Misrata nurses battle for gender equality amid the fighting

The GuardianThe female nurses have a simple rule: no crying. No matter what comes through the doors of Misrata’s main casualty hospital, there can be no tears.

“We don’t cry in public,” explained Amna Obied, 23, a medical student who volunteered in March for war work in the now besieged Libyan city. “If we cry we do it in a room away from the others.”

The GuardianKeeping their tears private is part of the nurses’ mission to convince the men they can work on an equal footing with them. For all its liberal political credentials, Misrata remains a fiercely conservative city when it comes to the role of women.

War forced the authorities to draft in the women, and the women now want to keep their status after the fighting is over.

“We have more respect, the men see what the women can do,” said Obied. “I have more responsibility now after Gaddafi because of the important work we do.”

For parallels, think of England on the outbreak of the first world war. With the men at the front women were pressed into service, earning status they fought to keep after the guns went silent.

Something of the same is happening in Misrata. Before the war, the city was prosperous enough to have foreign nurses, mostly from the Philippines. When Gaddafi sent in the tanks they fled, along with local nurses who lived in nearby towns. The authorities scrambled to fill the gaps, offering an undreamed of chance for female medical students.

The result has been a mini-revolution. Normally, female medical students are not allowed near a patient for the first three years of study, unlike their male counterparts. All that has now changed. “When I came here I didn’t know anything, not the names of the instruments, nothing,” said Hannin Mohammed, 21. “Now I know so much. I am working with the patients.”

War has brought other benefits. “Before the war we could not go to a café. Big trouble,” explains 21-year-old student Faten Abd. “If you went to a café there would be too many eyes looking at you. They would be talking bad things. Now we can do it, nobody minds.”

The nurses spend their days in a big white tent erected on one side of the car park of Hikma, a former private hospital with green tinted windows. It became the principal casualty hospital when Misrata’s two main hospitals were destroyed in the fighting.

Their job is to process casualties who arrive in blood-soaked field dressings, as the all-male doctors decide which patients need immediate surgery and which can wait.

Hikma is cramped and overcrowded; on the far side of the car park is a refrigerated truck that once delivered orange juice and now serves as the morgue.

The nurses admit the work is traumatic, not least when they recognise a friend or relative among the mangled bodies. “Every time I hear an ambulance my heart sinks,” says Fatma Mohammed, 21. “I hope that it is not someone from my family”.

This dedication has rubbed off on male staff. “The attitude to the women has changed,” says Dr Terek Bensmail, a Misratan doctor who works in Coventry but has returned since the fighting began. “Without them there would be a disaster. The way they have done things it’s put them in front in the equality issue.”

But changing attitudes across the city will be a bigger task. The female nurses, most of them unmarried, must be brought to work each morning by their fathers because Misrata custom dictates that they may not be in a car with a man who is not a close relative, and their brothers are on the front line.

In the quiet times, an unwritten apartheid takes shape in the tent, with the headscarfed women clustered in one corner of the tent away from their male colleagues. “This will not change even after the war,” Amna says.

Obied is not optimistic about women getting equal status with men even if the rebels win the war. “This is about the tradition, not about Gaddafi,” she said. But she has a plan.

“Inshala we will build a restaurant only for the girls and women. You can go with your friends to this restaurant and not any man or boy will talk to you in a bad way. Your father or brother will not be afraid for you because you will go to a place for you.”

As an ideal, it is modest enough compared to the fiery declarations of freedom and justice trotted out by the (all-male) rebel National Transitional Council. But for the nurses of Misrata, it is a start.

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12 Responses to Misrata nurses battle for gender equality amid the fighting

  1. B.M. Sharef says:

    Just leave us alone. Yes, Libya is a conservative country and will remain so. Doesn’t Western media ever get tired of pitting women against men and beating on the gender equality issue? Aren’t there more important issues to address like unjust wars, world Zionism and its mischief around the world, the inequality between the rich North and poor South, etc.

    Obviously, Western media’s goal in the Muslim World is to destroy Islamic moral values and spread vice and social ills in our societies, so that we become equal!.

    • Midnight Rambler says:

      No, I don’t get tired of fighting for the rights of 51% of the people of the world. It’s certainly a far bigger issue than the foolish tribal rivalries of people in the Levant.

  2. I would advise they read JS mills, Hirsi Ali and others, but I wold also advise that they redefine history to recognize their contribution, whch has just as aassuredly been edited as that of the black person worldwide. The majority of their victimization is an effort to restrain them from creating dishonor. They must redefine their own terms and conditions….Who will speak forthem when the war is over…..The example is Benazir Bhutto, and their would seem to be the hig risk o being attacked by men enmored with the status quo, but make no bones about it, Benazir was attacked by the US, not men who feared her power to change………………..

  3. Fredy says:

    Ladies please give the men a chance to join you at the cafe , after all we need each other.

    B.M. I think you got a point.

  4. DJH584 says:

    B.M. Sharef
    In a democracy women have equal rights – they don’t have as a general rule have equal pay, which in my view they should have – the UK is a classic example of this. So, no the media is not as you say ” pitting women against men and beating on the gender equality issue?”
    What it is doing is showing the inequality between men and women and nothing more.
    These nursing staff are showing their mettle and dealing with what has to be dealt with alongside male doctors. The male doctors praise the way in which they conduct themselves. They are also showing their human side. What problem do you have with that? By the way, I am a male.



