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An Open Letter to Mr Abdurrahim El-Keib, Concerning the Women of Libya

November 9, 2011

Dear Mr El-Keib,

A long time ago, 31 years in fact, I came to your country – a young woman with her family. I came to Benghazi, the birthplace of your revolution, with my brand new MA and a thirst to see something of the world, and to share with others from my fund of privilege, enthusiasm, love for my fellow human beings, education and whatever my personal gifts may have been. As it turned out, I was ignorant, naive and unwise.

Everywhere I looked, there were billboards of Gaddafi. A couple of days before we arrived at Garyounis University, four students had been executed in the quadrangle because they had opposed the regime. During the next two years, I would often walk and sit there, sometimes with my children. I must say it gave me the creeps.

The streets were crawling with Peugeot 504s which, we were informed, belonged to the ‘morality police’ – a job lot, apparently, because nobody else seemed to own a white 504. The new university was delivering a very ordinary quality of education – poor enough to make you laugh, or weep. Spies were everywhere. Although we expatriates sometimes ventured opinions amongst ourselves, no-one to my knowledge dared mention Gaddafi or the regime in a conversation with a Libyan. Suffice it to say that I knew, or suspected, a lot of other things. My mind was with everyone, but my heart was with the women and the children, because under a regime that robbed everyone except those who were openly associated with it, the women were at the bottom of the heap, and with them their children.

At no point in my life before had I seriously questioned my own value as a human being or my equality with every other human being on this earth – man, woman or child; rich or poor; Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew etc; clever or not. Now in my early sixties, I have still never doubted these things, although sadly I have had many occasions to realize that there are many people who do – very, very ignorant men, for example, to whom my inferiority by virtue of my gender, is as plain as the nose on your face; very, very ignorant women who, sadly, agree with them; some rich people; people who think differently, and so on.

I realized that the ‘demon’ that Gaddafi had become in the media here in Australia wasn’t quite the correct image. I had seen glimmerings of something better, or at least, something else. Most important of all, or so it seemed to me then, I saw that women were at last being educated – although I didn’t get carried away, because I knew that the education the students were being offered was of very doubtful quality.

Even back then, the whole shebang was in the hands of ‘committees’. Not just in education, but in every facet of the Libyan system, decisions were being made by people whose only qualification for the task was their adherence to the regime. Evidence of the incompetence of this approach was everywhere. I used to walk into the classroom , knowing that 90% of my effort would go straight down the toilet, but hoping for a proportion of the rest. These students were so far from University-ready, that I came away with a very poor notion of what a Libyan degree might mean. I truly did not want to get onto a Libyan-piloted or maintained plane. And when, as it turned out, I needed a Libyan hospital, I was dismayed and afraid.

Still, I knew for a fact, because I had taught them and examined them, that some of my students did learn some English. Some of them grabbed their opportunities in both hands, hoping for a better future. And those who could, deserted the ship, although opportunities for study overseas were few, and you had to be (or appear to be) a Gaddafi fan if you wanted to get away.  I was told that under Gaddafi’s regime women could sue for divorce, and not only that, they could be awarded property. (Although it seems that the laws affording women their basic rights with regard to marriage, equal pay etc. didn’t come to fruition until much later – 1997, I believe.) The women of Benghazi, the married women, who were not being educated, were looking at me with one eye, the birka between their teeth – not always friendly towards such a strange sight as I must have been to them.  I tried to keep my mind open, which seemed the best thing to do, and the very least that any of us can do.

When I returned to Australia after two years in Benghazi, a little shaken, but safe and sound, I quit teaching and didn’t return to it until 2009, when I went back to Libya to work in Tripoli for six months. While most of my students in Tripoli were men, there were some women, too. During the intervening years, the old white birka had almost disappeared. Instead, most of the women were wearing the headscarf. The committees were still running things, and signs of ineptitude were to be seen everywhere, including the college where I worked. At one point my boss was asked to speak to the committee (called the ‘Scientific’ Committee) that was responsible for the decisions being made about our program. Not one of the members had any experience of teaching English, in fact none of them spoke the language at all. My boss had to speak through an interpreter. None of his recommendations was approved.

So you can imagine how interested I have been in events as they have unfolded in Libya during these past months – interested and worried, and all the time afraid for the people I knew and worked with there. How could they pull it off? And if they did succeed, what kind of society would emerge?

My concern did not end with Gaddafi’s death. In his victory speech, Mr Mahmoud Jibril, then Interim Prime Minister, articulated the contradiction that threatens the future for Libyan women, although he displayed no awareness that any contradiction existed. On one hand, women would have equal opportunity in the new Libya, but on the other hand, the new constitution would be based on Shariah law.

