Just when Libyan women, and indeed most of the world, began celebrating the death of Qaddafi, a bad guy by anyone’s standards, they get the news that the new regime will, at least in one respect, be worse than the last. Obama-backed interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, in one of his first speeches since coming to power, announced that men will be allowed to have as many as four wives under his regime. Though polygamy was outlawed by Qaddafi in the 70s – he did something right at least, perhaps accidentally – Abdul-Jalil wants to bring it back. Ironically, Abdul-Jalil made this announcement the same day Obama made a speech in the Rose Garden about his optimism for a tolerant and democratic Libya under Abdul-Jalil.
The US often backs governments and regimes that it refers to as lesser evils, including Chile’s Agusto Pinochet, one of the cruelest and most brutal dictators of the century. Hopefully, Abdul-Jalil won’t be as bad. But it’s troubling that this was included in one of his first public addresses. The state of women in any given country is the most accurate indicator of human rights abuses; meaning that states that exhibit extreme gender inequality are the most violent regimes. And already questions have begun to arise as to whether Qaddafi’s murder has been appropriately handled. For example, the murderers will not stand trial; and Qaddafi’s body was not turned over to his relatives.
Libyan women, especially young women, are deeply disturbed by his statements. “All the girls are mad that he said that,” said Bushra ben Omran, a 20-year-old English student. “He should not have said this in his speech…I didn’t expect this.” The announcement seems strange because polygamy has been on a steady decline in Libya over the last few decades and has almost disappeared. Upon hearing Abdul-Jalil’s speech, many women expressed that the idea of marrying someone who is already married is preposterous. Still, women in Libya don’t stand with men in public spaces, and the overwhelming majority wear traditional headscarves.
I get that there may be a dearth of political candidates in Libya – there definitely seems to be one here: survey the GOP slate: Bachmann, Perry, Cain. But it’s so disappointing that in the midst of the Arab Spring, women are still being sidelined. For me, unlike Obama, it tempers the hope of democracy and tolerance in the Middle East.