Libya: The women fighting and organising the revolution

The National

In a bare, shabby side room in Benghazi's central courthouse, the hub of pro-democracy Libyan operations, Salwa Bugaighis talks animatedly, hardly flinching as gunshots ring out from the raucous crowds outside. They, like her, are in a mood that veers between celebration and defiance to anxiety. They flood the area of the seafront, which is littered with boards displaying caricatures of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and stalls selling souvenirs since the eastern part of the country was liberated on February 20.

The 44-year-old lawyer, an elegant woman dressed in black trousers and jacket, her eyes neatly lined with kohl, was on the steps of the courthouse at the first protest on February 15, when a group of legal professionals and academics gathered to protest the arrest of a colleague and to call for legal reforms, including a constitution. She has barely left the building since. By February 17 the government's vicious reaction had led to calls for regime change, and just three days later rebels claimed control of the city, Libya's second largest after the capital Tripoli.

"There is so much to do," Bugaighis says as she strides down the corridor lined with graffiti, her jacket flying out behind her. "We had no idea we would get rid of Qaddafi in just a few days and we were left with nothing, no institutions at all. We had to quickly work out how to organise everything for ourselves."

For her, that means an amorphous job running logistical operations and acting as a liaison between the street and the National Transitional Council, the interim governing body led by Qaddafi's former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, that heads a number of city councils around the east. This morning she has been talking to young people on the street, relaying their messages to the council's members. Later, she will meet with the military committee to discuss how to prepare Benghazi against an attack - government forces were then quickly heading east, though the new UN-imposed no-fly zone has lessened the threat - while fielding calls about arriving food shipments.

Bugaighis, a mother of three, is just one of a group of women who have been at the vanguard of Benghazi's uprising. Away from the front lines where the east's men are battling to hold off pro-Qaddafi forces, women work side-by-side with men to keep the rebels fighting, society and the economy functioning and the uprising visible.

Day jobs have been shed, replaced by a spirit of volunteerism that has led to ad hoc committees and fledgling democratic institutions. Some, like Bugaighis, are members of the organisational institutions centred in the courthouse. She is joined by her sister Iman Bugaighis, a professor-turned-spokeswoman for the rebels, and by Salwa el Deghali, the women's representative on the council. But, as was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, women were involved in the protests from the start, and Libyan women across all classes and levels of education are now playing a role from providing food to keeping up numbers in the streets, regardless of the outcome of the rebellion.

The uprising of which Bugaighis was part began with calls for protests on February 17, leading to the pro-democracy Libyans being dubbed the "February 17 rebels". But it sparked two days earlier when Fathi Terbil, a fellow lawyer, was arrested. He is representing the families of the victims of the massacre in Abu Salim, a notorious Tripoli prison where human rights organisations say some 1,200 people, mainly political prisoners, were killed after they rose up in 1996 - yet many of the wives and mothers weren't told of the deaths until 2009.

This, says Bugaighis, was the final straw. "For 42 years we have not been able to say what we want," she says. But small fires - fuelled by Benghazi's lawyers, many of them women - were burning long before. In September last year, Bugaighis and others took to the streets when the head of the legal union - a Qaddafi appointment - failed to step down long after the end of his term.

"We took chairs and tables outside and held our meeting there," says Bugaighis. "Everyone in Libya was talking about it because such actions are - were - rare here." Now the lawyers are trying to give some semblance of order to the vacuum that resulted, guiding the formation of a governing structure. "We are presenting our services to the population," she says. "We have no political experience, but I think we are doing a great job."

Liberating Benghazi was no easy task. According to Benghazi's medical committee at least 228 civlians were killed and 1,932 wounded in the struggle for this city of one million people. Many were shot by snipers from the Kateeba barracks, the base of one of Qaddafi's extensive groups of security and military apparatus. Rebel fighters rapidly filled Benghazi's hopitals as the fighting intensified.

