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Story Publication logo October 26, 2011

Libya's Sexual Revolution


Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Media file: 6149731080_467f63e39e_b.jpg
Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo, Flickr. Libya, 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, says 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.

In effect, for young Arabs of ordinary means, "If they're unemployed, they have no hope of becoming adult," Singerman, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C. told me earlier this year.

Around the region, the average age of marriage has edged up -- and not, for most, because millions of young Arab men and women were enjoying their single years.

Young Libyans had it especially bad. Qaddafi didn't just fail to develop well-paying jobs for the young -- he destroyed jobs with erratic socialist schemes that warped Libya's economy. So much so, in fact, that the Libyan government officially estimated unemployment in recent years at 20 percent, twice that of the already high regional rate.

As U.S. diplomats in Libya noted in a 2009 WikiLeaked cable that looked closely at the country's high rate of waithood, that more than 60 percent of those Libyans lucky enough to have jobs worked for the state. Qaddafi, quixotically, had blocked wage increases in most of those jobs for decades. Most employed Libyans I spoke with said they made only a few hundred dollars each month. Despite Libya's vast oil wealth, gross domestic product per capita is less than $10,000.

A single wedding can cost almost that much in Libya, young Libyan men told me. Marriage in Libya is particularly expensive, with days of celebration and gold-laden dowries expected. Housing is in short supply, but suitors are expected to line up an apartment before the wedding.

The result was countless hard-luck stories. On a 2007 visit, I met a Tripoli family of six educated brothers and sisters in their 20s and 30s -- all of whom, male and female, had already bought outfits for their future weddings, which none had any hope of actually affording. The stories of most Libyan young men I met, then and again this year, were variations on the same theme.

"What he's saying, it's all of us," said the Libyan man in his 20s who translated for me as I talked to Faqiar, the rebel fighter, about his lack of prospects before the revolution.

No one in Libya's regime seems to have bothered to have tracked precise figures. Libyan women have a perception that there is a shortage of marriageable young men, both because of the death tolls of Qaddafi's military adventures in Chad and elsewhere and because of the lack of jobs.

"If you tried to count the number of spinsters among us, you couldn't, you'd make mistakes -- there are too many," said Rahana el-Gadi, the 19-year-old young woman at Janzour's rally for the young rebels.

The unease over the lack of opportunity for marriage was reflected in the unexpected declaration last weekend, in a victory speech by the head of Libya's opposition national council, that the new Libya would reinstate polygamy, which Qaddafi had limited. But because, according to Islam, only those with the means to support all wives equally can take more than one, easing the way for polygamy would seem likely to make it worse for Libya's unmarried young men of modest means.

So did all this frustration really have an impact on the course of the revolution in Libya?

In 2009, an Economist article mentioned the Arab world's "waithood" problem but shrugged off any possible political impact. "Hardly the stuff of which political revolutions are generally made," the magazine wrote.

Young Arabs, post-revolution, told me differently. In Janzour, I asked Faqiar how much his lack of hope for a normal life -- a job, marriage, a home, kids -- played into his decision to take up arms. "100 percent," he said, not smiling.

Around the region this year -- in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen -- many, though not all, young protesters and fighters told me the same. "All of them, they had nothing to lose. They saw their life wasting away," Israa Khalil, a 25-year-old woman in Tripoli, said of her male friends and relatives. "So they all went to fight."

For years, Arab leaders and others treated the youth bulge and delayed marriage as "kind of like a funny thing," Singerman told me. The attitude was, "This is a cultural thing so we shouldn't pay attention to it. They're not laughing anymore."

With the tyrant now out of the way, transitional leaders have pledged to raise the artificially low Qaddafi-era wages. Young Libyans -- whether fighters, activists, or onlookers -- say they have new hope of their lives getting better as their country shakes off four decades of Qaddafi's weirdness and isolation.

Already, Khalil and a group of young women in Tripoli told me, men and women have shed the Qaddafi-era notion of the other sex as representing dangerous, impossible entanglements, since all knew few suitors could afford marriage.

In the "family" section of a Tripoli café, Khalil told me a story of one evening in the revolution, in August. At sunset, with gunfire blasting around their homes, she and other women and girls burst out of their houses, sprinting with water and sandwiches to young fighters who had been observing the daytime fast of Ramadan.

The women trilled their tongues as they ran, trying to lift the spirits of this unknown band of rebels on their way to a front. Moved, the fighters had tears in their eyes as they accepted the food, Khalil said.

Before, "there was a barrier," and Libya's hapless young men were to be pitied, Khalil said. "Now, he's the man who protected me," Khalil said. "Since the revolution I have the confidence to go up and tell them 'Thank you," and that in turn gives them confidence in themselves. And we know we were part of this. And they know we were part of this."


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