“Today is the beginning of the end of the era of harems and slaves and the beginning of women’s liberation within the Arab nation” – Moammar Gaddafi in September 1981.
The Arab world is still crammed full of tyrants self-labelling their rule as “popular” and “democratic,” sectarian regimes pretending to be secular, reactionary regimes describing themselves as progressive, and “resistance” regimes which resist nothing but their subjects’ life and freedom.
In the case of Libya, the current post-revolutionary chaos provokes two Orientalist responses: the crude (statist-leftist) version, that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy; and the subtler (because it’s never quite made explicit), that the Libyans made a terrible mistake by rising, because their fractious “tribal” society can only be held together by a strongman of Gaddafi’s calibre. After him, goes the implicit argument, the inevitable deluge.
Gaddafi’s Harem by French journalist Annick Cojean provides a fact-based corrective to those fooled by Gaddafi’s illusions, specifically those impressed by the radical feminist image evoked by his once highly visible – and sexily transgressive – corps of “Amazon” body guards. It will change the minds too of those who saw the dictator from a distance as a lovable buffoon.
His regime was capricious, yes, at times even darkly comedic, but it was based on undiluted sadism. The cramping stagnation it imposed for 42 years, and the fact that it refused to budge except by force of arms, are the prime causes of today’s anarchy. The means of domination it employed – psychosocial as much as physical – tell us a great deal about the universal megalomaniac personality, as well as certain cultural weaknesses in the Arab world and beyond.
The first half of Cojean’s book recounts the story of Soraya, who grew up in Benghazi and then Sirte, a regime stronghold, where her Tunisian mother ran a beauty salon. At school, Soraya learnt to think of the dictator as “brother,” “cousin,” “uncle,” “pappa,” and “guide.” She had just turned 15 when Gaddafi visited the school and even patted Soraya’s head.
This avuncular and seemingly innocent gesture was in fact Gaddafi’s “magic touch” – one reason why, from the 1970s on, so many Libyan families insisted that their daughters only leave home fully veiled, and that cameras be forbidden at all-female wedding parties. Shortly after Soraya’s head-patting, officials arrived at her mother’s beauty salon to invite her to visit the Guide’s headquarters. It was an invitation, of course, which could not be refused, and one from which Soraya never returned.
For most of the years that followed she was kept with others (about 30 women and girls at a time) in a humid, windowless basement beneath Gaddafi’s bedroom in Tripoli’s Bab al-Azizia compound. From her first residence, and repeatedly thereafter, she was raped, kicked, punched, bitten, and urinated on by Libya’s political and spiritual leader. “Little whore” was the closest her tormenter came to a term of endearment.
The “Guide” collected the blood from Soraya’s ruptured hymen on a small red towel which he used to preserve all such secretions. It appears that this towel played a role in black magic rituals (Hitler and ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier also went in for black magic). The detail makes him seem interesting, but there was really nothing special about Gaddafi. It was the structure of power surrounding him that released and magnified his very ordinary perversions.
The book’s second half describes Cojean’s difficulty in interviewing victims and witnesses, in going against the weight of taboo. Post-revolutionary Libyan society doesn’t see Gaddafi’s sexual targets (unlike the martyrs and wounded of the armed struggle) as worthy of restitution and celebration: instead it would prefer them and their memory to vanish. As Oussama Jouili, briefly minister of defence, told Cojean, “It’s a matter of national shame and humiliation.”
Indeed, yes. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of this story is the complicity of various authority figures in the abuse – from the staff at the so-called Department of Protocol, handled by the tyrant’s sinister procurer Mabrouka Sherif – through school teachers and Ukrainian nurses, even to Soraya’s mother, in whose eyes Soraya eventually became “a woman who’d been touched by men and lost all her value.”
Complicity existed everywhere. Beneath the university amphitheatre, where Gaddafi enjoyed giving speeches on behalf of the oppressed, lay a secret presidential suite, where he enjoyed less rhetorical activities. The adjoining room was fitted with the gynaecological equipment necessary for performing abortions and reconstructing hymens. At least some university staff must have known what was going on, and at least some imitated the abuse. Certain professors, for instance, would demand sex in exchange for grades.
From her mother’s perspective, Soraya’s brief relationship with her boyfriend Hicham was worse than that with Gaddafi, because Soraya went to Hicham of her own volition. For a while the couple lived together unmarried – this was a crime in Libya, just as it’s a crime for a Libyan hotel to rent a room to a single woman. These “Islamic” laws, of course, were written by the rapist Gaddafi. This suggests a world in which all values are turned on their heads by the most hypocritical illogic. To make her good, Soraya’s brother Aziz often hit her. Her other brothers considered that “cutting [her] throat would make respected men of them.”
Why the complicity? A mixture of fear, a patriarchal culture of shame, and the power of the tyrant which reinforces and exploits the most retrograde aspects of that culture, for political purposes.
So what were the purposes of Gaddafi’s abusive behaviour (for sexual crime is not motivated solely by sexual desire, which is a human constant, experienced by the gentle as much as by the violent)? First, there was an element of revenge. Gaddafi was born into poverty and humiliation, and his ego was buttressed by both his seductions of international starlets and his forced encounters with the wives and daughters of rich and powerful men. Next, his sex slaves fulfilled specific political functions. A woman Cojean names ‘Khadija,’ after being raped by the Guide, was used as bait to seduce state officials. The sex was filmed and reserved for blackmail. Gaddafi also demonstrated his power over several male ministers and army officers by raping them himself.
And this is the heart of it: the demonstrative purpose, to enact power by displaying impunity, and to exert power over men through the bodies of women. Although nobody spoke openly, Libyans heard whispers of the dictator’s sexual barbarity, and these whispers kept them scared and humiliated. “I am the master of Libya,” Gaddafi told Soraya. “Every Libyan belongs to me, including you!” Such power is the furthest possible from contractual; it is a matter of absolute possession, enforced in the most literal terms.
“He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” And Gaddafi’s violent death was made still uglier by the fact that, while being dragged through the destroyed streets of Sirte, he was anally raped with a piece of wood. The activity he used to embody power became a symbol of his disempowerment.
He was an extreme case, but of course Libya is not the only Arab country where sexual abuses are normalized. Saddam Hussain’s son Uday was notorious for his abductions of women. Large-scale rape, aimed to break community resolve, has been a key counter-revolutionary strategy in Syria. And in almost every case, “political” or not, Arab victims of rape or incest remain silent, knowing that they more than their attackers will be considered tainted and criminal.
War rape respects no national boundary. Bosnia and the Congo are two recent examples in which tens of thousands were raped in the course of military policy. And the predatorial Dominican dictator Trujillo, as portrayed in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Feast of the Goat, could be Gaddafi’s cousin in his weird amalgamation of megalomania and machismo.
Rape as a terror tactic would surely lose some of its appeal if our societies understood that the only person made filthy by rape is the rapist. The raped victim is not an embarrassment or a candidate for charity-marriage, but a hero who has suffered in the struggle against tyranny. Our Arab revolutions must remove the obvious tyrants, but they must also start and end at home.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and co-editor of the Critical Muslim.