Doctor Jasmine Sherif, 27, says she never imagined she would be treating patients with such extreme injuries a year after she graduated from Garyounis University in Benghazi. For several days and nights she has not left Benghazi's Al Hawaree Hospital. When her duties as a doctor end, she volunteers to do nursing care, changing dressings and running bags of blood between wards.

Many of the nurses were foreign and fled the country as the violence broke out, leading to a shortage of staff. Today Sherif is treating Ibrahim Imraja, a young man of 21. He came in with a bullet in his head and one that went through his back, cutting his spinal cord between two lumbar vertebrae. He will never walk again, Sherif says. Others have come in with limbs missing. She fears something similar - or worse - will happen to her brother, who is fighting, but says she encouraged him to go.

"We have broken through the fear barrier," she says. "I see people my age dying every day. It is so hard, but we must keep Libya free and that involves sacrifice."

Engaged to a fellow doctor, she has no idea when or if they will wed. When she went to study medicine, it was a path to a better life.

"There is some discrimination against women in our personal life, but at work I am equal," she says. "This means I can at least help to make people strong and hope we have enough people to face Qaddafi's forces. I am sure there is worse to come."

Thousands of Libya's women such as Sherif are in position to help after having received a good education thanks to people such as Mufeeda al Masri, a rotund, jovial 50-year-old. Back in 2008 al Masri decided that girls needed more access to education, and she founded Al Irtiqua ("progress" in Arabic) school. Today that school, located in a sunny central courtyard in Benghazi, has been transformed into a mass kitchen churning out over 1,000 meals a day to feed the rebels on the front line. The school's clinic has become a food store where sacks of potatoes slump against the wall, and classrooms have been turned into makeshift kitchens with desks used as work surfaces. Huge metal pots dot the floor as children run around the women's legs. Since the first delivery on February 20, the school has been full every day with more than 100 women peeling, chopping, cooking and packing rice, chicken and salad into aluminium containers. Others slice rolls, as many as 4,000 a day, passing them along a human conveyor belt to be filled and wrapped. From school pupils to widows of the Abu Salim massacre, the women work from morning until late afternoon when trucks arrives to ferry the food to the front.

"The day I saw the bloodshed at Kateeba I decided I had to do something to support the revolution," says al Masri. Her husband was a colonel in the air force and defected, refusing to fight for Qaddafi against the rebels. Support has been easy, she says: a steady flow of people come with food and monetary donations. Businessmen hand over wads of cash, she says, pulling a fistful of banknotes from her pocket, and small children proffer the remains of their savings. Preparations are interrupted by phone calls. One woman receives a call from her son at the front - the rebels have pushed back Qaddafi's forces. Trilling breaks out as the women celebrate the news. But they are aware the victories may be only temporary, though the no-fly zone now has renewed their hopes.

"We will do this until we die," says Najwa Sahly, a 51-year-old biology teacher whose husband, a professor of chemistry, was killed in Abu Salim. "I have lost my husband, what more do I have to be afraid of?"

Others who have sons and husbands on the front lines know they have a lot to lose. Khiria Abdul Salam, 42, spends half the day protesting and praying outside courthouse - flooded with as many women as men - and the other half propped up against a cushion in her living room glued to the Al Jazeera news channel. In her simple house on the fifth floor of a run-down area a 10-minute drive along the sea front from central Benghazi, there is a semblance of normality: her two daughters play, she cooks, relatives come in to ask for news. But she is afraid. Her husband went out on the first day to protest and she knew he would join the fighters. Abdul Salam says she has not heard from her husband since he left for the front three weeks ago.

"He worked for 20 years for the army before becoming a guard for a company. He earns 250LYD (Dh735) a month and his two grown-up sons have no work. That is why he went," she says. The couple wed through a traditional, arranged marriage 21 years ago, then the norm in Libyan society. They have three sons and two daughters.

