08/23/2011 03:29 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

The View From Tunisia: The Sexual Revolution In Libya

My Tunisian friend, a Muslim, summed it up very succinctly. There are three scenarios that are possible in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.

  1. A real democracy
  2. Radical Islamists take over, which he said would be bad for Libya and the whole region.
  3. A civil war, like in Iraq.

I humbly suggest a fourth, and here is why.

On my eighth and most recent trip to Tunisia, two months ago, I was fortunate to meet Libyan families who had fled the violence in their country. The men belonged to the Libyan resistance, and they were making daily runs back into their country with medicine. They had brought the women and children to Tunisia to ensure their safety.

A very generous Tunisian man named Ahmed had a new house, which he and his fiancee would occupy after their wedding. In the meantime, he took in 33 Libyan refuges and organized his town to provide them with furniture, clothes, a refrigerator, a TV and other living essentials. My meeting with the Libyans took place in Ahmed's future house.

Abdelhakim was the spokesperson for Libyan group, and luckily I had a translator with me. Abdelhakim told me that their village of 35,000, in the southern mountains, about 100 miles from Tripoli, was being bombed all the time.

The schools were closed, and there was nothing for the kids to do. They were frightened and couldn't sleep. The adults had become so sensitized that they were terrified by the slightest noises. It was hard to get food. Abdelhakim said his six brothers were still in Libya, fighting with the resistance. He wanted to stay, but there was concern that the women and kids would be used as human shields, so it was decided that he would spirit them away to the safety of Tunisia.

Abdelhakim told me that in his area of Libya, they had elected educated young men to take charge. They divided themselves into groups: those responsible for food, fuel, medical help. They had an organization for security; most of them were police officers who had defected from the Gaddafi regime.

They also had military troops. The mission was to train young men to fight Gaddafi and re-train those who had left the dictator's regime. "We captured troops who were loyal to Gaddafi," he said. "They were young and Gaddafi gave them money. We turned some of them over to the police, and some to Red the Crescent [the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross]. And some we returned to their families, especially in cases where their parents had told them they were doing the wrong thing in defending Gaddafi. There were also mercenaries: from Mali, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Western Sahara and the Polisario."

The Libyan rebels were optimistic about the future and felt that when Gaddafi was gone, their country would open up to the rest of the world. "We have been closed off," Abdelhakim said, "And know nothing about the outside world. As Libyans and Arabs, we are aspiring to democracy. You have democracy in your country, and you are taking the right stand in Libya by helping us."

Abdelhakim said he was surprised at how long it was taking to dislodge Gaddafi, and he expressed some concern about what would fill the vacuum after he was deposed. But the immediate concern was that 33 people in his village had been injured the day before and were reluctant to go to the hospital because of inadequate medical care. That is why he was making runs with medicine. In a sudden burst of passionate energy, he told us how things looked from his view:

For 42 years, we were silent and we finally exploded. We saw revolutions in our neighbor's country. We dreamed of it before, but we didn't know how to do it. We couldn't imagine how to make a coup d'etat against Gaddafi. The Tunisian revolution showed us that people—not just the military—can make change. What Gaddafi did was to form small military groups headed by family members so they would not rebel or ask for change. We figured out what to do ourselves.

We dismantled equipment like radios from ambulances and used them for strategic communications. Our cell phones were shut down from the first day. In some areas there is still cell phone service—but you have to go to a high place at a specific time to get a signal. So we used direct mail—hand delivered—to communicate. We have special people who are in charge of mail delivery, and every day they deliver letters up to 120 kilometers away.

We want to throw the past behind us. We are aspiring to democracy and freedom. Educated people who left are coming back to build the country. They were posters all over that said Gaddafi is the only one who thinks.

Gaddafi is the enemy of those who think. We were thinking plenty. We watched BBC World, Al Jazeera, France 24. We used satellite TV to get news of the Tunisian revolution. We watched as many sources as possible to find out what was going on. We learned that Gaddafi murdered 1,200 people in one hour in Abu Salim prison.

When Abdelhakim grew silent and reflective for a moment, my husband Paul and I asked if we could meet the women. He shook his head. "It is not possible," he said.

"Please....I would like to meet the women," I implored.

"No," he said, "they are too shy."

"We promise to be gentle with them. We won't ask them sensitive questions."

"They are too shy," Abdelhakim insisted. Then, after thinking for a moment, he added, "men can definitely not meet the women. But maybe you can go. Briefly."

Paul stayed behind, and I went to the lower level of the house, where the women, in traditional Muslim dress and headscarves, were clustered. Shy? They threw themselves at me in friendship, kissing me, hugging me, letting me kiss and hug them.

"We love America," they said. They spoke very rapidly in Libyan Arabic. I could understand a little of it, and we communicated at the most basic level. We laughed together, and I marveled that, in such a precarious situation, they had not lost their sense of humor. They asked me please not to publish photos of their men folk whom we had met upstairs. They were terrified there would be reprisals against their men if the photos fell into the hands of Gaddafi supporters.

I promised them.

When I left, I paused on the stairs and a very strong feeling washed over me. There can be no true revolution in Libya unless the women are free, I thought. It is not my business, or our business as a country, to tell tribal people how to live, but it is my personal feeling that women cannot, physically and metaphorically, be kept in the basement of life. They must have full access to education. Their voices must be heard in politics. They must have visible positions in the economy, communications, the media. They are an integral part of Libya as the revolution moves forward. They cannot be pushed aside. They are my sisters. And, as sisters, we have to use every means of influence at our disposal to help the women of Libya come into their own.

I ran down the stairs, one last time, kissing them all goodbye.

"I love you," I said.

"I love you," they echoed.

Today, as the revolution moves into Gaddafi's stronghold, they are in my heart and on my mind.

Judith Fein is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is

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