31 Aug 2011

Where were the women in Libya's revolution?

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum asks ‘where were the women’ during Libya’s revolution?

Where were the women? In Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain we saw them out protesting on the streets, but in Libya’s revolution they were behind closed doors.

I learnt today, that didn’t mean they were cowering behind the curtains doing nothing.

At the end of the Eid prayer in the newly named Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli this morning, I got chatting to a group of young women using their mobile phones to take pictures of the anti-Gaddafi cartoons stuck to the pillars.

Dressed in traditional headscarves over tunics and trousers, they were keen that the world should know that they are part of this momentous change in Libya.

“I want to tell you what the Tripoli girls did in the revolution!” said one.

Amira Tarhuni, a medical intern, told me how she and other doctors ran a secret hospital for the rebels in Hey Damash, a pro-Gaddafi part of town.

“There were a lot of snipers in our neighbourhood,” she said. “I would come to hospital in the car, and then run out fast, with my head down, because we were afraid from the sniper.”

Even worse was the fear of being discovered as they stitched up bullet wounds and other injuries on young men who had been out protesting on the streets of Tripoli.

“Our hospital had to be secret because if they knew, they would kill us. It happened in other secret hospitals,” she said, showing me the emergency first aid pack she carries everywhere in a plain black backpack

Omezzin Abu Srewil cooked and sold food, channelling the proceeds to the fighters.

“It wasn’t very good,” she giggled, “So I bought food which some of the other girls had made and sold it. I collected the money and sent it by friends to Tunisia to take to the fighters in the Nafousa Mountains.”

Other young women made wristbands in the colours of the revolutionary flag.

“If anyone had known, we’d have been arrested,” said Omezzin. “Of course we were afraid but you can’t just sit there and do nothing. There’s more to life than being safe.”

Libya is a more traditional society than Tunisia or Egypt, and women play less of a role in public life. That doesn’t mean they’ve been protected from the cruelty of Gaddafi’s rule.

“Women didn’t go out because in the first few weeks when men got out into the street, they were killed instantly,” said Omezzin. “And when arrest a man, they question all his friends and family. Horrible things happen to women, like rape.”

It’s unlikely that women will immediately play a prominent role in any new Libyan government, but the Tripoli girls will make sure that they are part of the change.

“I feel very proud of what we did,” said Omezzin. “I just pray this revolution works.”

Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter @lindseyhilsum