By Igor Kossov
Friday, July 29, 2011
Libyans have lived under a dictatorship for over 40 years and the effort to think and act freely doesn't come easily. In Benghazi, a small women-led group called Express is waging a psycho-social effort to "Get Rid of the Gadhafi Inside You."
The unexpected events of Feb. 17--when Benghazi rose up against Gadhafi's regime--created a seismic shift to civil rule. Gone were the orders from Tripoli. Police stations that had kept a strict eye on the populace were all lit on fire and later rebuilt. People formed neighborhood watch committees and organized in mosques to have self-sufficient administration. It was the first breath of democracy.
But ben Jomiah, who attended the meetings along with many other young people, soon worried. Tribal elders and the most assertive males in the room were falling into old patterns and taking over. People were shouting. Ideas and suggestions were getting ignored or hastily rejected.
When several people suggested the segregation line between men and women at Liberation Square be dropped, the self-appointed meeting leaders vehemently said no. When some objected, they were told that they didn't have to come to the meetings.
"It was 'my way or the highway,'" said Abdelgader, the Express member from Los Angeles. "Oppression trickles down from the government to the family."
Toufik ben Jomiah is a Libyan human rights activist and Halima ben Jomiah's father.
"A big problem," he said, "is people are not digesting the changes, the situation they're in . . . Gadhafi's systematic abuse is still in their minds and his ideology of the mass and that he is the leader, the teacher. Gadhafi brainwashed people to prevent them from solving their own problems."
Strict religious thinking is also involved. Islam is Libya's main religion. (The Islamic star and crescent is prominently in the middle of the rebel flag.) Islam makes distinctions between "haram," or forbidden activities, and "aib," improper, undesirable ones.
But in Libya, "the two words have merged to the point where it's hard to distinguish," said Abdelgader.
This merging often stifles people's freedom of choice, especially for women who bear the brunt of the immodesty crackdowns for not wearing a headscarf correctly or trying to have equal rights to men.
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Igor Kossov is a freelance journalist in the Middle East. He has recently investigated the Libyan insurrection and the plight of refugees in the region. He has also covered politics in Uganda as well as local and international issues in New York City.
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