‘Studying engineering in an elementary school, with blackouts and fighter jets flying around, made me to realize my full potential and what I am capable of doing regardless of the situation. Then I felt an urgent need to pass this on to other women in Libya,’ Hajer Elmahdi.
Hajer is an ordinary girl. An ordinary Libyan girl, who has decided to share her post-war healing strategies with Libyan women in an extra-ordinary fashion. Through online work and activism she has become one of the faces behind the ‘New’ Libyan feminism.
Her story is set in Garyounis, a district area to the West of Benghazi in Libya, where she lived comfortably with her family until the revolution. She was only 17, when it all began, but recalls vividly how people had longed for an end to the Gaddafi regime, ‘Everyone talked about how difficult things were back in the 80s and how they wanted change to occur, but no one ever considered the possibility of Gaddafi’s regime actually being toppled’, she tells me.
When the revolution started in Libya, Hajer thought it was just a joke. It all seemed too absurd for something so serious to be happening next to her. In her mind, Gadaffi was to repress the demonstrators in his usual manner and life would continue. Well, he did not. His government not only got toppled but he got killed. That was to be a new ‘democratic’ beginning for Libya, ‘I was actually happy. Not just me, everyone was happy that it was over. We started to dream of equality, democracy and general country development. Now, I am not so sure anymore. I guess it backfired’, Hajer says.
Two years after the ousting of the country’s dictatorhip, Hajer’s life seemed to have gotten worse. Many of her friends, classmates and acquaintances had lost their lives to the war and many more people were being killed. Garyounis, her beloved nieghbourhood, had become the centre of conflict. Gunshots and bomb explosions could be heard on a daily basis and there were bullets everywhere. Militia groups had stationed themselves, each one longing to fight its way up to power. The country was in chaos.
Things only got worse. She tells me that the most difficult aspect of the revolution for her family was having to worry all the time about their father’s safety. Every single time he left home, they were never sure he would come back. Of course, he served in the Army and the country had become too dangerous for service men. Not only did they get assassinated but constantly lived with the threat of getting killed.
The war settled at Hajer’s doorstep and it became all become too dangerous. Home was no longer safe, hence the need to run. The Elmahdis were left with no option but to abandon everything. In October 2014, they joined the ranks of other internally displaced people in Libya.
Starting Anew: The Search for Hope
Hajer’s home was gone, her job and social ties with it. Life seemed so empty that she had only her family to hold on to. The displacement took the Elmahdis downtown Benghazi to the area of Sedie Hussan where they now rent an apartment.
Comparing their present lives to that before the revolution, Hajer feels an element of regret. ‘sometimes, I do wish it
really did not happen because, back then, I had a home and it wasn’t this bad. So many people have died and so much has gone wrong. When I look back at the last five years I wonder why we let it all happen,’ she laments.
Now, there is no hope of ever going back home. Although gunshots and bomb explosions can still be heard from their new location, it is still a lot better than Garyounis. Hajer feels incredibly lucky that her family could afford an apartment, because many displaced people have been living in schools and makeshift structures for so long. ‘Most of the average people in Libya are suffering. I am actually thankful for where I am. It could have been much worse but I am happy I found hope. Now I am hoping for the best for others’, she added.
Empowering women through Project Silphium
The mass presence of warring factions, militia and terrorists in Libya made it more difficult for women to either leave their homes or participate in public life. Their voices became more silenced than ever, a fact which troubled the, then, yet-to-born feminist in Hajer. She made it her assignment to empower females throughout Libya. Together with a close friend Khadeja Ramali, the 22 year old co-founded Project Silphium: a virtual meeting point for Libyan women to discuss their problems. ‘In this digital world, there is no need for people to get stuck with their own ideas and pain when they can share them with others in return for comfort, hope and the sheer sensation of not being alone’ Hajer said. Project Silphium brings Libyan women together in virtual spaces like Facebook, Twitter, snapchat and The Blog to discuss issues particular to them.
Most of its members are women who have lost their jobs, homes and families to the revolution. They have not only their stories in common but also the desire to support one another through the hard times. Like silphium, an ancient healing plant, Project Silphium offers a medium where women can heal the wounds of war by exchanging their stories through blogging and chatting. Basically, ‘silphium heals through lots of rants, views and opinions of Libyan women with real life stories and struggles’, c.f. Twitter.
Hajer, the soon-to-be engineer, tells me that the immediate response to Project Silphium was unbelievable. It registered a membership of 1.000 women in just one week and its progress is yet to stall. The platform now counts 12, 703 likes and 1,485 followers on Facebook and 2,035 followers on Twitter. Project Silphium is gaining grounds online. As a way of giving back, they now trains women in social media techniques to help them take control of their lives. Of all the trainings, Hajer is proudest of her recent Latex workshop which took place in May 2016. It brought together not only women in Benghazi but also engineers, university professors and pharmacists of both sexes.
Hajer’s positivity and success has won her a place in the list of 10 Libyan Women you should know. Besides, she has a good brain. You would typically find her reading books and reviewing them for Good reads.
She tells me that it is too early to judge the revolution in Libya, ‘although there are still guns, weapons of war and terrorism everywhere, the most important thing is hope. I see lots of hopeful people and I think they can actually influence change in Libya,’ she concludes.