How Gender Stereotypes in Libya Are Killing Individuality

Were you that young girl who was told that she should being playing with dolls instead of playing soccer? Are you that young man who had to fake masculinity in order to avoid being mocked? In Libya, our gender stereotypes have been carved in stone long, long, ago, and any slight deviation outside these very rigid definitions can lead to teasing, ostracizing, or worse.

I grew up as a sort-of tomboy; I preferred jeans to dresses, and cut my hair short (much to my mother’s horror). I didn’t care for make-up, and while other little girls dreamed and planned their wedding day, I was busy writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and thinking of the day I could travel to New Zealand to see the set of the movie myself. In short, I was very much a deviation from the mainstream.

Within my circle of close friends, those who’ve known me, it was never an issue, because that’s who I’ve always been. I was only made aware of my being “different” and “weird” when I started university. While the other girls were dolled up with perfectly matching outfits (where did they find the time? I always wondered) I quickly stuck out like a sore thumb in class with my worn-out hoodies and flip-flops.

“My mom said I shouldn’t graduate until I get engaged,” was the rationale behind the time and effort these girls put into looking as presentable as possible. I picked up on the “dress code” pretty quickly; a bulky headscarf wrapped in whatever latest fashion the Turkish/Khaleeji soap operas were airing, with matching shoes/bag/nails, and a brightly-coloured outfit that said, “I can be bold and fashionable but also modest enough that you don’t feel ashamed showing a picture of me to your mom.”

“Why do you dress like a boy?” one girl asked me. I looked down at my outfit, a plain blue shirt and jeans. “Uhhh…” I was stuck. How do you explain the concept of unisex clothing, or non-gendered fashion, to a person who was raised to see the world in pink and blue? It wasn’t that I deliberately dressed androgynously, it was just that I didn’t care enough, and more importantly, I didn’t have the time. My life did not revolve around the eventuality of my marriage, and I didn’t feel the desire openly assert my femininity. It didn’t matter though, because the rumors started all the same. There’s something wrong with her. Where is her mother? She’s not normal. 

I might have been affected had I cared what people thought of me, but my own world of friends gave me that layer of protection against the inane gossip. But not everyone has this kind of support system, and it is hurting a generation of young Libyans who feel that they have to conform to these ridiculously narrow definitions, who put so much effort into fitting in that it comes at the expense of sacrificing who they are.

The problem of rigid gender norms isn’t just an issue for girls. Boys are drilled from a young age on what it means to be a man; you should be out on the street with your friends, you should control your women (mothers, sisters, etc.), there’s no room for emotions. It’s both comical and sad to watch 8-year old boys strut around with their chests puffed out and adult language warbling from their mouths, a caricature of how men should act displayed on them like an ill-fitting suit. It’s infuriating to see a 12-year old boy driving a car with his mother next to him, because “boys should drive”. The young boy who would rather stay inside and read with his sister, or the man who would rather pursue his dream of being an artist instead of making money as a “CEO” to get married, or even that guy in class who gestures as he talks and hates violence, they are all “abnormal”. He’s weak, he’s not a real man, aspersions are cast on his sexuality.

While bullying between girls can be insidious and underhanded, with boys its very much out in the open. Fist fights are, after all, part of ‘being a man’. Since Libya is far from being ready to talk about sexuality, those who would rather lead an alternative lifestyle have to instead repress any unorthodox feelings and conform to their parents’, and society’s, expectations.

These gender stereotypes plague us everywhere; in the workplace (teaching is a woman’s job, only men can be pilots), in our personal lives, and even in our politics (the dad should vote on behalf of the family). They feed the culture of oppression against women and gendered violence against both sexes, and validate bullying.

I recognize that gender roles are a construction of the society and culture we live in, but isn’t it time to re-examine that society and these norms? We need to come up with a new definition of the term “normal”, because the current one is excluding a substantial part of society and killing their creativity and self-expression. It is harrowing and exhausting to hide who you are, and I for one am sick of being told to lower my voice because women aren’t supposed to speak loudly, I’m tired of feeling pity for young boys who are humiliated because they’d rather hold a brush than a gun.

To the young Libyans who aren’t normal, like me, who feel pressured to act a certain way, who are afraid of being alone or attacked if they let their light shine, give society the middle finger and live the way you want. The alternative, or the double life, is not better, and those that will appreciate who you are will find you eventually. The stereotypes are outdated and if we don’t break them, who will?

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Tribalism in Post-Revolution Libya

“شن قبيلتك؟” (What is your tribe?)