"He was good to me, a good person," she says, crying softly. She knows soon her two elder sons - 18 and 19 - will go, too. So far they haven't as they have no military expertise. But as the rebels lose bodies they are becoming an increasingly ragtag bunch. Young boys have been heading to the front lines, eager to help counter Qaddafi's superior firepower with sheer numbers.

In front of the Benghazi courthouse, Abdul Salam is joined by many like her. A small area of the pavement is cordoned off for women, with men milling around behind. In a covered area, older women sit huddled in blankets, and some pray on rugs with the tricolour - the national flag from before Qaddafi took power and that now flies proudly across the east - laid out at the head. Women wander over to the wall of photographs of those killed in Abu Salim, or at posters of Mahdi Ziu. Ziu is one of the heroes of Bengahzi's liberation, however long it may last. A father, he drove his car loaded with gas cylinders into the Kateeba gates on February 20, breaking the government forces' protection; a pivotal moment in the battle for the city.

The mood changes almost daily. During protests, the women are defiant, some speaking from the window on the upper floor of the courthouse to the crowds below. On days when the rebels advance, they approach journalists in panic, telling stories of the children they fear Qaddafi's forces will kill if they retake Benghazi. Threats are going round. Text messages - the two mobile phone companies are owned by the Qaddafi family - have been received saying only "Soon".

Around the crowds, marshals in fluorescent jackets distribute water and food. One, Rosanna Ramadan, 23, thrusts bottles into outstretched hands. An English student at Garyounis University, she is now volunteering in order to keep the women on the streets.

"Women want to have their voice heard so we have a special area to make sure everyone is comfortable enough to come out," she says. But the protests have broken down barriers in a way never seen before. Girls say they are allowed out until late and are working together with men. "We all have the same ideas and are one right now," says Ramadan. "I think this will transform the lot for women afterwards when all of Libya is free."

The transformation has occurred in the home, too. Suzanne Himmi, 35, says she has found her voice and her way of helping the revolution. The former housewife and mother of five came out to protest on the first days because "my father-in-law died in prison and many more of my relatives have been hurt by Qaddafi". Living close to the courthouse, she was witness to everything that was happening. "I decided to write it down and collect people's stories," she says. Now she writes daily for the newspaper Libya, one of the new media outlets to pop up in Benghazi.

"It is important that people know what is going on so they are not scared," says Himmi. From tales of what the rebels are facing on the front lines to how locals in Benghazi are reacting, writing came naturally to her, she says. "I had, like everyone else, a fire inside. And writing is my way of letting it out."

Women have also assisted media that have flooded in. Journalists arriving in Benghazi were met with a slick operation: within hours they were registered and paired with a local fixer equipped with a car and a command of English.

"When journalists started coming we realised we had a responsibility to look after them because they were key to telling the world what was going on," says Najla el Mangoush, a 35-year-old divorced mother of two who switched jobs from being a legal adviser to working as a media assistant in the Ouzu Hotel, a hub for rebels and journalists. Born in the UK, she and a number of colleagues gathered together to form one of Benghazi's many volunteer committees, this one to work with the media. Manghoush says she has barely seen her two daughters, Gaida, 10, and Raghad, five, since the uprising. But they are used to it, she adds. A lawyer like Bugaighis before the uprising, she worked mornings as a legal adviser at the Benghazi Medical Centre, a public hospital, and afternoons as a lecturer in criminal law at Garyounis University. Poverty, she says, is one of the reasons why so many of Benghazi's women work - and why so many joined the uprising. Earning just 300LYD a month at her regular job, she had to take a second.

"This is one of the reasons Benghazi fell," says Manghoush. "Both men and women, educated and not, were being humiliated. Now we are all rebuilding it together."

The comments and developments described here are representative of the situation in Benghazi before the UN-imposed no-fly zone began on March 19. They may not reflect the current, changing climate.

Sarah Birke

Last Updated: Mar 25, 2011