Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Equality Not!

Recently, there had been a lot of discussion on Libyan blogs, and other pages, of a new Libyan law that bans women under 40 from traveling without mahrem. So, what’s new? What’s all this commotion about? This law is no surprise at all—not one little bit.

I have experienced gender discrimination first-hand in Libya, and in more than one occasion. Let me first set the stage before going into the story of discrimination so you see the ludicrousness of it all.

During my transition from Lebanon to the US back in 1998, I decided to go to Libya and spend some time with my family. I quit my job with Temenos SA as a senior project manager. Temenos, however, didn’t want to let go of me, and offered to hire me as a consultant and send me in short assignments as needed.

One of the assignments was in Greece. Everybody in Benghazi, and their mothers, knew about it. Why? How? Temenos and Informer applied for a visa on my behalf and sent details about my contract with them and the pay to the Greek Consulate in Benghazi. The peeps at the consulate found it amazing that a Swiss and a Greek companies were hiring a consultant—a woman—from Libya and paying her so much on top of covering all her expenses. It was unheard of!

Another assignment was in Egypt, and it was Temenos’ first attempt to introduce Globus there and gain a share in the Egyptian market. The Egyptians sang high and low of how proud they were to see a fellow Arab woman coming in with a European company.

In all the projects I was assigned to, I led meetings with the highest executives in the banks; I conducted demos and training sessions; I led implementation projects. I stayed at hotels in different countries, sometimes for extended periods of time. My professional status and my professionalism was all that mattered to the people around me. I was treated with respect at all times and by all I interacted with.

On my way out of Libya, a second-cousin of mine, Hamooda, drove me to Djerba from Tripoli. At the Libyan border, he instructed me to say that he was a taxi driver, if asked, and not a cousin. He said we could be held and delayed if they found he was my cousin—he was not a mahrem! Oh, I got it, a taxi driver is OK, but a cousin is not? Makes perfect sense!

Come November of 1998, and it was time for me to go back to Libya and head for the US shortly after. I was flying from Athens to Tunisia and then by road to Libya. It was the time of sanctions against Libya. As it happened, 3amo Lamin, a good and old family friend, was traveling on the same flight. It was a pleasant coincidence. I grew very close to amo Lamin and his family while I lived in Lebanon and they became a family to me. Once in Djerba, my ride, Hamooda, didn’t show up, so we took a taxi to Tripoli. We arrived there at the early hours of am, 2 or so. I was supposed to go to sister Fairouz’s but didn’t know the way. I was not familiar with Tripoli. We drove around in Gergaresh for a while, but I couldn’t recognize any landmarks that would lead us to Fairouz’s house, so we headed to a hotel.

At the hotel, the he-receptionist refused to check me in, insisting it was against the law to provide a room to a woman with no mahrem. Amo Lamin offered to give me his room once he was checked in, but the clerk announced that he would call the police if that happened. We got him to wake the manager up hoping he would be more helpful… We were wrong. The manager apologized profoundly and sincerely for there was nothing he could do. He offered me to sit in the lobby till 6am when the breakfast buffet opens, and offered breakfast on him. How generous! I sat there, and amo Lamin refused to go to his room and stayed with me. He couldn’t go and rest knowing that I can’t have that, he said.

I was so humiliated and belittled. In my home country, I was merely a prostitute or a sex-seeking creature until proven otherwise! Now you tell me, would anything surprise me coming from that rotten place called Libya?

Dear Um Dania, before you sing away how wonderful Libya is, how much freedom and respect Libyan women enjoy, and how blessed and privileged they are to live in Libya; please think about this story. Soad, my dear, care not what others think of you, especially the hateful ignorant ones; care what you think of yourself! To my other fellow Libyan females: Stand up for your rights and the rights of all of us Libyan women. Even if it's the right to call a jackass a jackass to his face. Demand that we be respected as complete human beings. Respect never stems from submission or cowardice.


  1. Hannu that was very moving, I am so sorry that you had to be treated like that and in our own country, I am really fuming now and not sure what to write except I am sure your family and all decent people are proud of you and your acheivments, thank you for sharing this very important story.

    btw the picture with the little sign saying "no girls allowed" is that Moody's room? :o)

  2. Dear Hannu,

    Libya is a graveyard for women. Libyan women are treated as sub-human and second class citizens, mere breeding machines and servants. A girl in Libya is abused from cradle to grave; her life is a constant misery and a vicious chain of taboos. Sadly, only few fortunate ones who were born into enlightened families are treated with respect and exercise some freedom.

    Equality! In Libya! Fil Mishmesh. As long as the Law of the tribe, the society, the men still rule; as long as there are no Laws to protect women from an abusive father, brother, husband, a male cousin, or any skunk calls himself a man harassing women in the streets. As long as any male can slaughter his sister, daughter, wife, any female cousin, and even his own mother in the name of honour and gets away with it. Two years max or nothing at all!

