TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Haiba Abdul Qassem was wearing open-toe high heels and heavy makeup, and had a tattered AK-47 slung over her shoulder on a recent afternoon as she vowed to take up arms for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
“I will defend myself, I will defend my country and my leader,” the 39-year-old nanny said as other women in her marksmanship training session shot wildly in the air. “We are an armed nation. Everyone in this nation has weapons.”
With Libya’s conventional forces stretched thin along front lines east and west of Tripoli, government officials say they are scrambling to train volunteers, many of them women, for the looming fight for the capital and other Gaddafi-held areas.
Women have long played central roles in Libya’s security and intelligence agencies — Gaddafi is often accompanied by a squad of female bodyguards — but the four-month-old conflict appears likely to turn them into combatants more forcefully than ever. Already, many are deployed at vehicle inspection checkpoints on roads leading into Tripoli.
The government says it is distributing 1.2 million weapons to supporters it has tasked with beating back rebels and Western ground troops should they attempt to take the capital.
“We are training people in all places under our control,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. “What they are going to fight is a nation. Every Libyan, every mother — the symbol of mercy and love — will become a bomb, a killing machine.”
Guma el-Gamaty, a spokesman for the rebels, dismissed the government’s stated plan as a propaganda ploy. “When they tried to distribute weapons in the past, they ended up in the hands of the freedom fighters,” he said, referring to the rebels trying to oust Gaddafi. Gamaty, who is based in London, said rebels have been smuggling weapons into Tripoli for months.
Gaddafi, whose governing philosophy espouses gender equality, has established a special military academy for women. Although Libya in some ways adheres to a strict interpretation of Islam, women are not forced to be veiled and may travel without their husbands’ blessings.
Libya analysts say that by empowering women, Gaddafi has tried to lend credibility to his claim that the country is run by the masses, with his guidance. But by putting women in prominent roles, he has also tried to limit the number of strong male leaders who might turn on him, they say.
The government’s goal of arming tens of thousands of women could mark an effort to boost Gaddafi’s standing by tasking women to resist what it portrays as an invasion by Western “crusaders” eager to pilfer the country’s considerable oil reserves.
“It would be in line with what the regime has done in the past,” Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya specialist at Dartmouth College, said in a phone interview.
Government officials have taken Western journalists on several tours of what they call graduation ceremonies and training sessions for female fighters.
Azia Abu al-Qasem, 43, said she had never fired a weapon until recently. The mother of eight, who wore a veil, spoke softly as she clutched a leather purse with one hand and an old rifle with the other. But like many women at the sessions, she spoke with cultlike fervor about the importance of her new role.
“The colonialists came to us,” she said. “We didn’t come to them.”
She said she would happily use the weapon against NATO soldiers and the rebels the West is backing. “Tell NATO that the Libyan people are dancing and laughing,” she said. “We know we’re on the right side.”
A few feet away, 14-year-old Fatima Hassan, who speaks English with a British accent, having spent several summers in Britain, said she, too, hopes to take up arms.
“They would have to kill all the people in Libya before they get to Moammar Gaddafi,” she said, as women around her danced and chanted, firing rickety rifles in the air. “I would kill myself if Moammar Gaddafi were no longer in Libya.”