Libya’s Sexual Revolution: How the uprising turned young Libyan men from hopeless layabouts into marriageable heroes.
October 28, 2011
When it comes to love, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya was unlucky for unmarried 33-year-old truck driver Ahmed Nori Faqiar. His looks would have benefited if his parents could ever have sprung for a dentist. Lack of means forced him to live unhappily at his childhood home well into adulthood. Marriage, a home of his own, kids — all are dreams that the wiry Libyan had long ago steeled himself to stop hoping for.
“Before, I was not even daring to look at girls as wife material, because I knew I could not afford” to get married, say Faqiar now.
These days, though, Faqiar wears the mismatched camouflage of Libya’s rebels and a dashing bandana on his head, pirate-style. He carries a gun. He is a veteran of battles for Libyans’ freedom from Qaddafi’s regime — and it’s the women who are talking to him.
“Girls around the area come up to you and say, ‘Thank you! You made us proud, you made us happy,’” Faqiar told me one night recently. He spoke on the sidelines of a camel and couscous feast that the people in this Tripoli suburb threw for several thousand young rebels, after slaughtering 10 camels.
From a specially raised dais, speakers praised the young rebel fighters late into the evening. Hundreds of excited young women and girls in head scarves mingled near rifle-toting young men, a novelty in this conservative country that was overwhelming to members of both genders in the crowd that night. “It’s like a wedding!” Faqiar exclaimed, shaking his head in surprise.
Relations between Libyan men and women — deeply distorted by the eccentric Libyan leader’s refusal to provide normal opportunities for Libya’s young people — have changed “100 percent” in the days since Qaddafi fell, the young rebel said. His comrades listening around him voiced agreement.
“Thank God,” Faqiar added.
Nearby, young women — a group of cousins and neighbors, clustered together, in long skirts and shirts and head coverings — said the same, and laughed about taking their pick of a husband from among the rebels when the war was done.
Before the revolution, young men her age “were just lazing around in the streets, no future. I didn’t care about them at all,” said Esra’a el-Gadi, 20. “Now I look at them in a totally new light — they stood up against Qaddafi. It’s something.”
“We saw them as lost youth, unemployed,” Rahana el-Gadi, 19, said of men of her generation. “Now we were surprised, so surprised to see what they’re capable of,” she added.
“We dream of the day they come back, and we welcome them.”
Jokes passed by cell phone text messages across Libya confirm the newfound eligibility of the young civilians turned fighters.
“Forget doctors and engineers: We want to marry a rebel,” one of the widely circulated text messages goes. “Looking for a rebel to wed?” another SMS asks: “Press ‘M’ for a husband from Misrata, ‘B’ for a husband from Benghazi…”
But Libya is still a deeply observant Islamic country, and very few — if any — of those unacquainted young men and women were actually talking to each other during the night of rallying that followed the camel feast. Only once in my visit last month, in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, packed with celebrating crowds each night since Qaddafi’s overthrow, did I see a tall, armed rebel and a young woman in headscarf with their cell phones out, exchanging numbers. The young male Libyan activist I was with watched as the rebel and young woman appeared to head out of the square together, a discreet 10 feet apart. “This has never happened before,” my Libyan colleague said, shocked.
But the budding of wartime romance means a lot more in Libya than merely giddiness at overthrowing a four-decade old dictatorship.
With dictators falling in much of the Middle East and North Africa, Arab men and women in newly liberated nations hope to redress one of the most profound and damaging iniquities wrought by rulers like Qaddafi — the lack of economic opportunity that stunted every aspect of the lives of the region’s youth.
The Arab region has the second-largest percentage of young people in the world. Almost two out of every three Arabs are under 30, a level exceeded only in sub-Saharan Africa. And the Middle East and North Africa boast both the highest youth unemployment and unemployment overall on the planet.
Years ago, political scientists, including Diane Singerman, began using the term “waithood” to describe the crippled outlook for the young generations of the Arab world. Unable to find jobs, or jobs that paid a living wage, millions of young Arabs were fated to live unhappily at home, unable to afford marriage. And in conservative Islamic societies, marriage for many is the only launch there is into independence, dignity, and a life of one’s own…