Although I live hundreds of miles away, I followed the 17th February Revolution and six-month armed conflict in Libya every day. I called family and friends, watched news reports, checked Facebook and Twitter updates, and attended countless meetings with other Libyans in my city who were, just as frantically as me, trying to find out the situation on the ground in order to successfully coordinate efforts to help deliver medical aid and other forms of support.
It was never going to be easy to remove a ruthless dictator drunk on power after 42 years at the top, nor convince his family and friends benefiting from the vast corruption and disorder to reform government or leave office. But the price paid for the change was high. Quickly, unarmed protests for genuine reforms and democracy inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt turned into bloody battles. The six-month conflict, by various estimates, cost approximately 50,000 lives and has left thousands more injured, disfigured and traumatized.
Women played a vital role in the Revolution. They were on the front lines and behind the scenes. They were also used and violated in the worst way in public and private.
In all societies – but in Arab culture in particular – rape equals dishonour, shame and fear. In the early days of the uprising, it was reported that orders were given by Muammar Qaddafi to Libyan soldiers and foreign mercenaries to rape women so that those protesting (peacefully and through arms) would retreat from the streets and the front lines. It has also been reported that sexual performance enhancement drugs and condoms were found on soldiers and mercenaries. Mobile phones and photos captured many of the rapes committed. However, ‘rebel’ fighters and officials destroyed much of the footage in order to protect family reputations and relations from further damage. But the oral testimony was not destroyed. Outspoken survivors share their terrifying tales of rape or that of their mothers, husbands, and siblings.
In every cultural context rape leaves a complex legacy of shame, guilt and mistrust. However in Libya, it is a strong taboo to discuss rape with family members and certainly publicly. A woman raped is considered a stain on the entire family or tribe. As a result, women suffer in silence. Perhaps, some will visit a female doctor for assistance. And very few will speak out. For these reasons, even after the armed conflict has ended, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of the sexual violence committed.
Encouragingly though, many public figures including religious leaders have promoted messages of support and solidarity with rape survivors. There are also countless new civil society groups and charities in Libya that are looking to heal the wounds of the conflict including of those from sexual violence. In the days ahead, one hopes that these initiatives as well as re-established governmental services and assistance from international agencies will adequately treat the social, physical and psychological scars left by the violence of the six-month long conflict and the previous years’ trauma.
I recently returned from a visit to Libya where I was both saddened and inspired by the first hand accounts of the Revolution and by the sights, sounds and even tastes after I ate from traditional cous cous given out by a Tripoli neighborhood mosque’s ‘community reconciliation’ dinner. I left with a sense of hope for the future of Libya and its women for the first time. I have hope that the new Libya will be a country where the culture of silence, fear and mistrust will be replaced by openness and co-operation. I also hope it will be a place where men and women stand side by side to run a country based on rule of law and respect for human rights.
And again I’m left with the thought: this is my country; this is the new Libya.
By Layla El-Wafi - LIBYA
Layla El-Wafi is an English qualified lawyer specializing in finance and infrastructure projects in London. She has experience working with international and local NGOs in the USA, UK and Middle East and North Africa region including with such organsiations as Amnesty International, Women for Women International and UNICEF. She is of mixed Libyan and Egyptian heritage and regularly spends time in the MENA region. Layla is actively involved in community service initiatives including the Women 4 Libya campaign, part of the Libyan Civil Society Organization (LCSO).