TRIPOLI, Libya — Aisha Gdour, a school psychologist, smuggled bullets in her brown leather handbag. Fatima Bredan, a hairdresser, tended wounded rebels. Hweida Shibadi, a family lawyer, helped NATO find airstrike targets. And Amal Bashir, an art teacher, used a secret code to collect orders for munitions: Small-caliber rounds were called “pins,” larger rounds were “nails.” A “bottle of milk” meant a Kalashnikov.
In the Libyan rebels’ unlikely victory over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, women did far more than send sons and husbands to the front. They hid fighters and cooked them meals. They sewed flags, collected money, contacted journalists. They ran guns and, in a few cases, used them. The six-month uprising against Colonel Qaddafi has propelled women in this traditional society into roles they never imagined. And now, though they already face obstacles to preserving their influence, many women never want to go back.
“Maybe I can be the new president or the mayor,” Ms. Gdour, 44, said Monday afternoon as she savored victory with other members of her rebel cell. They are three women who under the old government ran an underground charity that they transformed into a pipeline for rebel arms.
But in the emerging new Libya, women are so far almost invisible in the leadership. Libya’s 45-member Transitional National Council includes just one woman. The council’s headquarters does not have a women’s bathroom.
In neighboring Egypt, women have had trouble preserving gains from their own revolution. And in his exceedingly eccentric way, Colonel Qaddafi may have had a more expansive view of appropriate female behavior than some conservative Libyan families.
Still, much as Rosie the Riveter irreversibly changed the lives of American women after World War II, Libyan women say their war effort established facts on the ground that cannot be easily undone. Women from many walks of life are knitting small rebel support cells into larger networks, brainstorming what they can do next to help build a post-Qaddafi Libya.
Men are also responding, with some who once objected to fiancées and sisters working late or attending protests now beginning to support such activities. Fear of sexual coercion by Qaddafi cronies, once a pervasive threat to prominent women, has evaporated. Perhaps most important, women here participated in such large numbers they helped establish the legitimacy of the revolution, demonstrating that support for the uprising has penetrated deep into Libyan society.
“People know the part women played in this revolution, even if it didn’t show up in the media,” said Nabila Abdelrahman Abu Ras, 40, who helped organize Tripoli’s first lawyers’ demonstration in February and then, late in pregnancy, printed revolutionary leaflets that women tossed from speeding cars. “Even if they don’t give us our rights, we have the right to go out and demand them.”
Women helped start Libya’s revolution.
On Feb. 15, female relatives of prisoners killed in a massacre in Abu Salim prison held a protest in Benghazi. Prominent female lawyers joined them and within two days, Qaddafi forces attacked the swelling crowds with machine guns. Watching her colleagues’ audacity on satellite television, Ms. Shibadi, the family lawyer, was electrified.
“I was jealous,” she said.
Ms. Shibadi, 40, helped organize 100 colleagues, including about 20 women, to protest in Tripoli. Soldiers surrounded them, but the crowds swelled anyway. Soon, she would do more.
Few female revolutionaries saw themselves as fighting for women’s rights. But in hindsight, many Libyan women, educated enough to dream large, said they were held back by dictatorship and tradition. When the revolution came, they were primed for action.
Colonel Qaddafi fancied himself a champion of women. In his Green Book, the musings he insisted that Libyans study, he devoted pages to the sanctity of breastfeeding and female domesticity. He cast himself as a bulwark against religious extremism and imposed a law requiring men to seek a first wife’s permission before marrying a second.