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Force-fed freedomBy Salama Ahmed Salama
For the second time in days, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi has caused a stir. This time the issue was the status of women in Libya, and his statement was indicative of the gap between what leaders and reformers think they can achieve, and actual social and political conditions. Gaddafi's statements, at any rate, are relevant to all the Arab world.
The colonel was shocked when he learned that a group of women parliamentarians had approved an amendment to the law on polygamy by rescinding an item stipulating that a husband must obtain his first wife's approval prior to taking a second wife. Colonel Gaddafi was unable to restrain his anger: the amendment constitutes a major set-back to his efforts to modernise Libyan society by improving women's status and rights. Addressing the parliamentarians, he compared them to "pieces of furniture, on whom education is wasted. Bringing you up is a loss. You are better off dead." Then he tore up his copy of the amended law and threw it on the floor.
The colonel's anger is understandable. The methods he has adopted to reform Libyan society have proved futile, 30 years after the September Revolution. The very people in whose name the revolution was carried out are eager to relinquish the rights they had gained.
Colonel Gaddafi should not be sad, however. Libya is not alone. All the Arab nations are suffering from a similar regression. Certain categories of our societies have reverted to a condition reformers consider backward. Perhaps they are not aware of their long-term interests. Perhaps stagnation and inertia has rendered them incapable of imagining the future, let alone capitalising on the margin of freedom available.
Of the Arab countries, Egypt has the highest rate of working women. But they do very little unless forcibly compelled by some higher authority. An illuminating illustration of their lack of concern was offered when a woman was beaten up in the People's Assembly. Egyptian women's groups received the news with an indifference bordering on imbecility.
In many other fields, the people's elected representatives, who should be busy defending the people's rights, are submitting bills to restrict democracy, civil freedoms and the freedom of the press. Most recently, a member of the People's Assembly proposed that citizens must be compelled to "volunteer" blood donations. This was put forth as a remedy for the blood bank scandal. The spectrum of free choice in personal affairs is growing steadily narrower, while the desire to volunteer anything is being obliterated. It may be replaced by coercion in the name of the law.
In the early years of this century, Abdel-Rahman El-Kawakibi warned against the dangerous effects of tyranny on the individual's psychology and behaviour. He warned that tyranny would cripple people's ability to discern, and would make them part of the system that thrives on backwardness and oppression. Iraq is an interesting fulfilment of his prediction.
In the same context, El-Kawakibi noted that oppression can transform a nation's natural inclination to strive toward lofty goals into a quest for self-abasement. If pushed to progress, an oppressed people will be reluctant to comply, and will suffer like albinos in the sun. A nation accustomed to tyranny, if compelled to live by the principles of freedom, might even perish.
The Libyan women's decision simply means that reformers' intentions and noble principles are not sufficient in themselves to eradicate backwardness. The problem is far more complicated than that. When people must be taught about freedom, when they are called upon to make the transition towards democracy, then good intentions are one thing, and actual practice another matter altogether.