  5. Fredy says:

    Me too David. Give me the women.

  6. a says:

    A human is a human, no matter what gender – equal rights. It is part of the success of the western countries, that women gained their natural rights there at last. Double intelligence, double creativity, double strength. But this more success is a result, but not the reason.

    This may change some things, but do not overestimate it. Personally, I had men and women in work as a boss in my life. My problem was rather, that I did not like having a boss in the first place :). There were slight differences, but in the end, the difference was not that big. For me, the lines more divide just/injust, wise/stupid, self-confident/insecure, literate/illiterate, empathic/feelingless. Not men/women. So, I am no feminist, but I believe in HUMAN, not MALE rights. There is lots of discussions in the west about women often being supressed in the arab world. I sometimes do not like that, and think it is often based on cliches, prejudice and lack of knowledge of another culture. But one thing I know for sure, that human beings each are endowed with talents, abilities and promises, beauty and strength. And they should not be hindered from realizing these things, no one of them. No one has a right to supress another human being from self-realization. Moral is not a source of power for a group, it is the set of rules that allow each one to to prosper and thrive, realize his talents, determine his/her fate, and contribute to a better, richer, smarter, more humane world, which I, as a non-religious person, believe is the meaning of life. The religious people I know do not much object to that, btw.

    But the fact, that in theory, you have a right, does not mean you will have it automatically. In most cases, you will have to fight for it. We as westerners of the 21. century are quite spoiled, and often forget that. But they are not granted, even if they rightfully exist. You have to claim them, and you will meet resistance.

    I liked my female bosses a little bit – a little bit! – more, btw, tham the male onesas they were more communicative and and less aggressive and dominating.

    I really think that this was one of the few things Gaddafi got right – endorsing womens rights, even if it was only symbolic or on paper. There are many things not worth keeping. But there are also the things one does not need to change, which would be a step back if changed. You would not dump the streets and infrastructure he buildt, just because it was him who buildt it. It is similar with womens rights and roles. In the end, it was not him who came up with that, streets, infrastructure, womens rights. It was rather one of the few occasions he realized what was right, and copied it. Hope I did not offend anyone, but that is my sincere opinion in this case.

  7. Richard from France says:

    Women equality is the trend of history. Reactionary people can pull on the brakes as much as they want, it may slow down the movement, but not avoid it.

    Islam, as a spiritual movement, should help, instead of braking in the name of ancient tribal customs and prejudices of no spiritual value.

    I admit that some media go too far, and some feminists too. I admit too that there is a lot of hypocrisy, especially in France, on behalf of people who bray “laicity” each time they see a Muslim woman wearing a scarf. This is very detrimental to both women and democracy. But this is not a reason to brake women.

    I admit too, we shall not see, just two days after maddafi fall, women in mini skirt in Tripoli streets. They will most likely keep their scarves. This is not important anyway. What is important is that women and men share the same statute, the same rights, the same freedom, the same pay, the same social recognition. Love your women as you love your friends.

    There is no vice in equality, no vice in freedom, no vice in respecting women.

  8. francesca_fr says:

    Out of the most tragic situations can come good things. OK, it’s a conservative society, so will need time, but at the very least these women will have a new feeling of being “capable” and able to meet the most difficult challenges. And the men around them will be forced to recognise, whether they like it or not, that these young women have shown themselves to be capable and reliable.

    On a rather different slant, even if it is considered unacceptable for young woment to be active in public, for fear of attracting unsuitable male attention, could older women, those who have brought up families, who have adult children, not be able to participate more actively? Any comments from Libyan men or those who know the society well? To me this would seem a possible first step even in the most conservative society.

  9. Mansour says:

    It’s very easy to say “leave us alone” and claim there is no problem when you are a male, who is free to move and interact in society with freedom. Why is it that the woman is the one who must always be controlled and her behavior monitored? Why should anyone live this way? Gender inequality is not conservatism. It is not OK because it is part of “our culture.” It is oppression. And as a Libyan man, I sincerely hope things will change.

  10. A Libyan woman says:

    Are they saying that libyan Muslim women need to remove the headscarf to become equal with men ?!
    Are they saying the Muslim Libyan women need to be in a car with a non relative man to be equal with men?!
    are they saying that Muslim Libyan women need to sit in a cafe with men to be equal with men?!
    What does a woman want with a cafe full with men ?!
    to be the center of their attention?
    to hang around with friends?
    to eat or drink? is there no other place she can go to to do that?
    There are other more important issues that concern women and their rights there are not mentioned in this article.
    THis article mentions stupid things (except for helping out like working as a nurse) that are not essential to women, that most women do not care about, such as riding with a non relative male, or going to a cafe !

    Yes, there are rights of women that men in Libya have not given them, but these 3 things above are not rights, and they only lead to immorality in society, that is why Islam commanded women to cover themselves, and for men to lower their gazes.
    I’ve lived in the west many years, and have seen what mixing with the opposite gender, when not necessary, causes vice and immorality in society.
    We don’t want our society to become like the west.
    Give the women their rights, but do not say that immodesty, and immorality are rights.

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