Johannes is journalist en schrijver. Zijn interesse gaat vooral uit naar politiek verzet, in al zijn vormen. Talen zijn een uit de hand gelopen hobby.
"I was a rebel from the very beginning": Libya through the eyes of journalist Taziri al-Omrani
She grew up in Libya in a conservative family and was the only girl in class wearing a hijab. Today, journalist and television pioneer Taziri al-Omrani lives in Belgium, from where she continues defending the rights of Libyan women and minorities. “From a young age I was a revolutionary,” she says.
After the popular uprising against dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, in 2011, Libya sank into chaos. At least that is what the bulk of political analysis makes of it. But that is not the case according to Taziri al-Omrani. In between the Libyan disorder the Libyan journalist, currently based in Ghent, sees the contours of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
I meet the young Libyan on the top floor of a café in Ghent. I’m sipping my coffee, al-Omrani her beer. Her life story coincides with that of her native country, which has had a particularly difficult decade. “Who would have thought that out of this absolute chaos a degree of freedom would sprout for Libyan women?”
From Salafi daughter…
“I will never forgive you!” Taziri al-Omrani’s mother was furious when her daughter, aged 22, got into the car that was supposed to take her to Misrata airport.
Surely there was no way her daughter would travel to Doha alone? As a journalist, that is. She was defying Libyan traditions and her mother’s image of the Islamic faith.
The young al-Omrani left anyway. “I did not conform to what was normal for a Libyan woman. Being normal meant obeying without thinking and pushing myself away. Being normal meant getting married at 18. It meant being subservient to a husband, with no goals or dreams of my own.”
“I did not want to be a mouthpiece of a regime that curtailed freedom of expression, especially that of women.”
Al-Omrani is a journalist, and she has had to fight hard for it. “At a very young age I was a revolutionary,” she says. Her fingers glide over the Tamazight letter yaz (ⵣ) on her wrist, the symbol of the oppressed Berber language and culture that al-Omrani shares.
She grew up in a conservative family. Her father identified with Salafism, a fundamentalist streak within Islam. His ideas landed him in the prison of dictator Mu’ammar al-Khaddafi.
When al-Omrani was five years old, her parents obliged her — the only one in the class — to wear a hijab. “That aroused tremendous anger in me. I still feel that anger today.”
Al-Omrani went on to study accounting, even though she aspired to a career as a journalist even back then.
Women in the media had a reputation for being loyal to the dictatorship, and that bothered her. “I did not want to be a mouthpiece of a regime that curtailed freedom of expression, especially that of women,” she said.
Besides, as a woman in the male-dominated sector, you invariably face sexual harassment and violence. “I was convinced that almost all women in the media had been sexually abused by men and had thus earned a bad name.”
… to the voice of revolution
When street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in late 2010, after yet another humiliating clash with the Tunisian state, he unknowingly triggered a wave of uprisings in and far beyond the Arab world. The lives of millions of people would be radically changed.
A new era also dawned for al-Omrani. At the time, she lived with her mother and brothers in Misrata. Her city, the third largest in the country, soon emerged as a stronghold of resistance against al-Gaddafi.
“I wanted to become the voice that could help others.”
While the men went to the front, al-Omrani’s mother and her neighbours stirred pots to provide food for the rebels.
But al-Omrani did not settle for a role on the sidelines. “I completely identified with the revolution. I felt oppressed all my life. As a woman, as a Tamazight, as a child of my parents. I was a rebel from the very beginning.”
So she went to a newspaper and handed over two articles to the editor. That same evening, her texts were online. “I felt incredibly empowered and decided to try my luck in radio. I wanted to become the voice that could help others.”
The ambitious Libyan snared a job as a reporter at Radio Free Libya, a radio station run by revolutionaries. As al-Gaddafi’s forces closed in on the city in the spring of 2011, she was unstoppable on air. “I became the voice of the revolution,” she says, sipping her beer proudly.
Al-Omrani began her journalistic career when Libya had gained international prominence. To intervene militarily or not? That question stirred international minds in February 2011. Al-Gaddafi was the first Arab dictator to mercilessly crush the uprising in his country. His brutal crackdown caused a wave of outrage.
