BENGHAZI, LIBYA—Some bellowed cheers from behind the full face covering of a niqab, their bodies entirely swathed in voluminous black fabric. Most wore only the modest hijab in gay colours. A few were even bare-headed.
This is the diversity of outward appearance within the female panorama of eastern, rebel-held Libya. But there is solidarity of purpose and cohesion of sentiment: They back the rebels at the front and the political aims of the National Transitional government in the rear.
On Thursday night, hundreds of women massed in Liberation Square here for a ladies’ rally while their menfolk watched approvingly from behind a fence, forbidden from entering the estrogen zone.
The revolution may be unisex — indeed, female students were at the ramparts of protest when the pro-democracy movement began last month — but the genders remain firmly segregated in the domain of public activism, just as they will be traditionally separated during regular Friday prayers.
Moammar Gadhafi, notorious for (among other flashes of iconoclastic peculiarities) maintaining a babe patrol of private bodyguards, has used the subjugation of women as yet one more alarmist indictment against the populist revolutionary tide seeking to oust him from power.
It was, in part, to counter this characterization that women gathered in the square, led in chants by a man with a megaphone in a balcony high overhead.
“We are not Al Qaeda, we are only Muslim,’’ emphasizes Ola, an 18-year-old university student who’s been deeply involved with the shabab — youth — movement since demonstrators first took to the streets in Benghazi on Feb. 15, the anniversary of a protest at the Italian embassy denouncing defamatory cartoons of the Prophet.
That earlier occasion had turned violent when troops dispersed the crowd with gunfire.
“Our rebels will not kill innocent people,’’ Ola continues. “Gadhafi is using such claims as an excuse to frighten civilians and prevent the West from helping us.’’
Ola lifts her palm to show the message written there in English: WE ARE NOT QAEDA. JUST WANT FREEDOM.
The threat that Islamists and jihadists have infiltrated the revolutionary movement, or intend to co-opt it should the fighters ever make significant headway in their teeter-totter advance towards Tripoli, is gaining traction in some Western capitals. Original enthusiasm for the rebel cause has been tempered, especially by anti-interventionists who allege the moral purity of a pro-democracy swell across the Arab world is being compromised by militant ideology.
“This is what true Islam holds us to do, to fight for our freedom against dictators,’’ Ola argues.
There are no women at the front. Nor among the thousands of camp-followers who trail behind the fighters.
“It is impossible for us to fight with the men,’’ says Ola. “But there are other ways for us to participate in the movement, such as attending these rallies.
“Look at us — can anyone say the women of Libya don’t have a voice? No one is keeping us inside and no one is shutting us up.’’
When Jamila Fallad was an economics student at the university in 1982, active in a campus group that tried mounting mild opposition to the regime, it was Gadhafi’s henchmen who shut her up, acting on information supplied by the leader’s vast surveillance apparatus.
“I was arrested and thrown into jail because I dared to even mention the word freedom out loud. That first time, they kept me in jail for more than three months. Later, they arrested me again.’’
Fallad and her friends were expelled from the university and prohibited from continuing their education.
“About 10 years ago, they said, okay, you can go back to school now. But I was married by then, with young children. My chance for a professional career had passed.
“I want that chance for the young women in Libya today — to have both a career and the democratic freedoms that have been denied to Libyans for the past 42 years because of that murderer, Gadhafi.’’
Public protests are the tom-tom accompaniment of the rebel movement in Benghazi, even as anxiety in this, Libya’s second-largest city, escalates over the territorial losses sustained by their fighters in recent days. Thursday night, the collapsing front line was between the oil town of Brega and Ajdabiya, though most of the rebel forces had fallen back to the latter. Loyalists have re-taken Ras Lanuf and Es Sider.
But Fallad is most acutely worried about her relatives in Misurata, the only rebel stronghold that remains in the eastern part of the country, a city encircled and besieged by pro-Gadhafi forces.
“I am so sad for the people of Misurata. We all feel their pain. Why can’t the coalition forces do anything to relieve their suffering?’’
In fact, there have been repeated allied air strikes on troop columns and artillery emplacements around Misurata, which continued Thursday. But these attacks have not succeeded in breaking Gadhafi’s chokehold on the city, 500 kilometres west along the coast from Benghazi.
A blockade by the Libyan navy and coastguard has been partly breached, however, with at least two foreign ships (from Malta and Tunisia) filled with supplies and medicine entering the port in recent days and removing upwards of 100 wounded civilians.
The U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet attacked three Libyan ships near Misurata on Tuesday to stop them from firing at merchant ships in the port.
The Star sought permission Thursday to sail with a resupply ship leaving soon from Benghazi for Misurata but the request was denied by Transitional Government authorities.
They would not allow a female on board the ship.