TRIPOLI, Libya — The young woman police officer swaggers through a crumbling Tripoli slum, her dark hair cut boyishly short, an empty gun holster and walkie-talkie hanging from her police belt. A tattooed man with a cigarette dangling from his lips shrinks away.
He doesn't want to mess with 25-year-old Nisrine Mansour.
A member of the regime's vice squad, her hero is Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. His image is on her cell phone, his face emerging from rays of green — the iconic regime color. Her ring tone is a tinny pro-Gadhafi chant.
Gadhafi has bestowed many titles upon himself during his 42-years of iron-fisted rule over Libya, branding himself "King of Kings" in Africa and "Brother Leader of the Revolution" in Libya.
Women like Mansour give him another title: emancipator of women.
"Moammar Gadhafi is the one who opened the opportunities for us to advance. That's why we cling to him, that's why we love him," says Mansour. "He gave us complete freedom as a woman to enter the police force, work as engineers, pilots, judges, lawyers. Anything."
Among Gadhafi's most ardent loyalists are a core of Libyan women who have risen to high-profile roles in the police, military and government and credit Gadhafi with giving them greater career avenues than many of their sisters elsewhere in the Arab world. They consider any threat to his regime a threat to their own advancement.
Even as Gadhafi's regime has cracked down brutally on dissent, locking up and torturing opponents, it has also long touted its policies of breaking cultural taboos concerning women's work and status in the deeply conservative nation. The most well known example is Gadhafi's personal guard of female bodyguards, but women have also been elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.
Gadhafi's policy was in part aimed at weakening traditional tribal and religious powers so he could impose his own vision of society.
It was only somewhat successful. Women who have gained prominence are a small minority in an otherwise strongly male-dominated Libya, far from the popular regime myth of a society filled with revolutionary fighting women. And, just as for men, advancement depends on total adherence to Gadhafi's authoritarian rule.
Women were also at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Gadhafi uprising in mid-February, demanding democracy for the country and — they hope — better rights for themselves. Still, while they have no rosy memories of their lives under Gadhafi, they say their struggle for equality is ongoing. Women activists were dismayed when the rebels appointed only one woman to the interim administration in their de facto capital of Benghazi.
"We are very disappointed," said Enas Al-Dursy, a 23-year-old activist. "We feel like we are being marginalized."
For policewoman Mansour, there is nothing a woman like herself can't aspire to in Gadhafi's Libya.
"I've never felt that I was treated differently because I'm a woman. Even when I'm picking up drunkards off the street, nobody ever said: 'She can't do that, she's a woman,'" said Mansour, who is charged with cracking down on drug addicts, drunkards and beggars in the slums of Tripoli.
A woman hugged her as she patrolled the garbage-strewn alleyways of the Hara Kabira slum in Tripoli's walled old city — once the pretty, brightly painted Jewish quarter, now a crumbling mess of homes filled with impoverished Libyans and African migrant workers. A little girl running by slapped Mansour's hand in greeting.
One man with a tatoo on his arm paused at the top of an alley.
"Troublemaker," Mansour said with a wink. He scurried away.
Throughout Gadhafi's Tripoli stronghold, female soldiers — a rare sight in most Arab countries — patrol roadside checkpoints in khaki uniforms and Muslim headscarves. They keep order at gas stations made rowdy by severe shortages that cause days-long lines. Police women sporting large sunglasses cruise by in cars.
Senior government officials in coifed hairstyles lunch at an upscale hotel where reporters stay in Tripoli. Gadhafi's daughter, Aisha, is a prominent lawyer.
Women are also involved in Gadhafi's mechanism of oppression against his opponents. Women run their own interrogation center for suspected female anti-Gadhafi activists, according to a resident who said she was hauled into one in May.
One of the most hated figures among the Libyan rebels seeking to overthrow Gadhafi is a woman — the former Gadhafi-appointed mayor of Benghazi, Huda Ben Amer, known as "the executioner." During a public hanging of a regime opponent in 1984, Ben Amer pulled down on the man's legs so he would die faster.
Early on, Gadhafi created a cadre of female bodyguards — glamorously made-up women in form-fitting military-style uniforms and high-heeled boots known as "amazons." He pointed to them as evidence of his commitment to promoting nontraditional roles for women.
Other hard-core supporters are known as Gadhafi's "nuns of the revolution," mostly women who came of age during the early years of Gadhafi's rule in the 1970s and devote themselves to his regime. Now in their 50s and 60s, many run ministerial departments.
About 27 percent of Libya's labor force were women in 2006 — low by world standards but high for the Arab world. Only Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia had higher rates, and the increase in women's participation in Libya over the past 20 years was by far the highest in the region, rising from 14 percent in 1986, according to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization.
"In part to boost its legitimacy, the regime promoted a more open, expansive, and inclusive role for women," said Ronald Bruce St John, who has written five books on Gadhafi's Libya.
Lisa Anderson, a Libya expert and president of the American University in Cairo, agreed, noting that when Gadhafi seized power in 1969, few women went to university. Now more than half of Libya's university students are women.
"One of the career paths that opened up for women in the past 30 years is the police, but general access to employment, education and the public sphere — as much as there is one for women — dramatically increased under Gadhafi," she said.
In her studio in an upscale Tripoli suburb, 25-year-old Radia al-Bodi, a television anchor for Libyan state TV, said women like herself would fight to defend Gadhafi's regime because of the promise it offered women.
"This is all because of Father Moammar," said Ibtisam Saadeddin, a 35-year-old soldier who wore gold-edged pins of a smiling Gadhafi on her khaki uniform and headscarf. "He is our air and sustenance. We can't be without him."
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