In this brief piece I want to offer a fresh perspective. This is not a story which feeds into the narrative of the repressed and veiled Arab woman, seeking liberation via Starbucks and iTunes. Instead, I want to share with you, the reader, my experiences both good and bad in Libya to date, to try to touch on whether it’s time we in the “West” challenged our own expectations of women in the Middle East.It’s not easy being a woman in Libya. That’s what I thought when I arrived in October 2012 following the revolution. Although I have lived and worked all over the Middle East and North Africa, I feel that the situation here is particularly difficult. This is due to a number of factors, not least that Libya is emerging from 42 years of dictatorial repression under Mu’ammar Ghadaffi.
On arrival in Tripoli airport, the dank smoky arrivals hall will immediately fill the credulous traveller with the notion that the Libyan public sphere is totally male dominated. When I was offered and accepted a job to work in Libya, the reaction of my friends and family was one of surprise. No stranger to travelling to high drama destinations off the beaten track, they were not hugely shocked that I had set my adventure filled mind for another precarious destination. As the grunting militia men, most of whom are around my own age, screen your bags for weapons and other illicit items whilst puffing smoke into your face, many could be forgiven for not forming an immediate positive first impression of Libya.
During my first few months, I strained to search for Libyan women in the streets. I would play a game with my driver counting women on the main Gargaresh thoroughfare in town totaling them up each week, half joking. I wondered if men had the same instinct as women, to seek out the brotherhood in foreign lands as I now caught myself doing. Where did this yearning come from to be encircled by my fellow gender? Was it remnants of growing up in a household filled with 5 passionate and intellectual women or attending an all-girls school for several years? Or is it just minority tactics, faced with a sea of men-both Libyan and expat- was I now reaching out for kinswomen to help me to survive the experience?
Suffice to say that when on the rare occasion I did meet a fellow woman-Libyan or foreign- to interact with, I jumped at the opportunity to befriend them. Like a secret and beautiful world unraveling itself before me, my female friendship legion quickly grew. It also helped that predominantly my work colleagues are women. Highly trained and educated, dual language Libyan ladies. Nothing like the stereotypes that I had been led to believe in. Here they were working for an international organisation, likely earning a higher salary than their husbands and receiving petty social flack for giving up their comfortable public sector jobs to work with “foreigners”.
Equally, I stumbled across another breed I could identify with. Mixed race Libyan women who had Libyan fathers and foreign mothers. Being myself half English and half Sudanese, I immediately felt a relationship budding with these young ladies who flit between Arabic and English with ease. Laughing at brash Libyan wedding dresses which fill the shop windows (no hint as to what the main social affairs are here) and participating in Ramadan evening meals with them each weekend, whilst catching up on missed Made in Chelsea storylines. Their ability to casually straddle two worlds is admirable. To do so in an increasingly politicized and divided world is even more laudable.
Eventually, I realized there really are so many women in Libya who are socially active and accessible. I just wasn’t looking for them in the right places. The streets and cafes may be filled with Shisha smoking men, but everywhere else was filled with busy women, working hard in many fields.
It was at this point that I decided to draw together a team of Libyan and foreign women to form IWIL-International Women in Libya. This was to be a loose social network for both Libyan and foreign women to come together once a month to socialise and provide a means of strengthening friendships and providing a forum for cross-cultural exchange. IWIL recently celebrated its 1 year anniversary (on International Women’s Day 8 March 2014) and we now boast over 400 registered members from all walks of life: CEOs, teachers, artists, engineers, journalists and students to name a few cutting across 30 different nationalities.
Through meeting this diverse group of women each month, I have learned to challenge my own stereotypes and to look deeper before rushing to a judgment, particularly when I was naively looking for a reflection of my own microcosmic reality in a new and unfamiliar land. Feminism should necessarily look and feel different in each country. It should be culturally and socially specific to the needs and wants of the people that it serves. There is a very tangible social revolution taking place in Libya to mirror the political one that has occurred. it may not be brash and bra-burning but it is happening one day at a time amongst Libya’s womenfolk, who I now feel especially endeared to.
Adela Suliman is a lawyer and freelance journalist and has lived in Libya since 2012. Follow her on Twitter @ASBIntBattuta.