Get stopped at a checkpoint in any region in Libya these days, and this question will invariably come up. A tribe has become more than just a moniker in Libya after the 2011 revolution; it’s a form of identification, used by others to determine where you come from, what your political beliefs are (or should be) and where your loyalties lie.

Every Libyan belongs to a tribe. Whether it’s a small family in an obscure desert town, or a million-strong clan that spans the nation, the tribe forms part of the core of the Libyan identity itself. A person who does not have a tribe is not Libyan, not really, and is given one of the numerous derogatory labels that have been cultivated in the Libyan vernacular, a result of the heightened (exaggerated) pride at our Libyan-ness. (Of course, these labels are only applied to those poor souls from surrounding countries, Chadiaa, Tunsee, Masri, never to a person from, say, Europe or North America).

Prior to 2011, tribalism was buried deep under the surface, at least in my hometown of Benghazi, perhaps to counter Gadhafi’s manipulation of tribal sentiments in order to stay in power. One notable example of this is the renaming of the Eastern town of Tokra to ‘Al-Agoria’, after the Agori tribe that live as a majority in the area. Many speculate that the cause for this name-change was to sow discord between Eastern tribes, who have historically always been united.

But Gadhafi only used what had already existed. Tribal alliances, feuds and migrations go back much further in Libyan history, and still influence the country to this day. The age-old conflict between Misrata and Bani Walid, the story and background of ‘tajreedat habib’ (تجريدة حبيب) in Derna, the East-West divide, the geographic tensions between the Tebu and Tuarag, etc.; all affect, to some degree, the Libyan situation.

It was only after 2011 that the extent of tribalism in Libya came to light. A person who was born and raised in Benghazi would point to a city in West Libya that was fighting Gadhafi and say, “That’s where I came from”, indicating their tribal lineage. Protest signs would declare things like ‘the Tarhouna tribe stands with the revolution!” and “Werfella for February 17th!”. Of course, this didn’t really alarm anyone; if anything, it was encouraged, because it showed that Libyans from all tribal backgrounds were united, and that it was Libyans, not outside actors, who stood against Gadhafi. Nothing is more Libyan than a Libyan tribe, after all.

But it didn’t take long for old tribal grievances to appear once again. Clashes became common between Zawiya and Wershefana, Misrata was flexing its muscles in Bani Walid, and the federalist movement in the East used tribal alliances to gain influence.

Many critics of the federalist movement who claim that it would cause the country’s division seem oblivious to the fact that the country is already divided along tribal and regional lines. Even if its not part of the official legislation, there is a distinct triad of identities in the country; Bargawi, Tripolitianian and Fezzani, and each has a strong basis in tribalism.

But do you need to be part of one of the tribes of the region in order to embody its identity?

This is where the Benghazi anomaly comes in. Benghazi is a tribeless city, that is, no tribe is from Benghazi. A commercial city built on its sea port and salt trade, merchants came from across the country and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. This is where the nickname “رباية الذايح” (upbringer of the wanderers) came from, and its been estimated that around 190 tribes are represented in Benghazi’s million+ population. Much of the city’s inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to Misrata and Bani Walid. And yet, Benghazi sits as the de facto capital of Barga, the Eastern region, and those in and around the city exist in harmony, exemplifying a tribal equilibrium.

My own tribal background is a mix of various origins. My fathers’ parents moved from their tribal hometown to Benghazi before Libya’s independence, to start a new family and a new life. My mother’s grandparents each found their own way to Benghazi, each from a different city, each drawn towards this Eastern beacon. Ask around, and you’ll find that this is the background of most Benaghza. Some are ‘new’ to the city, while others can trace their family’s presence here from the time of the Ottomans.

And this, according to many, is part of Benghazi’s downfall today.

Tribalism in Libya’s current turbulent situation is a double-edged sword. In the East, it has been a unifying factor, while in the West and South, it has fueled the fighting. Benghazi, without a clear tribal focal point, continues to face an ideological war that is forcibly being re-narrated as tribal and regional. Where we were once all Benaghza, we are now Misratis, Tobrukis, Sebhawis, etc. The city has been broken down into its constituent parts and each is careful scrutinized, measured and judged. If you’re from that tribe (and therefore from its respective city), then you must support this side, right? At the height of Operation Karama, a malicious rumor began circulating that people of West Libyan origin were being kicked out of the city, despite the fact that the instigator of Karama is himself of West tribal origin, despite the fact that both sides in the conflict are made up of a mix of tribes, and DESPITE the fact that at least half of Benghazi is from West Libyan origin.

