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Libya women face Islamist rise since Gadhafi fall

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 4:35pm  ET

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 file photo, a Libyan woman wearing a depiction of the national flag bearing the words, "hold your head high, you are Libyan," attends commemorations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, Libya. Women played a major role in the 8-month civil war against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, massing for protests against his regime, selling jewelry to fund rebels, helping treat the wounded, smuggling weapons across enemy lines to rebels. But since Gadhafi’s fall more than 18 months ago, women have been rewarded by seeing rights they enjoyed under his rule hemmed in and restricted. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) -- On her way back from her job as a lecturer at a university near Tripoli, Libyan poet Aicha Almagrabi was stopped by a group of bearded militiamen. They kicked her car, beat up her driver and threatened to do the same to her. Her offense: being alone in a car with men without a male relative as a guardian.

"You have violated the law of God," the militiamen told her, Almagrabi said.

"I said, I teach male students, so should I bring a male guardian with me to classroom?" she told The Associated Press.

Not that the university is immune to increasingly bold conservatives' views on the role of women. Almagrabi said one student recently told her she shouldn't be giving lectures because a woman's voice is "awra" -- too intimate and shameful to be exposed in public.

The incident in February, which ended with the militiamen allowing Almagrabi to drive home, underlined the bitter irony for women in post-revolution Libya. Women played a major role in the 8-month civil war against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, massing for protests against his regime, selling jewelry to fund rebels, smuggling weapons across enemy lines to rebels.

But since Gadhafi's fall more than 18 months ago, women have been rewarded by seeing their rights hemmed in and restricted.

Women fear worse may yet to come. The country is soon to begin work drafting a new constitution, which activists fear will enshrine the relegation of women to second-class status, given the influence of hard-line Islamists.

"What we aim for right now is not to lose what we had," said Hanan al-Noussori, a lawyer in Libya's second biggest city, Benghazi. "I don't know which path we are heading in. But this is a matter of life or death for us."

Women can cite any number of worrying signs.

Libya's lawlessness is in part to blame. Islamist militiamen have grown more aggressive in unilaterally imposing their own rules on women. Militias, which were initially formed from rebel brigades that battled Gadhafi's troops, hold sway in many cities. They operate with impunity because, with national police and the army in a shambles, the state relies on them as parallel security forces. The state funds a security body made up of militias, trying to keep them loyal, but that has only made them larger and bolder.

More generally, the deeply conservative nature of much of Libyan society is being expressed more freely, often impinging on women. Powerful clerics speak out against the mixing of the sexes and Libya's political leaders themselves have set the tone for a more conservative stance on women.

Almagrabi says the opening salvo came right after Gadhafi's fall in late 2011, in one of the first addresses by then-head of state Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. He declared invalid all laws not conforming to Shariah and specifically vowed to end limits on polygamy. Islamic law allows men to take up to four wives, if they are treated equally, but under Gadhafi men had to get court permission and often permission from their first wife to do so.

"I felt like we were taken like spoils of war," Almagrabi said. "This nation rose up for the sake of the supremacy of the law and now there is a plan to push women back into their homes."

In February, the Supreme Constitutional Court consecrated Abdul-Jalil's announcement, formally ending any conditions on polygamy.

In 2012, at a televised ceremony celebrating the transfer of power to a newly elected parliament, Abdul-Jalil ordered a young presenter, Sarah al-Massalati, to leave the hall because she was not wearing a headscarf.

"We believe, respect and emphasize personal freedoms, but we are also a Muslim nation," Abdul-Jalil said at the time, to cheers from the audience. "I hope everyone understands these words."

Al-Massalati broke into tears. "I felt I was slaughtered," she later told Libyan media.

More recently, militiamen stormed a conference on women's rights and the constitution, held by Magdalene Ubaida and other women rights activists in Benghazi. The gunmen detained Ubaida and two of her colleagues. When they were released and heading to the airport to return to Tripoli, they were seized by more militiamen and beaten.

The incident came after one of the top security officials in Benghazi, Wanis el-Sharif, accused Ubaida of "spoling women" and criticizing Libya's top Muslim official, the grand mufti. The 25-year-old Ubaida, a co-founder of a rights organization called My Right, has since fled to Britain, saying she fears for her life.

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