Women and Armed Struggle: Stories from Libya

small arms survey
May 24 · 7 min read

By: Hasnaa El Jamali

Following the fall of Qaddafi, instability continues to persist in Libya. Numerous analyses have been published on the ever-changing dynamics on the ground (a few from the Small Arms Survey include papers on armed groups in Tripoli; struggles at Libya’s borders; and how neighbouring countries have manoeuvred the ongoing crisis), but few exist on the role that women played, and continue to play.

According to a 2018 International Foundation for Electoral Systems survey on public opinion of voters’ intent in Libya, only 23 per cent of women reported (ever) having taken part in civic activities. For those 23 per cent, this participation has not been without cost. Women have faced everything from legal restrictions on personal liberty, through threats, to murder. Congresswomen Fariha al-Barkaway (2014), lawyer and human rights activist Salway Bugaighis (2014), and civil society activist Intisar al-Hassairy (2015) were all killed for what many suspect was their participation in helping to shape post-Qaddafi Libya.

The 2011 revolution became an opportunity for many women to engage in the public sphere and researchers and journalists documented the role of women who protested in the streets and those who engaged with insurgents. Women’s roles as actors in the fighting has gone largely undocumented, however, and was, in many ways, crucial to the success of the revolutionary groups. As we consider the plight of women in contemporary Libya, it is important that we remember those contributions as well. Here are three such stories.

Hoda: The Nurse

‘I first volunteered as a nurse but later on, once at the front, I could not go back…I felt that I am part of the rebels and they are part of me…I could not give up on my brothers in liberation.’

Hoda comes from a family that opposed the Qaddafi regime. She started her participation in the revolution as a nurse, organizing help for wounded demonstrators. She went to the front to aid the wounded there, accompanied by her husband who was a doctor. Though she did not take up arms herself, she soon began helping to supply arms and ammunition to fighters at the front, hiding it in the food that was sent to them. Hoda recalled hiding parts of Kalashnikov-pattern rifles in barley, for example. She stayed on the front line for nine months, moving between different battles and cities with the Eastern Front.

Though she was denied the chance to finish her formal education by the Qaddafi regime’s crackdown, Hoda nevertheless was asked to take on ever greater responsibility during the revolution. Her background in business and early work nursing the wounded brought her the attention of revolutionary leadership. By the time the fighting was over, she had overseen relief operations for the civilians in liberated territory and managed a large hospital, treating fighters and civilians alike.

Fatima: The Fighter

‘Though I was seven months pregnant, after 15 minutes, I found it easy to use (the anti-aircraft) weapon.’

Fatima comes from a family that supported the Qaddafi regime. After hearing about the violent repression of demonstrations against Qaddafi, she joined the demonstrations herself. She was arrested and assaulted by the police, which she calls the ‘worst experience of my life’. Released, she was disowned by her father and closely watched by the police until she fled to another town. There she began more active participation in the revolution, working as a nurse with two different armed groups. After a friend was killed, she decided to take up arms.

Fatima had to work extra hard to win and maintain the trust and respect of her fellow fighters. She learned how to use a 14.5mm anti-aircraft weapon, and began fighting at the front. In October, 2012, for example, she went with her husband to defend Beni Walid against attacks by Misratan militias. They joined a prominent militia group of some 5,000 fighters in this assault. As a fighter in the battalion, Fatima fought with a variety of weapons. Her skill and ferocity in battle earned her both the respect of her comrades and a pithy nom de guerre.

Fatima’s presence on the front line was not without incident, however. Twice she was arrested by her comrades who believed her to be working for the Qaddafi regime.

‘They arrested me twice and investigated […] me […] because I am a woman on the front line, my family and clan are supporters of the regime, (and) my brother is a fierce fighter with Qaddafi…(F)or them I could be a spy…(A)ll sides were accusing me of being a spy…

I developed a hatred towards the regime, I fought against my own brother, who used to be pro-regime, I got arrested and my credibility was questioned all the time, in the front line I witnessed many violations, like stealing, murders, drugs, sexual violence etc…(B)ut I (overlooked these incidents in) the name of the ‘revolution’, believing that what counts is to free (the) people and to bring down the [Qaddafi] regime.’

Aya: The Porter

‘Given my reputation as a teacher, people respected me and I was never stopped at check points.’

Aya used to live in a town that was a Qaddafi stronghold. From the beginning of the revolution, she lived a secret life, recording anti-Qaddafi propaganda before being recruited to active participation in the revolution. She transported arms, smuggling them through checkpoints to frontline fighters [1]. She also provided explosives to the fighters. At the end of the revolution, she was training new recruits with her husband. ‘My husband (who had defected from Qaddafi’s regime) and I used to train young fighters to use arms,’ she recalled, ‘in the garden of my own house.’

Motivations

Women in Libya — although engaged in political actions — were essentially second-class citizens of their country. With the revolution, some women joined the fight against the injustices of the Qaddafi regime, defend their country, and protect their community. They fought to secure the rights of Libyan citizens, even those rights that were (and continue to be) denied to themselves as women.

As Fatima noted:

‘I was witnessing economic and social (needs) in a rich oil country. I graduated in 2005 with two diplomas in (medicine)…but I never had the opportunity to get a job with the government…(W)hen the fighting started…. (i)t was my obligation to seek justice and overthrow an authoritarian regime.’

These women described feeling that they needed to defend the rights they had been deprived of; they felt that they had the same right to participate and demand their liberation.

Post-revolution: the aftermath

While Aya, Fatima, and Hoda were able to find a place and participate in the revolution that overthrew the Qaddafi regime, their participation in post-revolutionary reconstruction has been more fraught. During the revolution they were able to do things and go places that men could not, because they were women in Libya’s conservative culture. After the revolution, that culture has once again confined them to domestic life.

The experiences of these women during the revolution had encouraged them, however, and they have continued to participate in rebuilding their country. Hoda founded an organization to support the role of women in civil society and peacebuilding, with dozens of branches throughout the country. Likewise, after hanging up her combat gear, Aya has worked to raise awareness of risks facing her community. Fatima is working to defend women’s right to make permanent the promise of the revolution and the gains that women made in those early years after Qaddafi’s fall.

It is important for the international community to recognize the role of women in the revolution and ensure that they are directly involved in continued efforts to establish a peaceful and prosperous Libyan state. If such efforts are to be successful, women need to be at the table in peace building efforts in a meaningful way, and feed into discussions about strengthening political and civil rights in post-conflict Libya.


This blog post is an output of the Small Arms Survey’s Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) project.


[1] Women were able to carry out the risky task of smuggling due to the social status of women in a conservative Libya: they were rarely considered suspect by police nor were they searched in public.

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