Tribalism makes a good scapegoat for those who want to deliberately twist the reason for the East’s instability, but what’s sad is that many people have stepped into these roles, turning rumor into reality. Your tribe did not initially determine the side you chose to support, but it has slowly come to do so now. And really, can you blame someone for being with or against a certain side when they hear their tribe or city insulted across social media pages and the media?

In Mansur Bushnaf’s ‘Chewing Gum’, he writes, “Libyans are attached to their tribes, each dragging it like an umbilical cord behind him.” Even those we call “huthoor” (حضور), those whose families were brought up in the cities and who have no tribal affiliations, have felt the pull of a tribe, a force reaching in through centuries, which now colours the interactions and outcomes of their lives. I could once tell people my name without having it mean anything other than who I was. But now, my name is attached to a host of pre-conceived suppositions, even if none of them are actually true. You come from this city, you are sympathetic to that political party, you follow these customs. No, don’t try to deny it, your name gives it away.

On a very real level, tribalism has become a gateway in Libya to some very ugly discrimination and some very primitive practices. Politicians are voted in based on their last name rather than their skills, and there is an outcry when a certain tribe isn’t “represented” on a committee or governing body, and nepotism is more widespread than ever before. People from certain tribes are now afraid to travel in certain areas, and your experience at a checkpoint could hinge on the name printed on your ID card. What positive aspects there were of a tribal system in Libya – social protection, a form of restorative justice, etc. – has been overshadowed by the negative aspects. A civil country cannot be built on a system that categorizes people based on something as arbitrary as a last name.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of tribalism in Libya. It is a very complex, extensive topic, and it requires a contextual understanding of Libyan history to really grasp how ingrained this phenomenon is in our country. As the conflict continues, tribalism is getting more or more radical. While I’m sure that cities like Benghazi, formed by all of Libya, will survive, I definitely worry about the consequences of the fighting today and the legacy it will leave for future generations.

The Year of Reading Libyan Literature

2014 has not been a kind year to Libya. The tense security situation in the country that has been building up these past few years has finally culminated in an all-out war in several cities around the country, and Benghazi has been hit particularly hard. Fighting is still taking place as I type this.

cover (5)Books have been a great way to escape this frustrating reality. I’ve read more than usual this year, and my hunt for interesting reading material led me to discover Chewing Gum, written by Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf. (which I’ve already fawned about here)

I’ve discovered that reading Libyan literature is, for me, a much more personal experience than reading other kinds of books. It’s a thrilling experience to walk through the streets of your country’s capital 100 years ago, or go on the deadly march to a concentration camp and share the tears your people shed at past injustices. It’s also easier to relate to the characters as they grapple with the same Libyan struggles as you.

My first foray into Libyan literature came several years ago when I read ‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar, after it was recommended to me by a cousin. What I most distinctly remember was the awe I felt at reading a book that took place in Libya, and contained details of a dictatorship that we grew up resenting and fearing. I wasn’t interested in the writing itself as much as I admired the book’s mere existence.

Reading Chewing Gum brought back those intimate recollections and, being older now, left me with a thirst for more Libyan books. I have been fortunate enough to obtain them, thanks to the kindness of friends (like Maraim Badri <3) as well as through the awesome Darf Publishers, a publishing house founded by Libyan publisher Mohamed Fergiani.

This has also been a year of young literature, as the Young Writers of Benghazi published the winning stories of our writing contests. It’s a different, but ultimately just as rewarding experience, to read the stories produced by our youth, who are just starting out on what I hope is a long literary career.

While I’ve already reviewed the books on Goodreads, I’m summarizing them here for anyone who’s looking for recommendations. Fingers crossed that this list will grow in 2015.


Al-agaila: The Camp of Suffering: A Boy’s Tale by Ali Hussein

مابي مرَضْ غير دار العقيلة, وحبس القبcover (4)يلة, وبعد الجبا من بلاد الوصيله” – رجب بوحويش

“I have no ailments except the house of Agila, the tribe’s imprisonment and the distance from my roots” – Rajab Abu Huweesh

Those lines form the beginning of a famous Libyan poem written by camp prisoner Rajab Abu Huweesh. (which you can read here, with English translation when you scroll over). Al-Agaila was a concentration camp located in the town of the same name, one of several set up in Barqa (East Libya) by Fascist Italy. Because of the Libyan resistance to Italy’s occupation and colonization, the camps were set up to keep a hold on the population and prevent them from joining the fighters. I know what you’re thinking; whoa, Libyan suffering goes way back. Our history is drenched in blood, tears and anguish.

