I dream of a Libya where I feel free and liberated. Where I can do whatever I want, wherever I want, however I want… as a woman.
Yes, the country fought its way out of a tyrannical upper hand. Granted, Libyan women are celebrated and recognized for their contribution. Some of them even managed to seize an important position in our government. But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that we’re silenced when we speak out about important issues as free Libyans. We’re downplayed when we talk about our feelings as free Libyans. We’re harassed when we step out on the streets as free Libyans. And who are the perpetrators of this appalling treatment? Free Libyans. Or rather more specifically, free Libyan men. You’d think that during a fight that has deeply affected every single one of us, we’d grow, learn and promise never to repeat the same mistakes again. That life under Gaddafi would be the incipit of a brand new story. Libyans were supposed to blossom mentally, and now that we’re liberated we have just about every single tool to turn us into decent human beings. But women are still treated as inferior second-class citizens.
Remember when internet forums were used to discuss important political issues? Now they’re infested with misogynistic posts and pictures of random Libyan girls followed by nasty rumors. Whether it’s a girl seen on Tripoli University’s campus sporting a mohawk or a non-hijabi woman holding up a placard with “Don’t tell me what to wear, tell them not to harass me” sprawled over it, you can bet someone will sneak a picture of them and post it on every social networking site they could think of so as to attract sexist hyenas who like to roast women who (gasp) take control of their own bodies. There’s also a Twitter account I loathe with a passion called “Libyan Guy Problems”, who (amidst loads of sexist tweets) once stated that girls should be hung if they wear bikinis. No one called them out on this. Then, a problem I think lots of girls can identify with, there’s the online debates. Try discussing one issue with a Libyan on Facebook without your womanhood being questioned. Talk about the question of federalism, they’ll ask why you aren’t wearing a hijab. Libyan logic. The internet is to be used with intelligence. The gratuitous anonymity it offers isn’t an excuse to spew ignorance. You have Google at your disposition, use it. Read up about what women have to say, how to respect them and how to join the fight for the equality they deserve instead of watching funny cat videos.
So, what of this harassment that plagues our streets? I have a friend who’s been yelled at by a complete stranger in a café in Tripoli because he heard her speak English. They ended up getting out of there, with no one to stand up for them. I know another girl who was once publicly slapped in the face by, yet again, a stranger for no apparent reason. My own sister had a big, full water bottle violently thrown at her by random men in a car speeding by as she was walking out of school. I was almost run over by a couple of guys who sped and abruptly hit the brakes a couple of centimeters in front of me just to get my number (by bumping their car up on the sidewalk I was using). And if you haven’t been stalked all the way to your front door at least seven times in your life as a girl, you must’ve been the lone survivor of some kind of apocalypse that hit North Africa.
Here’s the deal with street harassment: it’s not respectful and it’s not my fault. Your comments, whether they’re “Hey beautiful” or “Hey b——“, are degrading, period (yup, I’ve heard them all). The fact that you don’t even consider my feelings beforehand, that you just hurl an opinion that wasn’t required or an insult that was definitely unnecessary, strip me of my value as a human being in your eyes. Your touch, whether it’s randomly stroking my hair or lightly brushing my rear, invades my personal space and makes me extremely uncomfortable. I respect you enough not to just walk up to you and caress a part of your body. But evidently, visible female traits suddenly make me eligible for grabs.
And enough with the victim blaming! I didn’t “ask for it”. When I open my closet in the morning I don’t think “Which shirt will get me sexually harassed today? I think I’ll wear this one, it seems like perfect rape material”. A girl doesn’t want to be verbally pestered all day. She doesn’t want to be touched. And she most definitely does not want to be scarred for the rest of her life. We do not ask for it, heck we don’t even want it but we receive it anyways, no matter what we wear or where we go. Just stop. Are you going to tell a man it’s his fault for getting mugged? “Well hey, you shouldn’t have been carrying your wallet around.” “You wore a blazer in the first place. You made yourself look rich. You asked for it”. See how ridiculous it sounds? But of course, once it comes to blaming a girl, suddenly those ludicrous statements make sense. Same goes for domestic violence. We don’t deserve it, we never did. Seizing our freedom should not include making us vulnerable in the first place. Make a safe space for us. Educate your sons. Criminalize harassment. Give rapists hell. Do not trace it back to us. Because then you’d be shaming us for being born with twin chromosomes.
What makes matters worse is that being religious, a lot of Libyan girls would rather not attract the male gaze. And men can’t even consider it or make an effort to respect that. It’s not funny, it’s humiliating. Especially when operation Failed Flirting is executed in a public place. And of course, no witness does anything about it because the delicate lotus flower that is the harasser doesn’t know any better. See, this patriarchal nonsense hurts you as well, Libyan men. It perpetrates the idea that you’re all dumb savages who are controlled by their libido. A lot of you are decent, but there’s a handful of bad apples in this country that you need to get rid of. And believing those ridiculous tales that some girls are just plain asking for it or that they need to be controlled somehow isn’t helping your case. Don’t be a sheep. Grow a mind of your own and rise against this misogynistic system.
So tell me what to wear, where to go and what to do. A harasser/rapist hears “Leave this one alone, but go harass/rape the one that doesn’t follow these guidelines”. And I will see a mold I’ll have to fit in as a person, a body perceived as lifeless by those who wish to control it and implement their own values in it. But worst of all, I won’t see a free country but a piranha infested lake surrounding a few unstable stepping stones, while the men have a bridge over it and are free to throw rocks at us as we take our leaps. It is that hard being a woman in Libya. But we can end this if we fight.
I’m aware that misogyny is present everywhere in the world, and that Libya’s share is pretty tame compared to other countries. But our home has its own cracks that we can fix, with a change of mentality and a separation from a tradition that says a woman is to serve and depend on a man. If we want to achieve equality, we’ve got to get rid of every single sexist issue within our community. Thing is, what a girl does behind closed doors is none of anyone’s business. I do live in a world that sexualizes and objectifies me, that doesn’t mean you have to add fuel to the fire by telling me how to live my life. By letting me be, you’re dismantling that system in your own way. And so am I by ignoring those who put me down. Women, no matter what they wear, what they do or what they look like, deserve respect and attention. And girls, solidarity can only be achieved if you stop acid tongues from waving and dissolve this perfect Little Miss Modest archetype. Even in campaigns fighting for gender equality, I see this stereotype being perpetrated. Our worth is not measured by our clothing, our personal activities, our grades at school, our sexual availability, our relationship with a man… None of that. Everyone should be able to see past all those traits and we can make our fiery spirits shine through. Our physique is to be celebrated, not shamed. Our body shouldn’t be a cage but a canvas. So listen up, activists: show every single kind of girl on your posters. Make bold statements on your placards. Our safety before their feelings. Our feelings before their fun. We can do this. And men can join too. Just shed out of this sexist mentality and we’ll all be free. Get angry, Libyan girl. Start your own revolution. Whether it is ladylike or not.
And dear reader, here’s a tip: if you see nothing wrong with the examples of sexism I’ve stated, either do your research or revoke your Decent Human Being card.