A strategic intervention could prevent a humanitarian disaster, proponents reasoned. Thereby, the Arab League backed military action and the UN Security Council had just approved Resolution 1973. That gave the international community the mandate for a military intervention to protect the civilian population.
“NATO saved my life. So how can I be against the intervention?”
Opponents of the intervention pointed out that the military coalition, mainly led by EU member states, was seeking a change of power in favour of the rebels. As a result, it exceeded the mandate of strictly protecting civilians.
It seemed that the participating countries’ goal was also to secure their own interests, in view of Libya’s considerable oil reserves and its geopolitical importance as a transit country for migrants.
Eventually, the intervention occurred on 27 March 2011. Remarkably, European countries, especially France and the UK, took the lead. The United States kept in the background. Qatar, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates also took part in the intervention. Belgium sent out its F-16s. The tide soon turned in favour of the rebels. In Misrata, the siege was broken. The city was nicknamed “Libyan Stalingrad.”
After al-Gaddafi was assassinated in his hometown of Sirte on 20 October 2011, the hated dictator’s lifeless body was transferred to Misrata. Those who wanted to could visit the mutilated corpse for several days, displayed like a lurid trophy on a dirty mattress in the cold room of a meat shop.
Was the international military intervention in the conflict a good or bad thing for Libyans? For al-Omrani, the matter is quickly settled. “NATO saved my life,” she says. “So how can I be against the intervention?”
February 17: popular festival or day of mourning?
But not all Libyans share the same opinion. After the interview with al-Omrani, we call Hussein Baoumi, Libya expert at Amnesty International. He points out how deeply divided the population is about the 2011 revolution year. “Whether people in Libya are better off or worse depends on who you ask,” he says.
Baoumi drove from Tripoli to Misrata last year on 17 February, the anniversary of the Libyan revolution. “In some places the population was in a celebratory mood, in others there was an atmosphere of mourning. In one village, during one of the stops, the word ‘Nakba’ fell, a reference to the Palestinian Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from their territory in 1948, ed.). For them, the start of the revolution was the worst day of their lives. And then we arrived in Misrata. There was a popular festival going on there like I had never seen before.”
The international military alliance did not finish its job, which is the biggest problem with the NATO intervention in Libya, Baoumi said. “Whether you initially supported the intervention or not, the international community did not see it through to the demilitarisation of the conflict.”
Today, Libya is struggling with a total lack of accountability. The country is plagued by circular violence. “In many ways, a large part of the armed groups are acting out of revenge.”
The death of al-Gaddafi ended a period that would later be called “the First Libyan Civil War.” The Second Civil War would last from 2014 to 2020. Broadly speaking, it was about a conflict between the United Nations-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, in western Tripoli, and the forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar, in the east and south of the country.
After the 2011 revolution, al-Omrani made a further breakthrough as a journalist and activist. She got a job as Misrata’s first female television reporter, although this pioneering role was not always appreciated. “I was constantly attacked on social media and during my reports on the streets,” she says.
“My brother made me understand that something very bad would happen to me if I continued to discuss women’s rights.”
In 2014, during a live radio broadcast, al-Omrani spoke out unapologetically against violence against women. She denounced sexism in the workplace and denounced the poor follow-up of rape cases. “One of most shocking customs is that families sometimes withdraw a complaint if the assailant or rapist proposes to the victim to get married. I cannot imagine a greater violation of women’s rights.”
“After the broadcast, the studio was flooded with angry phone calls. Several death threats followed. My brother made me understand that something very bad would happen to me if I continued to discuss women’s rights.”
Al-Omrani knew she had to take these death threats seriously. Shortly before, Salwa Bugaighis, a well-known lawyer and human rights activist, had been found murdered in her Benghazi flat after similar threats. Al-Omrani felt compelled to flee her hometown. She moved to Tunisia until the storm subsided.
During the al-Gaddafi era, state control and strict laws restricted the development of a civil society. After his death, the state was suddenly absent and non-governmental organisations shot up like mushrooms. They filled the vacuum left by the state in society.
Especially for women, the absence of (state) control seemed to create new opportunities. “Who would have thought that out of this absolute chaos a degree of freedom would sprout for Libyan women?”
