages of Obama’s great victory for democracy and freedom in Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda have taken that freedom. And women have lost it.