The Camp of Suffering is part tale, part historic documentary. It opens with a brief glimpse of life under Gadhafi before fading to the Italian invasion and occupation, through the eyes of the narrator and his father. The first half of the book details the boy’s life and struggles in the inhuman camp, while the second half takes place in Benghazi and the boy’s new life. At times, it was very heartbreaking for me to read about life in the camp and the inhuman treatment they underwent through starvation, rape and systematic punishment. While the writing leaves something to be desired, it’s still a compelling read. Some choice quotes from the book:

“In Al-Agaila you could lose your smile if you lost hope”

“Son, do you know that the people of the city call [Benghazi], ‘The Mother of the Orphans’. This was proven to be correct, as the city took me into her arms and I would be her son forever.”

Maps of the Soul by Ahmed Fagih-

cover (3)

Maps of the Soul can be described as the coming-of-age tale of a young Libyan man, although the book itself is much more than the story of one person. It’s the story of Tripoli, or rather one chapter in its long and ancient history.

A restless young man named Othman El-Sheikh longs to leave his static village life and find his prospects in Tripoli. Circumstances allow him to run away from the village and pursue his future, and the novel centers around this journey. He starts in abject poverty and works hard to build up a life, only to have it snatched away when the Italians force young Libyan men into the military to fight their battle in Abyssinia. Again Othman uses hard work and sheer determination to rise in the ranks, and he almost succeeds before losing it all again.

This is a very Libyan book, and by that I mean it’s richly saturated with Libyan life, rituals, and customs, weaving through the fabric of Libyan society. Othman is the archetypal Libyan youth, unsatisfied with society’s expectations and trying to break free, although the invisible chains of these expectations ultimately hold him back. From the book:

“It was thus the rule to say “no” when you should say “yes”, and to say “yes” when your feelings screamed to say “no”.”

“The truth is not what you say about yourself, but what rumors said about you.”

While the book mainly features Libyan men and their struggles, Fagih did not leave out Libyan woman, and mentions several times the harsh restrictions society placed on its female half, especially in contrast to Italian society.

“Perhaps there was no point in a woman like her receiving an education, because it would simply cast a harsh light on the degradation in her life without giving her the power to change it.”

In the background to all this is Tripoli itself, and the reader can experience the sights, sounds, smells and taste of the city through Othman as he moves throughout the city, from the tiny winding alleys of the Arab quarters to the Jewish and Italian districts, describing the historic landmarks as he interacts with them.

One quote that really stuck with me, in light of Libya’s current situation:

“But despite the wounds, the dark clouds, and the stolen, scorched earth, it was still your homeland. You didn’t have any other homeland, and more than being stone, tree and earth, it was people, hearts and emotions”

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar-

cover (2)What better way to end my year of reading Libyan than to finish it with a book by my first Libyan author. This book contains many of the same elements that ‘In the Country of Men’ comprised of; a young narrator, a strained parental relationship, a dissident father, a disappearance.

However, unlike his first book, Matar doesn’t mention Libya by name, instead referring to it as ‘our country’. The clues are all there; the overthrown monarchy, the deceptive revolution, the vendetta against opposition. However, this aspect is left more in the background, perhaps to keep the focus instead on the boy’s growth into the space his father left behind.

Nuri is the only son of a former minister turned political dissident. The boy’s relationship with his father is strained and emotionally detached after the death of his mother and his father’s marriage to a new woman, but this changes when his father goes missing, kidnapped by the regime he fought.

This kind of story has been a very real tragedy for many Libyan dissidents abroad, one of the most famous being Mansour Kikhia, whose body was discovered in Gadhafi’s freezers decade after his disappearance in Egypt.

The real lead in this book is Matar’s writing. He beautifully conveys his character’s emotions and development, giving deep meaning to the simplest detail, with the plot added almost as an afterthought.


coverA few other books I discovered this year were Khalifa Al-Tellisi’s ‘An Encyclopedia of Libya’s Inhabitants’, which contains information on all of Libya’s tribes, their origins and family trees. African Titanics, written by Eritrean author Abu Bakr Khal, takes place mainly in Libya and deals with the issue of illegal immigration, is also a highly recommended read.

Reading all these books has reaffirmed my belief that Libya’s revival will come through literature and the arts. Its power lies in its ability to bring our culture back to life through the written word, and translating our experiences and history into something accessible.

Next year I might overcome my intimidation of Arabic and dive into Sadeg Al-Neihoum and Ibrahim Al-Koni’s bodies of work. We also have new writing contests planned over at the Young Writers of Benghazi. The war will hopefully end in the near future and we can make 2015 a year to properly celebrate Libyan culture. I hope you all have a happy new year!

(If you’re interested in getting any of the books mentioned here, just click on the title of the book to head over to its Amazon page)