By Kang Hyun-kyung
The prolonged conflict in Libya, which has continued after a series of popular uprisings in the Middle East spread to the North African country in 2011, has torn Hana Al-Gallal’s life apart.
Al-Gallal, a human rights activist and Libya’s former minister of education, lost her friends and relatives as some of them were assassinated. She was separated from her relatives and then fled to Amman, Jordan, in 2013 after security in Benghazi had gone from bad to worse.
She has since lived in Jordan and raised awareness of dismal human rights conditions of the Libyan people.
Al-Gallal said her experience of the Arab Spring was traumatic. “It hurt. It was painful,” she said during an interview with The Korea Times on Nov. 28 at Lotte Hotel in Seoul.
The revolt in Libya made initial progress. It led to the termination of the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi who had been in power since 1969. Gaddafi was captured and killed on Oct. 20 2011, months after the uprising occurred.
The overthrow of the authoritarian leader, however, came at a political price. Libya has been mired in years-long political turmoil and plagued by chaos and revolutionary armed conflict.
Instability has shown no signs of abating as two rival factions ? the democratically elected government and opposing National Salvation Government based in Tripoli ? opened fire on each other to secure their control of the territory of Libya.
Amid bruises and scars left by the civil war, there has been some positive development for women? the status of women has been improved, albeit subtly.
Women were encouraged to take a larger role both at home and in the workplace as men are dying as a result of the armed conflicts. Women there today have a greater say than ever before.
Al-Gallal said the Arab Spring has become the milestone event for the women’s rights movement in the Middle Eastern country.
“(During the Arab Spring) we fought for a quota for women in the parliament and succeeded in getting it. But the chaotic circumstances facing Libya makes it harder for us to play a more active role to move the country forward.”
Al-Gallal said the progress made during the chaotic years was a half success. “We didn’t have the experience partly because we didn’t have freedom of expression (during the repressive Gaddafi era). We are not succeeding as much as we had hoped, partly because we had high expectations.”
She taught students at the University of Benghazi before the anti-Gaddafi protests occurred in February 2011.
The Arab Spring has since transformed her into a vocal activist. In a piece contributed to the British media Independent published on March 17, 2011, she pleaded with the international community for help and assistance for her fellow Libyans.
“Please do something. We are desperate for your help. You must do it now,” she wrote in the article, titled “He (Gaddafi) Will Kill Everyone. Do Something. Please…” “Whenever he gets to Benghazi, he will deny us of our lives, too.”
Representing the voices of Libyan rebels, she made the plea weeks after the security forces opened fire on the anti-Gaddafi revolts. The popular uprisings continued to spread to other cities, putting the nation into conflicts between Gaddafi-backed security forces and the rebels.
Following the Arab Spring, many Libyan people have been displaced. Some migrated to neighboring countries on land routes or to Europe through dangerous maritime journeys across the Mediterranean Sea which often cost them their lives.
For those who managed to survive, hardships still awaited them in the foreign lands. During the Arab Spring, women like Al-Gallal worked at various occupations in the country such as journalists, humanitarian workers and government officials of the Transitional National Council.
“Women were one of the main forces fighting against the Gaddafi regime. The only thing they didn’t do was they didn’t carry weapons,” she said.
The women’s rights movement in Libya has taken a different course, compared to feminism in the West.
In the West, activists accuse men of having created the system that facilitated gender-based discrimination and so men are often depicted as the enemy. But the campaign for women’s rights in Libya is based on “mutual gains.”
“We want men to be our partners,” Al-Gallal said. “They are not our enemy. It’ll be counterproductive to our culture and destructive to social cohesion of the country, if we, women, consider men as our opponents.”
The local culture and unique circumstances Libya faces made the country unfit for Western-born feminism, she said.
“When it comes to the empowerment of women, I think we’ll need to build our own model based on our own culture and history, because the situation we are facing is very different from that of the West where the feminism campaign was born and started to flourish,” she said.
In the Middle East, Oh Eun-kyung, a professor at Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, said there have been efforts to empower women. “There are roughly two groups of activists there,” she said.
“One is the campaign to empower women in the context of Islam, and the other is a group of women who look to the West to follow in the footsteps of the women’s rights movement there.”
Oh said both models seem to be unfit for the women’s rights movement in the Middle East. Women’s rights are not fully protected in the Islam-based activism because, intended or not, Islamic law allegedly imposes repressive measures on women. The Western model is not replicable, either, in the Middle East because social and cultural settings of the two worlds are very different.
Oh said the feminist movement in Korea could be more feasible with Middle Eastern activists and they can look at Korea for inspiration.
“Korea and the Middle East have some commonalities,” she said. “Both are based on patriarchal cultures. The male-dominated Confucian culture has shaped Korea, and Islam is also patriarchal. The two cultures greatly affected and defined the role of women in their society.”
The women’s rights movement led the Korea parliament to introduce the sex trade ban in 2004 and quotas for women in decision-making positions in government and in the private sector.
Still male domination in higher-ranking positions is salient and a glass ceiling exists. But an increasing number of women fill positions in government and in the private sector in Korea.
According to Oh, what Korea learned from its successes and failures can inspire women in the Middle East. “We could think of possible cooperation such as holding a seminar or a forum or other types of academic cooperation to share our experiences with the activists and academics in the Middle East to help them reduce their possible trials and errors in their movement to empower women there,” she said.
Top Photo: Hana Al-Gallal, left, a human rights activist and former education minister of Libya, speaks during the Korea-Middle East Forum hosted by the Korea-Arab Society at Lotte Hotel in Seoul on Nov. 27.