Women of the Revolution

Middle East uprisings shaped by women of Egypt and Libya

March 6, 2011, 10:58 AM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA, March 6, 2011— -- The wave of change sweeping across the Arab world has finally given women a voice. Everywhere I went in the region, I was impressed and surprised by the women I saw. Something changed; a barrier was broken, and they felt empowered and determined to bring down regimes that had denied them their freedom for too long.

"Maybe we will die, so? History will not die," said Salwa Bugaighif, a lawyer I met here in Benghazi.

I'll never forget what I saw: Mother's dragging their children along so they could witness history; girls who weren't shy about mixing with boys, standing shoulder to shoulder with them to fight for their cause; and the female volunteers who helped with security, day and night.

Dr. Iman Bugaighif, Salwa's sister, told me what it meant to see women taking charge of their shared destinies.

"Just seeing women proud of being in protest, this is at a personal level for every woman who participated, it is an achievement, it's a stand for what she believes in and I think this will change us forever," she said.

Strong, fearless women have been rising up to the dictators they've been living under for decades. Here in Libya, after 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi's rule, women are no longer frightened of what might come next and they've taken an essential role in the midst of a tumultuous and unfinished revolution here.

"All the revolutions, in France, when you read history, you will see everything is not easy," Iman told me. But she was fiercely determined. "If there is a will there is a way. We have to go to the end," she said.

The protests have now given way to an armed rebellion and it is the work being done by women like Dr. Iman and her sister Salwa behind the scenes that is making a profound difference and keeping the momentum of this revolution going.

With no specific role assigned, they deal with whatever is thrown at them: everything from listening to worried fathers whose sons are fighting on the front line, to keeping up with the day-to-day clashes and casualty numbers, to having meetings about health and educational issues in a new, free eastern Libya.

"It consumes a lot, we don't feel the time, we come from the morning, we don't feel the time, and we don't feel tired," Iman told me.

Spending time with them over the last few days, it's easy to see how crucial they are to the movement. No sooner are they done with one informal hallway meeting then they're pulled into the next one. Everyone wants to talk to them. Even our cameraman struggles to keep up with them.

And another thing struck me about these two extraordinary sisters: they are modest.

"We are not the heroes," she said. "The heroes are the mothers that are encouraging their children to go fight for freedom and they know that might be the last time they see them."

In a panel discussion hosted by my colleague, "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour, Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, said something that elucidated the issue of women's roles here in Libya – and, indeed across the Middle East – for me.

"We need to look at what happens to women as an indicator for the direction of a society. Usually we look at what happens to women as a marginal issue on the side, we need to shift that," Salbi said. "Women are [the] bellwether for the society. Progress starts with women."

After spending time with the Bugaighif sisters, that couldn't be more true.