    As long as religion is used as an affective method to oppress, marginalize, and abuse women and silence anyone who dares to challenge them. As long as a woman needs a male chaperon to travel or go out (the latest Fattwa-Express issued by the gang of Ya Taweel Al-Umer is: a woman should not travel by herself even if a male chaperon will put her on the plane and another will be waiting for her in the next airport. Why? Because according to Fattwa-Express gang, as a woman is Naqisit 3aqil wa deen ناقصت عقل ودين, any male passenger can succeed in seducing her while she is on the plane alone!! )

    As long and as long and as long, Libyan women will always be treated as sub-human creatures; Libyan women will never taste equality and experience freedom.

    As for me, as long as my conscious is clear, I care less for what others think or say about me. I will just leave them to the Day when they will be held accountable for their lies and fabrications. I will live my life the way I chose it to be and shall never compromise.

    Have a great day.

  3. I am so sorry what you had to go through. That must have been horrible. Something smilair happened to my sister and her husband. They were driving East Libya some time back and stopped at a hotel to stay the night. The hotel people refused to give them a room without seeing their marriage contract or kitab el 3a'ila (which they didnt have on them). My sister and her husband were really tired and said they will take separate rooms, but they still refused.

    I agree Libya can be a rotton place and maybe even a graveyeard for women! I have never lived in Libya and only visited a couple of times. Many things there do burst my top but at the same time, it's my country. I love Libya very much and I really hope one day it gets better.

    My dad has told my sibilings and I, over and over again that we can have the life we want wherever we are, even in Libya. And that we shouldnt let the people or the environment get to us. As long as we dont do anything wrong And like Sereeb said as long as your conscious is clear, screw what people say or do!

    Thank you for this post Hannu.

  4. Lebeeya,

    I'm in the disagree-with-dads phase :) You can't have the life you want when you are in a place like Libya. You can only have that when you are in a place governed by law. There are no guarantees in Libya that you won't be harassed for no reason but some power-abuser wants to go after you. Simply, there are no laws that protect people there; on paper maybe, but not in reality. Libya is a graveyard, not just for women, but for most Libyans. It is rotten and it is my country too, and the elephant is too huge for me to ignore :)

    AL, that was not Moody's sign. I would not allow such sign in my house :) So far, he's doing OK with his sister; no major anti-girls issues.

  5. that is good to know about your kids and I expected that from you anyway.
    we try to do the same and they know they are 100% equal even though we get the odd fight almost on daily basis but this is normal :o)

    May Allah bless them all.

  6. salam Hannu:
    i'm very proud for ur success,not because u r woman or man, but just because u r success.
    my view is that u r drawing with sreeb a very dark picture for how libyan women r treated, may because u r far away from libya from long time, but i think the situation of libyan woman is from the best among arab countries,libyan woman the first african and arab woman took the the right of election in 50s,libyan women go to university since 60s, women drive cars since 50s, no discrimination in libyan law now between man or woman .all libyan girls now choose what they want study and where they want to work and who can she married without any influnce from the family, and i believe this is the 90% percent of libyan girls. we can not generalize what a few percent of people on all the country, i think u know and understand the theory of 80/20 and that theory we can applied on the woman issue in libya.
    as u said the problem in libya not just for one gender it a problem of the whole nation, and that is why we r suffer now.

  7. BH, thank you for your kind comments.

    I am not painting a picture, I'm talking about reality and something I experienced myself. Yes, I have been away for 8 years now, but I don't think the situation has changed. If I go to a hotel again without a mahrem I would still be treated with the same humiliation and disrespect.

    I don't believe Libya is the "best among Arab countries." Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia are still better, for few.

    Lamenting on the past is irrelevant when we have taken many steps backwards from that or just remained in a standstill. How far have we come since the 50s and 60s? Benchmarking should always be to someone better, to situations better, and not the other way.

    Yes, we drive cars, yes, we choose what to study, and yes, we choose our partners (in most cases.) But does that cover all human rights? There's much more we cannot do. Staying in a hotel is one of them... as ironic and funny as it is! there are many other more vital things women cannot do in Libya.

    I would not be satisfied with the few crumbs of freedom thrown my way. As long as I am deprived of something, then there's injustice and discrimination. As long as there are limitations to my freedom, there's injustice and discrimination.

  8. I've always thought that the "Mahram" law has been in effect for a long time. It is discriminatory and makes no sense, such as most things in the great sand box.

    Upon finding out that we were moving to a place with a basement, Nick talked about putting a "No Girls Allowed" sign at its door. By the time we moved in, he had already snapped out of the "Girls are yucky" stage and completely forgot about it. What do I have to do to get that stage to come back? aaaaaa

    For all of you who don't know the "..gang of Ya Taweel Al-Umer" lol: It is a gangsta group formerly known as The JAK Band. lol with hits like: No high heels for you.

  9. I am going to Libya in 5 days and this is all making me very nerveous. I am going twith my fiance, no we are not married yet. I have never been out of the US and this is a huge trip for me, we are going to his sisteres wedding and this will be a chance for me to meet his family before we are married. I am certainly nerveous of how I will be perceived, us travelling together and not being married. Its making me sick to my advise?