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Revolutionary Road Trip Travels Next To Libya


Our MORNING EDITION colleague Steve Inskeep is in the midst of a revolutionary road trip: a journey through North African nations at the center of the Arab Spring. Now, as Steve was preparing for his trip from Tunisia through Libya and to Cairo, he spoke with a journalist who has covered Libya for years.


Her name is Lindsey Hilsum, author of the new book, "Sandstorm," about last year's revolution that overthrew Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Hilsum pays particular attention to that country's women.

Did Gadhafi do anything positive for women, broadly, in Libyan society? Because if you read histories, on the surface, there would be suggestions that he was liberal in that way, at least in the beginning.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In the early days, I think he did do stuff for women in that he expanded education. He raised the age at which people would leave school. And that meant that both girls and boys went to school. The numbers of women in university went up hugely until, by the time Gadhafi was ousted, there were just slightly more women than men at university.

But he was a sexual predator. Rape was used as a weapon against women. And many of the women I met just loathed Gadhafi for exactly the same reasons as the men loathed Gadhafi: because of the killings, because of the terrorism, because they felt that he was an embarrassment to them. They felt that the world was moving on. There was a modern world out there which he would not let them be part of.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that things could get worse for women, though, now that Gadhafi is gone?

HILSUM: There is a strong Islamist current in Libya, which might seek to restrict further what women can do. But so many women took part in the revolution, whether by sending money to the rebels, by sending weapons, by spying.

But we've seen it in other revolutions, haven't we, where the women participate, everybody praises the women and say how fantastic they are, and then after the revolution is over then the men say, OK. Now you go back to the home. You've played your part. It's up to the Libyan women to resist that. The Libyan women I know say they're determined to carry on.

INSKEEP: The journalist Robin Wright, who has edited a book about the Arab Spring, has been saying that she thinks the Arab Spring will turn out, in some ways, better than people fear, that a lot of the fears are exaggerated. Yet she goes on to predict that the next decade will be very difficult for women in the Arab world. What do you think of that?

HILSUM: I agree with her. If you're going to have democracy, then it means that the best organized forces which become political parties inevitably get the largest number of votes. The Islamic parties are the best organized, and therefore the chances are that they will do very well in elections. And I think that will be bad for many Libyan women.

One of my friends in Libya, Movat Mohani(ph), whose story is in the book, she said to me: The men keep telling us that we don't have the experience to take part in politics. But you know what? None of us have the experience. We've, all of us, men and women, been living under dictatorship for 42 years. So we know just as much as they do. But she's got some convincing to do.

INSKEEP: Lindsey Hilsum is the author of "Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution."


GREENE: And in the coming days, we'll have more from Steve Inskeep as he travels with an NPR team across Libya. On Monday, we'll hear one man's secret history: his life under Gadhafi's regime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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