TRIPOLI, Libya — Like many Libyan women, Siham el-Zentani was consumed by family responsibilities, staying at home to care for her four teenage children. But when she saw the TV images of Libyan refugees fleeing Moammar Gaddafi’s troops this year, she announced to her husband that she had a new mission. “I want to go,” she said.
Within weeks, the 54-year-old Benghazi resident recalled, she was hiking into the western mountains with two female friends, their backpacks stuffed with cash they had collected to help displaced Libyans and anti-Gaddafi rebels.
Previously, men in this highly traditional society had been wary of allowing their wives or daughters to travel by themselves, fearing harassment by Gaddafi security forces. “It was a huge event for Libyan women to participate in the revolution,” said Zentani, a blond, bespectacled matron in black jeans and a head scarf.
Zentani is part of a vast network of Libyan women who played an under-the-radar role in the war, running weapons, gathering intelligence and smuggling medicine. Now, with the fall of Gaddafi, they are savoring a new freedom to move about the country and organize.
Although many foreign observers have focused on the new Libyan leader’s recent vow to lift restrictions on polygamy — and the negative implications for women of such a change — women’s role actually appears to have expanded here, with large numbers joining nongovernmental groups.
The male-dominated, tribally based society is not being completely transformed. Already there are signs of the difficulties women face in gaining more political representation: The 51-member Transitional National Council has just one female member. But the revolution has raised women’s expectations and changed some of the dynamics of everyday life.
“Libyan women have become very strong,” said Sonia al-Shagruni, 42, a teacher who smuggled explosives to revolutionaries during the war. “Since we struggled so hard during the revolution, we will definitely not sit around now. We will not sit in the back seat, as in the past.”
During his 42-year rule, Gaddafi sent contradictory messages on women’s rights. His Green Book of political philosophy decreed that a woman’s place was in the home. Yet he expanded educational and employment opportunities for women and signaled a commitment to gender equality by traveling with a contingent of gun-toting female bodyguards.
In reality, though, women were constrained — not so much by laws as by the perceived brutality of his government. Many Libyans saw Gaddafi’s security forces as bullies who could mistreat women with impunity. Rumors flew that pretty young women were vulnerable to being yanked away from a restaurant or university for sexual abuse by the leader or his powerful sons.
As a result, men limited their wives’ and daughters’ movements, especially discouraging them from taking part in activities related to Gaddafi and his official Revolutionary Committees.
“The Revolutionary Committees were very violent and scary people. They were in every city and government space,” said Amira Alshokri, 25, a computer engineer in Tripoli. “Everyone didn’t want women to get involved in such a dirty sphere.”
Now, though, her father is comfortable with her moving around freely. “He knows I won’t be in a position where I can be abused,” she said.
The most obvious sign of women’s enlarged role is the blossoming of hundreds of nongovernmental groups led by women. With her friends, Alshokri has launched an organization called Phoenix to promote women’s rights.
“The revolution gave us a chance to show who we really are,” said Alshokri, who also helped Libyan refugees during the war. “Before, we didn’t have a chance. We used to put all our creative energy into our homes.”
Under Gaddafi, independent civic organizations were banned.
In recent years, a growing number of women began wearing a head scarf. That was partly attributable to an Islamic awakening across the region. But in Libya, some women said, it was also a response to the perceived moral corruption of Gaddafi’s rule and his criticism of traditional Islamic dress.
“It was sort of a rebellion,” said Amel Jerary, 41, a U.S.-educated academic who works with the interim government.
Although Gaddafi is gone, most women seem likely to keep wearing the veil. Social taboos on women traveling with unrelated men will probably remain in force in small towns and rural areas. And few people appear to doubt that Islamic principles will influence laws here, as they already do in many other Muslim countries.
But women’s groups, inspired by the changes they have already seen, say they are eager for female citizens to use their votes to expand their political power and guarantee their legal rights. The lack of women in the interim government has been a particular source of disappointment.
“When you look at the official picture of Libya . . . it’s like a country that has no women,” Jerary said. “That’s extremely frustrating.”
Similarly, some women were stunned by interim President Mustafa Abdel Jalil’s call for an end to restrictions on polygamy, in line with a stricter interpretation of Islam. Nor were they swayed by the view that the president was trying to placate Islamist fighters, who were repressed by Gaddafi and played a key role in the fight to oust him.
“In Tripoli, there was an uproar of intellectuals against that,” Jerary said of Abdel Jalil’s pledge. “We will never be a secular state. But it has to be a moderate state.”
But such is the post-revolutionary optimism here that other women shrugged off the announcement, saying they are confident any new laws will be narrowly tailored.
Under Islamic law, polygamy “only applies in very special conditions,” Alshokri noted.
For Zentani, the revolution has transformed a basic relationship, that between women and the mostly male security forces.
During the war, she traveled on rebels’ pickups as she delivered aid, a previously unimaginable experience. Back at home, she has driven across town late at night to pick up her daughter from her job at a revolutionary TV station.
“All my life — I’m 54 — I’ve never gone out in the middle of the night and come back at 2 a.m.,” she said. “Everywhere there are revolutionaries now. They help and protect us.” Although the revolutionaries have been accused of brutality toward pro-Gaddafi fighters, they remain popular in cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi.
Zentani, who is the chief executive of a new nonprofit group dedicated to civic education, now thinks nothing of flying between those cities for her work.
“We are not afraid anymore,” she said.