We keep seeing a lot of Moammar Gadhafi in the news — from the Reagan years, to Libya’s renunciation of nuclear ambitions to present day politics – the Libyan leader has had a talent in rousing the media.
Little do we hear, however, of Libya’s inhabitants; and even less of women in Libya. And this despite one of the most unique and alluring features of Gadhafi’s persona — his parade of female bodyguards who escort him wherever he goes. Beautiful women dressed in military garb, with painted nails, heels, and make-up, at times carrying Kalashnikofs. What a reversal of the image of Muslim women we often proclaim!
In 2003, while studying filmmaking, I decided to head to what was then an embargoed country, and to investigate more closely the significance of the position of these women within society at large. I wanted to understand to what extent the female bodyguards could be said to encapsulate the tension between “modernized,” moderate Islam and Muslim fundamentalism. My study was not of politics, but of everyday life, ideology, and style.
I arrived in Libya in the spring of 2004 with a crew of two; we were welcomed as students, which actually allowed people around us to relax a lot more. This meant we were given an unprecedented amount of access in a country that was still closed off to the United States.
We were appointed one of the first female colonels as our guide. Young, beautiful, and married with a baby, Fathiya served as a role model—which is precisely what she was supposed to be. She quickly made evident that she and her fellow female colleagues were guarding an ideology just as much as an actual body.
They credited the Libyan state for freeing them from a system of kinship and a nomadic society they saw as traditional and oppressive. Gadhafi’s “Green Book” meant that their public life was no longer to be determined by their fathers, husbands, brothers, or any other religious claims.
Colonel Fathiya claimed that she was not obliged to work, but chose to do so out of a passion to rise through the military ranks. This ambition came with the full support from her husband and father, a shepherd who proudly told me while tending to his sheep that all eight of his children had joined the military.
Colonel Fathiya also showed how a certain 'girly-ness' went hand in hand with militarism. She happily showed off the length of her long dark hair giggling that she only uses Pantene to condition, and that she should be picked to be their next shampoo model. She attacked her colleagues who chose to wear the hijab and whom she scorned as “not confident.” She said using the headscarf was a way of covering up a bad hair day. (In this she was in line with Gadhafi's argument that Islamic fundamentalism, in fact any religious extremism, would always lead to the imprisonment of women.)
We followed Fathiya browsing through cosmetics and hand-bags – all this being a part of her work routine. She claimed that a woman in the army should not neglect her appearance.
While filming the young women at the Women’s Military Academy, some of whom strutted around in high-heel boots while chatting on mobile phones, it became clear that this military feminism struck a balance between training, mastering the political ideology of Gadhafi’s Revolution, physical beauty and creating a family.
Some girls were obviously better at it than others. For example, we observed a young student, whose poise and looks made her one of the regularly picked guards to escort "The Leader" on his trips. She was poised but by no means articulate in the theoretical matters that had helped advance Fathiya. It was fun to watch how her poise could be easily abandoned when relaxed and around her friends.
They giggled as the cameraman attentively filmed her, whispering that he definitely had a crush on her. They were just teenage girls trying to balance obligation with independence and decide on the proper balance of femininity.
Gadhafi places his faith in protection by women because of an innate “sixth sense” that apparently comes along with being a mother. (Colonel Fathiya proudly proclaimed that a mother senses if her infant is in danger from afar, and this is precisely why Gadhafi puts so much trust in women).
These are only a couple of the issues that are explored in my film—of course, we had a chance to interview male bodyguards and to hear their take on all of this, as well as visiting the Naval Academy where women are forbidden to join. And then there are The Revolutionary Nuns, who have a less glamorous persona, but who are responsible for protecting the Jamahiriya’s philosophies through committees.
As much as the mystique of Gadhafi’s female bodyguards conjures all sorts of sensationalist fantasies such as Bond girls, Charlie’s Angels, B-movie Ninja girls, to name a few, the reality on the ground was less Hollywood and much more multi-faceted. These modern day Amazons, served as microcosms of the supposedly new Libyan Muslim women the regime was creating. And they remain a symbol worthy of study especially at a time when their futures are so closely linked to Gadhafi’s own authority.
Editor's Note: Rania Ajami is an independent filmmaker whose latest feature, a comedy called Asylum Seekers, is making the rounds at film festivals.