*If you just want to see the interview, scroll down about midway through the page.*
Libya is by and large, perhaps unsurprisingly, a masculine society. While I went out for coffee or drives often when going about Tripoli, it was almost exclusively with men. There was very little opportunity to meet women that were outside of my family. I was introduced to a few during preparations for my cousin’s wedding, some of her friends would be at the house to help her out, but this was nearly always a surprise occurrence after I was returning from a night out and I would generally feel compelled to leave them be. Upon entering the home of one of my cousin’s friends it would be customary to wait outside the door while the host would let everyone inside know that there was a guest, presumably to provide the women in the house enough time to prepare themselves for male guests from outside of the family. That’s not to say adorning the hijab was by any means obligatory, I saw many women walk the streets without them while I was in Tripoli, although they certainly were in the minority. From what I could observe it was just an common cultural practice. While I’ll admit this is far from a perfect analogy it would be like the common expectation in the United States that women wear bras when outside the home, or that everyone wears shoes when out and about.
There are many customs still practiced in Libya that may be seen as nearly inconceivable by others. Arranged marriages are still a common and encouraged practice where couples are only introduced for a short courtship before matrimony. Note the distinction between arranged and forced, where ultimately the bride makes the decision to marry or not after being approached by a suitor. One of my cousins has turned away many would-be grooms in this fashion. Women on the whole to me seemed to be doing better in Libya, another cousin of mine participated in a group that ensured women were not disenfranchised at the polls during elections. The need for such an organization may speak volumes on its own, but is still a step in the right direction. All in all my understanding of the role of women in Libya is admittedly limited. I just didn’t have the prospect often to hear another side of the story.
Keeping in mind that I did not have any great opportunities to speak with Libyan women outside of my family, I managed to do something that I thought was pretty cool the day before I left. I had brought along my camera with me for a reason besides capturing evidence of Libyan insanity on film in all its high definition glory (which didn’t really pan out anyway as I just never seemed to have my camera handy for when such instances occurred). I had really wanted the opportunity to speak with and interview on camera a special interest group in Libya, one that could directly speak to some of the changes since the end of the revolution, that demonstrated that Libyans did care about where the country was headed and what they could do for it in a civilian role. During Ramadan I had seen a public service announcement air on one channel of Libyan television. I remember liking it because I could easily understand the animated sequence it was presented in, rather than in the language I couldn’t understand. The sequence depicted two families: one where a young boy grew up with loving parents and how he treated his own family when he was older juxtaposed with a young man that grew up in a household with domestic abuse. The message was simple and clear. I wish I had a link for the video, but much googling has brought up nothing. HERE however you can find an online article detailing the media campaign. At the end of the PSA there was an appeal to visit the group’s Facebook page. I did so, opting also to ask if a representative would like to do an interview on camera with me about their media campaign and the state of women’s rights in Libya after the revolution.
After a couple weeks I was rewarded with a yes and we made plans to meet on the day before my flight back to the United States was to leave. After having met the group’s founders and representatives, one of whom is Alaa Murabit who appears in my video (the other was a bit more camera shy) I was glad to have taken the time to meet them. The pair had been quite busy themselves, having just wrapped up a long day of presentations on civil societies for a conference hosted by the hotel, and then meeting with me for an interview. We began immediately with the tough questions that needed to be addressed like my apparent likeness to Eric Foreman in Wisconsinness and looks, and Alaa’s limited knowledge on American football. The pair shared Libyan and Canadian nationalities, so as well as speaking fluent English their familiarity with That 70’s Show and Tim Tebow were not entirely that surprising. Once we got the important stuff out of the way, we moved on into the interview.
*Please forgive me for the quality of the video (the shaking in particular). I didn’t have a tripod with me so I had to hold the camera in my hands which is not my preferred method of recording. Also the sound isn’t perfect so you might want to turn up the volume for the video.
While listening to Alaa, she didn’t just talk about women in Libya, but spoke much more about things all Libyans could do to set the country on the right path. In this way she confirmed much of what I had already thought about the Libyan mentality, where Libyans as a civil society need to take responsibility for one another if they want to enjoy these new freedoms and be respected on the global stage for long into the future. This is by no means to say that Libyans are in any way selfish. The notion is ridiculous as Libyans are some of the most generous people I’ve ever known. The responsibility for others needs to come from more than just personal charity, but from collective and established societal safety nets to protect those who have become disenfranchised, like the women abused at home and in the work place. One thing I found startling, although not all that surprising, was not only the lack of collected data on the occurrence of domestic abuse, but the lack of such researchable analytic material for anything. It’s tough to determine what to do to make a country better when one can’t even properly perceive the problems. What was surprising was the whopping 85% of participants in a survey responded to having experienced domestic violence after sitting through a seminar detailing what exactly domestic violence entails. Personally I’d be curious to see the results of a similar survey in the United States or other western country once participants have undergone the same seminar.
One thing in particular that struck me as interesting was how important the women were to the revolution despite not doing much of the fighting. While getting permission from mom to fight on the face of it might seem borderline absurd, knowing the Libyan people this would have been a crucial element to beginning the revolution, especially since the vast majority of soldiers were under 30, most of whom still lived with their parents. I was reminded of one of my aunts that hid revolutionary fighters in her home in Tripoli as they were on the run and deflected their pursuers when they came to her door asking for their whereabouts. There are plenty of stories of the men’s bravery and billboards of young male martyrs where the sacrifices and valor of Libyan women have unfortunately too often gone forgotten.
All in all it was a fantastic interview. Miss Murabit and her colleague are very intelligent and charismatic young women. We chatted for awhile after I used up my prepared questions and the two struck me as very driven and insightful individuals. Besides (or perhaps because of) the Wisconsin and football cracks, we had a good conversation and I was happy and satisfied to get a more complete picture of what Libya looks like after the revolution.