“Today, all Libya’s people are allowed to participate in the building of the future to build institutions with the aid of a constitution that does not differentiate between a man and a woman, sects or ethnicities. Libya is for everyone and will now be for everyone. Libya has the right to create an example that will be followed in the Arab region.” Mahmoud Jibril

At about the same time a group of very vocal men had been demonstrating in Benghazi for their ‘right’ to polygamous marriage. And no doubt, there was, and still is, great pressure from groups calling themselves ‘religious’ who would return their countrywomen to the Stone Age. It was reported that Mr Jibril assured these men that their ‘right’ to polygamous marriage would be restored.

And why do these men want this so-called right? Is it because Shariah law, interpreted literally, allows it? Or is it because they want to show off to other men how rich they are, and how powerful? Is it because they want the power to impose themselves on other human beings, to ‘own’ them, to use them? Is it because they want a life-style that amounts to legalised prostitution?

I know that Gaddafi was awful, but that doesn’t mean that every single thing he did and every single word he said was 100% evil. I realize that a lot of what might somehow be seen as progress under Gaddafi, was more rhetoric than reality. Still, if progress was made, however small, towards equality of opportunity for women under the Gaddafi regime, should those gains now be thrown away? Is this wonderful victory of the people over the oppressive Gaddafi regime only to be a victory for one half of the population and a defeat for the rest? Has one kind of oppression been done away with only so that another may begin? The baby thrown out with the bathwater?

I am aware that there are women in Libya, maybe many women who see nothing wrong with Shariah law being adopted as the law of the land, and applied to their lives. But let’s ask ourselves what actually happens when a man insists on, and exercises his right to marry more than one woman? Isn’t he declaring that women are beneath him, that there can never be a true, loving and equal relationship between a man and a woman? That there can be no trust? And what about the children of these polygamous marriages? What do they learn if not that boys are better than girls, and that there can be nothing more to the relationship between a man and a woman except sex, power and subjugation? And so it goes – to their children and their children’s children, unless this unique moment in history can be grasped with vision and courage and love and respect for all people.

I imagine that some men, and even some women reading this might want to tell me that I just don’t understand Islam. And it’s true – my understanding is limited. But what I do understand is that we can never achieve our potential as human beings in unequal marriages. Children of such marriages can never see how love works when it’s working at its best. That is not to say that every monogamous marriage brings out the best in the individuals involved. The truth is that very few do. But that’s not the point. What matters is that a monogamous relationship provides the framework for the individuals involved to achieve their potential as human beings – in mutual respect, care, trust, understanding and love, if that’s what they choose. Polygamous marriage does not and, by its nature, cannot do this.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Shariah law than this. In Yemen recently, in the town of Jaar in Abyan Province, a man and a fifteen-year-old boy had their hands chopped off for stealing some electrical cable. (Jaar is now under the control of Al-Quaeda militants, who interpret Shariah law in this extreme and literal way.) Later reports indicated that the boy died about a week after the amputation. How can Libya adopt Shariah law without leaving the way open to this kind of interpretation?

And of course in Yemen, child marriages are still very common. Despite some attempts on the part of the government to enforce a minimum age for marriage, little girls are still being forced into marriage – the rationale being that one of Mohammed ‘s wives, Aisha, was a child of only nine when the marriage was consummated. When I was teaching in Yemen earlier this year, my Muslim students named child marriages as one of the problems urgently needing to be addressed in their country. Would the new Libya allow its laws to be interpreted in such a way that children could be given into marriage? Into paedophilia? Would the rights of the child be subjugated to the ‘rights’ of men to impose themselves sexually on little girls? These are hard-basket questions, and no doubt there will be those who really don’t think that I, as a non-Muslim Australian woman have the right to ask them.  Nevertheless, as a woman, a mother and a human being, I do ask them.

The people of Libya now have the opportunity and the responsibility to write a constitution that denies institutionalised injustice, and really does guarantee justice and equality for all – that acknowledges that human beings are different, but equal. This cannot be done by referring to the life or the writings of Mohammed or Jesus or any other powerful religious figure. It can only be done by looking carefully at each issue with reference only to the concepts of justice, equality and representation for all. And a constitution written in this secular way will be much more difficult for politicians to abuse in later years.

A successful constitution will not leave room for interpretation that would rob anyone, regardless of age or gender, of their fundamental human rights. And looking back over history, has any society that confused religion with the rule of law, ever been a success? (Let’s not count empire-building as success when empires have been built on the blood and bones of innocent people.) For instance, when Christianity has not been clearly distinguished from politics, as history so clearly shows, the result has not been beautiful. Let’s just mention the Crusades the Inquisition, slavery.

