Gadhafi, the feminist?

By: Mona Eltahawy

Toronto Globe and Mail - June 17, 2009


If Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was visiting your country and asked to meet 700 women, apparently as part of his mission to “save European women,” what would you do?
Instead of telling him to save Libya’s own women first, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - Mr. Gadhafi’s latest Western host - not only acquiesced but sent Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna, a former topless model he got in trouble for flirting with last year. It sounds like bad political satire.
Don’t let the sight of Mr. Gadhafi’s 40-odd AK-47-wielding female bodyguards make you think for a second that he is some kind of feminist or saviour of women.
During an impromptu news conference in Libya in 1996, I got into a scuffle with some Information Ministry minders who tried to eject me. One of Mr. Gadhafi’s male bodyguards (yes, he has them) twisted my nipple. Outraged, I appealed to the “Brother Colonel,” as we call Mr. Gadhafi in Egypt. He stopped in mid-sentence, we made eye contact for three or four seconds and then he continued as if nothing was happening. After the news conference, an Algerian journalist told me he heard the minders say, “Just shoot her.”
I wonder what the girls and women detained indefinitely in Libyan “social rehabilitation” centres for apparently violating moral codes think of his mission to save European women.
Many are rape victims in a country where they risk prosecution for adultery or fornication if they attempt to press charges and where a rapist can avoid a prison term of up to 25 years if his victim agrees to marry him, which often happens under family pressure to avoid shame. They only way for women and girls to leave these centres is if a male relative takes them into custody or if they marry. Human Rights Watch says most of these women go to the centres against their will and those who go of their own volition do so because Libya has no shelters for survivors of violence.
I wonder what two women in particular - both widows of prominent Libyan dissidents - think of Mr. Gadhafi the feminist.
Fawziya al-Ghoka is still in jail in Tripoli, as she was when her husband, Fathi al-Jahmi, Libya’s most prominent dissident, died on May 20 in a Jordanian hospital. I interviewed the other widow, Baha Omary Kikhia, in Cairo more than 15 years ago during one of her many trips to the region to find out what happened to her husband, Mansour Kikhia, a former Libyan foreign minister turned dissident.
A four-year U.S. Central Intelligence Agency investigation found in 1997 that Egyptian agents turned him over to agents of Mr. Gadhafi’s regime, who spirited him to Libya, where he was executed and buried in the desert.
Ask the five Bulgarian nurses who were jailed and tortured for years over accusations that they had deliberately infected hundreds of Libyan children with HIV what they think of Mr. Gadhafi’s mission to “save European women.”
Associating Mr. Gadhafi with women’s rights is as absurd as his wish to link himself to Omar al-Moukhtar, the resistance hero hanged by Italian occupiers in 1931. Mr. al-Moukhtar fought to liberate his compatriots and were he alive today, he would fight Mr. Gadhafi, who imprisons and impoverishes his subjects, as zealously as he fought Italian occupiers.
After the recent death of Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Mr. Gadhafi now holds the illustrious title of the world’s longest-serving dictator.
For close to 40 years, he has ruled brutally, keeping poor the inhabitants of a country rich in natural resources, which he gladly peddles abroad now that more Western capitals are opening their doors to him.
Let’s call him what he is: a brutal dictator. Never a feminist.
Mona Eltahawy is the recipient of the 2009 Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award for opinion writing.


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