Libyan women in the vanguard

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

The Attorney General's Office in Benghazi is the centre of the revolution against 42 years of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's rule in Libya. A sit-in here by lawyers and judges was the first serious boost to the uprising led by the country's youth. Salwa Bugaigis, a lawyer in her mid-40s, led that first sit-in.

"We couldn't believe that Benghazi fell into our hands after only four days of protest. The regime is brutal, but our determination was rock solid," says Bugaigis. She is sitting in a modest office, a crucial figure among the 200 Libyans organising and leading the revolution from this four-storey building near the sandy beach of Libya's second biggest city.

She and her colleagues are dealing not only with creating the politics of the revolution, but also the survival of the city. A phone call comes from Zawiya, a town west of Tripoli where 23 demonstrators have been shot dead by Gaddafi's security forces. Salwa Bugaigis has to brief the press about it.

The second phone call comes from the Benghazi port office. A Turkish ship carrying food supplies has just arrived. She sighs with relief and turns to the three uniformed army officers waiting to talk to her. All these are matters with which Bugaigis is quite unfamiliar, but they are only details which will be sorted out soon by qualified specialists, she says. More important is what lies beyond the practicalities, "I can see the new, free prosperous, human rights-respecting Libya."

As a leading female figure and a mother, Bugaigis has her own worries and concerns. "As you can see, ten days with only a few hours of sleep is taking its toll on me. I have seen my three sons of 20, 19 and 17 only once five days ago. They are out there in front of this building among the demonstrators, but they can't come in here to see me. That would jeopardise their own safety."

She has already received many threatening phone calls from, she thinks, Gaddafi's security agents. During the last ten days she has spent each night in a different place for fear of possible attacks. "Of course, I am stressed and worried for my country, my fellow citizens and my sons as well."

The paediatrician who cares for Salwa Bugaigis' children comes to the revolutionary centre after her clinic to help out in the press office along with six other women. The prominent role played by Bugaigis in the events of the past 12 days has encouraged many other women in Benghazi to join the volunteers helping out in the building.

They are all driven by an ambition to play an active role in public life, a more significant role than simply appearing on TV screens standing behind Gaddafi as bodyguards.