Democracy begins with consensus in the home. There can be no democracy in the family of a polygamous man. While we all know that democracy is not a perfect system, it is the best that human beings have so far been able to devise. There will always be those who will use the system whichever system it may be, to their own advantage – to bend it to their own ends. This is human nature. But why hand it to them on a plate? Why inscribe in law the right of one human being to subjugate another?

As one young Tripoli man put it in recent interview, ‘Men wear the trousers.’ Those who don’t agree with polygamy, he said, just don’t understand Islam.

You don’t need to be a genius to understand where this attitude comes from. There are men like this young man all over the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe that they are superior to half the people in the world by virtue of nothing other than their gender. They don’t believe it because it’s true. They believe it because there’s something in it for them, because it suits them to believe it, because they want to believe it. Isn’t this the way many of our beliefs as human beings are held?

This attitude doesn’t really have any necessary basis in religion, although religion can be called upon, and often is called upon to support it. This attitude has its roots in bygone times. The fact is that the average man is bigger, heavier and physically stronger than the average woman, and at any moment, should the whim take him, he can subdue and harm her. In the far distant past, there was nothing except his own decency and common sense to prevent him from doing as he liked. But as history has unfolded, laws have evolved to protect the vulnerable from those who might harm them. And at the same time, humanity has evolved. Physical strength is no longer as important as it once was. Superior physical strength isn’t necessary for a doctor, a teacher, a prime minister, an engineer, an air traffic controller, a taxi driver, etc., although it still counts in some areas.  But more importantly, in the modern world we now have access to the fact that women tend to excel in some areas where men do not, and vice versa. Some people are better cooks than others, and some can run faster. As cooks and runners, they may be superior, but as human beings they are not.

This young man, while accusing others of not understanding Islam, understands very little himself about what it means to be a human being. Perhaps his children, girls and boys, given the opportunity of a good education, will grow up with broader minds.

As an outsider looking in, the big problem with basing a nation’s laws on Shariah is not so much Shariah itself, but its capacity to be interpreted literally – a hand for a theft, a nine-year-old as a bride, etc. – and the appeal that literal interpretation will always have for those whose ends can best be served in this way.

And it is, after all, easier to interpret ancient writings literally, than it is to do the inner work. There are certainly plenty of fundamentalist Christians who find it so. It requires such a lot of mental, emotional and spiritual effort to step outside the comfort zone where everything we need to know is written in stone, and all you have to do is believe it, exactly, without question – even when a child’s hand has been cut off because he stole some electrical cable. Even when he died as a result.

I refer to an interview that you recently gave on Libyan television, hoping that the translation is true to your intention:

‘I see a country with men/women who have the capability to build a modern, civil state… I wish to see a united Libya, moving towards a future together, with equality in the law.’ lissnup@ArmchairArab

Given that a part of your interview was missing from the translation I saw, and the translation itself may not have been accurate, I was relieved to see that you repeatedly referred to men and women, and made no reference to Shariah law. And at the time of writing, I have seen no reports that suggest that you, personally are in favour of Shariah as a basis for the new constitution.
Your first responsibility of course, is to the people of Libya. But the world is watching, particularly other people in the region, especially in Yemen and Syria. Whatever you do now will have repercussions far beyond your borders and for generations to come. The weight on your shoulders is monstrous. It seems that everyone wants a piece of you and your interim Ministry – the regions, the fundamentalists, the tribes, the would-be polygamists, the young people, those who formerly supported the Gaddafi regime, and the women. Not to mention foreign governments and oil companies.

And by the way, those who are agitating for Shariah law, might be forgetting that in the earliest days of the revolution, at least some of the imams in Tripoli used the Friday prayers to urge the people of Libya not to challenge Gaddafi. It was against the law of God, they said. I really feared for the revolution all those months ago when I saw those reports.  Did you?

I have had the temerity to write this open letter to you because of my love and anxiety for Libya and her people, and because I feel a responsibility towards you all, and in particular towards women and children everywhere who do not enjoy the freedoms and privileges that I have enjoyed. And perhaps the greatest privilege of my life has been my access to ideas and the freedom to observe and to think, to agree and disagree, to develop my own ideas and to express them without fear.

I wish you, your Interim Ministry and all the people of Libya every success in your great endeavour, and hope that you will be able to find your way through this minefield with all the courage and dignity that will be required.

‘Raise your head, you’re a free Libyan.’ Unless you’re a woman?

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From → Gaddafi, Libya, Women

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