As we drive from Tripoli International Airport to the city center, passing lush green boulevards and beautiful colonial buildings, it is hard to imagine that just a few years back this was the site of a brutal dictatorship and the revolution which overthrew it.
On a roof terrace overlooking the city, I sit down with Fathia El Madani, a former housewife of 28 years from Benghazi, who participated in the revolution and supported other women during the demonstrations and on the battlefield.
Fathia is one of the participants of 1325 Policy Group’s training ‘Women Count Libya’, focusing on civil society monitoring of UNSCR 1325. Ever since I met her two days earlier I have been intrigued: judging by her determination and outspokenness you would think she has been an activist all her life. Nevertheless, for most of her adult life she has been a housewife, unable to openly work for gender equality and women’s rights due to the restrictions by the Gaddafi regime.
After the revolution Fathia began working for the Women’s Union in Benghazi, a center for the empowerment of women. As Benghazi is often in the news and is regarded as a hotspot for anti-government militia groups and fundamentalists I start our conversation by asking her what it is like living in Benghazi these days.
“I go to work every day and my daughters go to school, life seams normal, but at the same time there is always fear because there is a lot of violence and incidents such as murder and kidnapping. We lack a reliable military, police force and judiciary. There is no rule of law. What we need for life to improve in Benghazi is the borders to be secured and a sincere parliament which will fulfill its promises.”
Fathia is frustrated that the government has been unable to put an end to the instability in the country and particularly in the east where Benghazi is situated. But she is taking matters into her own hands and has recently nominated herself for the mayor’s office. Despite violent acts being carried out on a daily basis against government officials she is determined to run for office, convinced that women have a crucial role to play in the transformation of Libya. And women are taking an active role in building peace and democracy she says:
“Well in fact even today there are demonstrations in Benghazi, every Friday we organize a demonstration demanding security and the rule of law. Women and youth are at the forefront organizing them.”
Since Libya is a very patriarchal society I’m curious how the men have reacted. Women have left their homes to demonstrate, started organizations and are running for public office. So I ask Fathia how the men in her family have reacted.
“My husband was very supportive from day one and he and all my male relatives are supporting my campaign to get elected. It is great to have their support.”
The sun is about to set and it is time to leave the terrace and drive back to our hotel, as it is regarded unsafe to be out after dark. But before I say goodbye to Fathia I want to know about her dreams for the future.
“I want to open a center for addressing violence against women so that Libya can become a country free from violence.”
With her determination and resourcefulness; I have no doubt that she will do what she has set out to do. She is one of the brave women and men who are building Libya’s future and our meeting leaves me inspired and hopeful.
Executive Director – 1325 Policy Group
(Photo: Emmicki Roos)