Sunday, February 27, 2011

Face of New Libya

My Life as a Libyan-American Muslim Women

By Yusra Tekbali

The Arab revolutions of 2011, or "Arab Spring" as it is commonly called, not only challenged political systems and dictators, but people's beliefs, habits, faith and preconceived notions about everything, which set the gender debate on fire. As women took to the streets in protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, they showed the world that they are involved in their country's affairs and convincingly reintroduced the idea of an Arab world where women take center stage as revolutionaries and decision makers.

I fled the violence in Libya at the end of February -- first to Malta, then the United Arab Emirates, where I attended "Insight Dubai," a women's leadership conference sponsored by Dubai Women's College. While there, I spoke about my experience as a Libyan woman and the discrimination, pride and confusion associated with that. In America, whenever I said I was from Libya, people automatically associated me with Gaddafi or his perverse procession of female bodyguards. I was surprised however, to find out just how little Arab women from the Gulf knew about Libyan women. The truth is, Gaddafi's regime made it impossible for any Libyan to form an identity outside it. It was refreshing to interact with women from around the world, who criticized male-oriented systems in their society and expressed their expectation in a future that includes women in the decision-making process of companies, think tanks and governments. At the conference we discussed sharia and women's issues in Islam and agreed that balancing religion and politics is essential in the Arab world.

The revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and to an extent the rest of the Arab world, thrust women into the public sphere and supported their voices with megaphones. As a Libyan and Muslim woman, my voice is often drowned out by the Islamophobic rhetoric of the Christian right, the fanatical fatwas of the Islamic fundamentalists or the outrageous, mass-murdering propaganda of Gaddafi's regime. It's a miracle I'm still alive. Yet, over the tumultuous events of the past few months, I learned to come to terms with my identity. As a Muslim woman raised in a Judeo-Christian society, I can't forget the principles laid out by America's founding fathers, who, after much debate, pragmatically settled with a nation "under God" with an emphasis on free practice and the separation of church and state.

I'm a Zumba-dancing, unveiled, Muslim-American woman from Libya. I break a lot of stereotypes and question people's ideas of what a Muslim woman is. When I worked for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in D.C. (an incredible woman who's resilience in politics and life inspires people of all faiths), I was struggling with what it means to be a Muslim in politics. I wrote about that struggle, which ultimately is a search for a home, and an identity in I Speak for Myself: American Woman on Being Muslim, published this week.

The search for my identity, for a home, became a lot more real as I met with Libyan refugees along the Tunisian border. I heard stories from families who's homes were shelled and destroyed by Gaddafi's forces. But the families I met with in the Rehmada Refugee camp, some 15.5 miles from the southern Tunisian-Libyan border of Dehiba, didn't greet me as a victims of war, but as fighters with resilience and strength despite what they went through. I was in awe of the Libyan women; their bravery matches the men they were forced to leave behind.

My mother, a Libyan immigrant who raised seven children often on her own (as my father lived between Libya and the U.S.) is a great example of resilience, repeated in each and every Libyan family. As we heard gunshots fired near our home in Tripoli, my mom wasn't afraid and understood why I wanted to join my brother in protest.

After I left Libya, I spent countless hours reading Libya news updates, searching through footage on YouTube and Facebook and tearing up at the eye-witness accounts of Libyan women's bravery retold on Twitter.

A Libyan woman from Zintan, who saw Gaddafi's rockets fall through her roof, told me she was not afraid of Gaddafi or his men. "They are cowards who shoot rockets into the homes of a people unarmed. My little daughter has more courage in her pinky than all of Gaddafi's men put together."

Her statement is echoed by both men and women in Libya, who fight together. Even Libyan men will not hesitate to tell you stories of how their women encouraged them to go out and fight, lest they should. Libya's Revolution is a story of a people, men, women, and even children, who refused to live under Gaddafi's oppression. Libya's revolution is a story of Muslim women resisting oppression, of Muslim women speaking out against violence, of Muslim women taking charge of the future of their country.

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