I came to Libya to work as a doctor on the frontlines of the revolution. As the only female in the team, I was in a unique position. Women are seldom allowed on the frontline and hardly ever permitted to work in an all-male environment. But they made an exception for me, since I’m not Libyan and I offered an extra pair of medical hands.
Then, on a Saturday evening in December on the outskirts of Tripoli, I suddenly found myself in the opposite situation, in an environment where being female was a prerequisite. I was in unchartered territory, and I had little idea of what to expect.
‘I am at a wedding tonight,’ I shouted into my mobile phone to Dr. Tariq Nagi, a male friend from the medical team. ‘Really?’ he said, sounding very intrigued that I was entering what, to him, was a forbidden realm.
The public ceremony – the fatiha – had been done the day before. The couple were religiously and legally recognised as husband and wife. During the ceremony, the groom asks the bride’s father for permission to marry his daughter. It’s very much a male affair, with friends and family coming to witness and celebrate.
But the only man at the main event, known as the “bride’s day,” is the groom himself. My hosts advised me on the dress code, politely suggesting I put my maximum effort into dressing up. By Libyan standards, my dress was understated, but I made up for that with lots of khol eyeliner and then hid self-consciously under a cardigan and head scarf.
For Libyan women, marriage is the moment of arrival. Dr Waseela, my host at the wedding and a lecturer in engineering at Tripoli University, explained that marriage for a Libyan woman is an essential part of taking control of her life – although how much control she will ultimately have depends on her husband. Libyan women live with their parents before marriage, and Dr Waseela and her family had become my surrogate family. They preferred that I lived with them instead of alone in hotels.
Dressed to thrill
With few places to socialize with members of the opposite sex, universities and workplaces become the place to check out potential partners. The majority of women wear headscarves and observe a religious code of dress, with minimum flesh exposed. But the jeans are skinny, the tops are tight, the make up is thickly applied and the heels high. A fashion trend is to wear the headscarf slipped back over the head, with fringes of dyed blond hair falling forward. Haythem, a male medical student, explained that the girls have a saying, ‘A little for God and a little for the boys.’
The recent revolution has had an impact on Libyan courtship in significant ways. The transitional government has estimated that 30,000 men died in the fighting, with another 50,000 wounded. These days, young women appear to be in a race to marry, looking to find a husband amongst the remaining single men. Flirting in the workplace is some of the most overt I have ever seen. On a post-war visit to the Tripoli Medical Centre, the city’s largest hospital, where female doctors are much more common than on the front line, I saw single male doctors bombarded with a barrage of eyelash flapping. In its resuscitation room, I saw a young female doctor place a central line into a patient’s neck while smiling into the eyes of the assisting male colleague.
One taxi man summed up the male perspective quite well. I asked him if there was a problem of women outnumbering men in Libya. He laughed, ‘No I don’t see that as a problem at all. It’s great!’
Laws of love
But for a man to marry he needs to be able to afford housing, which is not easy in Libya right now. Gadaffi’s rules on housing made renting a place impossible. Sometimes the couple will live with in-laws, but that causes its own problems, explained Layla Ibrahim, a Tripoli based lawyer specialising in marriage and family law.
Most of Ibrahim’s caseload these days deals with divorce cases. In Libya, the process follows Sharia principles. Divorce is a mixed bag for women. Although the divorced woman carries a negative stigma within the community, she will have her own home and independence. Sharia family law says divorced men must take care of their ex-wives and the women also have sole custody of any children.
It remains to be seen how much the revolution changes traditional gender roles here. To be sure, Libyan women are keen to establish power in the new Libya—and careers that extend beyond being wives and mothers. Last month Libyan women’s groups, collectively known as the Women’s Peace Platform, held a day of protests across the country to demand the new government agree to a minimum quota of female candidates in next year’s elections. Currently, there are fewer than a half a dozen women politicians serving in the transitional government. But traditional tribal leaders, all of them male, pick the candidates for future elections. So, even in the new Libya, marriage is seen as the best option for a woman looking to build her own life.
The main event
The wedding I attended was on the outskirts of Souk Al Jummah – a conservative part of Tripoli. The wedding hall was built for this purpose, and was designed to allow maximum discretion to the female guests. The large wooden double doors opened to a panel that obscured the view into the hall, so errant male passers-by couldn’t peak in. Women were entering doors covered in long black abayas and head scarfs, and balancing on golden high heels. When I stepped into the hall, I stood for a moment and took in the scene. There was not a black abaya in sight. Instead unveiled women were perched around tables in dresses every shade of the rainbow, and in a variety of styles —on the shoulder, off the shoulder, strapped and strapless. Make up was heavy and colourful, with eyeshadow shades I had never seen before. The hairstyles were mesmerizing works of art, piled high or hanging long and loose. Women here are looking for prospective brides for their own sons and brothers, so it pays to look good.
The music was a mix of Arab pop and revolutionary songs. The party was halted for the new national anthem. Dr. Waseela proudly led the way by standing, placing her right hand over her left chest and singing the words. The rest of the room followed.
Here comes the bride
As we sipped our fresh fruit juices, the music suddenly changed to something sombre. The lights went down. It took me a moment to recognise – it was an Arabic version of ‘Here comes the bride’. A staircase leading down to the hall lit up with sparklers. And in slow synchronised step, the bride and her groom walked down either side of the divided staircase. They walked past an enormous five-tiered cake to a stage set with an elaborate couch. She wore a Western style, ivory dress with a ruffled two metre train. She had heavy make up and even more amazing hair, piled on top of itself. The groom was fixated on the bride. Still, women in the room not related to the groom re-veiled themselves because of the presence of a man.
This rather serious business of dressing up Libyan style made me feel self-conscious, and my headscarf remained in place much of the night. But as the night wore on, and the room got hotter I succumbed. Off came the cardigan, out came bare shoulders and arms and hair. Coming out from under the veil, it felt like fellow guests were seeing me for the first time. A wedding is one occasion in Libya where women can fully celebrate their femininity.