One important organisation that saw the light of day during this period was the humanist Tanweer movement. It started in Tripoli as a book fair, but soon emerged as a fixture for progressive Libyan youth. Al-Omrani was also a familiar presence there.
Together with three female friends, al-Omrani started the Tamazight Women’s Movement. This feminist organisation not only conducted research but also advocated for intersectional gender issues among indigenous peoples, especially among Libyan Tamazight women.
Tamazight represent 5-10% of Libya’s population and were particularly hard hit during al-Gaddafi’s rule. Al-Omrani’s tattoos betray a strong attachment to their culture. The Berber goddess Tennit, for instance, adorns her forearm. In turn, the ear of wheat on her arm is an homage to her Tamazight ancestors and their connection to the earth. “My grandmothers had one like this tattooed on their chin,” she says.
Meanwhile, Libyan politics entered a new phase. Elections, facilitated by the UN, took place in 2021. Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh emerged victorious. He was appointed prime minister of the Government of National Unity in Tripoli.
However, the House of Representatives, based in eastern Tobruk, wrote off the election results and put forward its own prime minister, Fathi Bashagha. A new government was formed for the occasion, ambitiously named Government of National Stability.
Since then, the two rival governments — the Government of National Unity and the Government of National Stability — have been diametrically opposed. Skirmishes between supporters of the two camps have occurred on several occasions.
Control on the ground is mainly in the hands of armed groups and militias. Most of these receive money from one of the two governments and form varying coalitions. The largest coalition has backed warlord Khalifa Haftar, who supports the Government of National Stability in Tobruk.
But al-Omrani no longer has to face this new political situation. Four years ago, she swapped Libya for Belgium. Her position as an outspoken feminist in Libya had become untenable. “The transition was hell,” al-Omrani said. To seek asylum in Belgium, she spent 2.5 months in an asylum seekers’ centre in Limburg. “There was a lot of verbal harassment and physical aggression. I was diagnosed with depression during that time.”
“I think it’s important to do something worthwhile with my life. In Libya, I was doing great things. I was helping women there. Face to face. I had so much impact there. Now I’m stuck in an administrative job with the social services.”
Early in 2022, a new development in Libya would further strain al-Omrani’s ties to her homeland. Between December 2021 and March 2022, Libya’s Internal Security Service (ISA) posted shocking videos online. Seven captured young Libyan men can be seen. All are members of a Libyan independent civil society organisation, such as the Tripoli-based Tanweer movement.
On camera, they plead guilty to a laundry list of allegations, including spreading atheism and homosexuality. “There is no doubt that the confessions were made under duress,” reads a report released by Amnesty on the videos. Furthermore, the young men in the video admit to having had contact with foreign organisations. One of them reportedly met with members of Amnesty International at a cafe to discuss atheism, homosexuality and freedom of expression.
“The revolution has penetrated into Libyan living rooms. There are many women like me.”
Hundreds of thousands of Libyans got to see the videos. Meanwhile, they were taken offline, but the harm had been done. The individuals and organisations mentioned received a torrent of hate. One of the names mentioned is Fatma al-Omrani. Al-Omrani looks up. “That’s me,” she grins. “I recently had my name changed. Taziri is a Tamazight name. Such names were banned in Libya for a long time.”
In the videos, her name has the attribute “atheist feminist.” “Whatever that means,” brings out al-Omrani. “In any case, my name has been dragged through the mud. If organisations or newspapers in Libya publish my name, they should be concerned for their safety.”
The fact that the authorities allow the persecution of progressive voices by militias and security agents seems to be a sign that the era of free speech in the country is quietly over.
Whether the videos actually signal the beginning of the end for Libya’s independent civil society? Al-Omrani does not want to believe so. “I still have hope for Libya,” she says. In her eyes, her own life path is the ultimate example of feminist victory in Libya. “And I am far from being the only one who has freed herself. The revolution has penetrated into Libyan living rooms. There are many women like me.”
“Positive changes are seen in small things. More women than ever in Libya now own small- to medium-sized businesses. More Libyan women than ever drive cars. More women than ever are pursuing a higher education degree. That is what you get when there is chaos. It creates the opportunity for change.”