Muammar al-Gaddafi was described by his father as a man “always serious, even taciturn”. If we grant that the father knew his son, then we may ask how a son of very few words succeeded in commanding so much attention.
At the peak of his power, Gaddafi was unavoidable. Perhaps, what he lacked in words was expressed in the mixed bag of atrocities he masterminded as well as all the good he did for the Libyan people.
The man was what he did not say but showed. And one of the things he showed – a thing that made him the “one to see” on the international scene – was his team of exceptionally trained and dramatically named Revolutionary Nuns.
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The nuns were an elite group of female bodyguards whose sole devotion was to Gaddafi, home or abroad. Western media arrogated to themselves the right to call these women the Amazonian Guard.
The nuns wore stone-faced looks behind action-themed sunglasses. They were dressed in army apparel, and even in all of the military spartanness, one could tell they were good-looking.
Even for the most open-minded, a presidential cadre of special forces composed of only women was strange. And even though the nuns were an appendage of the Gaddafi brand, few know how they came to be.
The team was started in the 1980s, a little over a decade after Gaddafi had seized power in a coup. There are various theories as to why he chose a team of women to guard him.
Former US naval officer Joseph Stanik, however, wrote in 2003 that Gaddafi felt women would be too difficult for Arab separatist gunmen to kill.
He had deposed the Senussi government in 1969 but Gaddafi had not quite quieted the repercussions of his action by the early 1980s. This theory of women’s lives as prohibitive ethics for warring men was put to test in 1998.
Gaddafi’s convoy was ambushed by Islamic fundamentalists and one of the nuns was killed, with another seven injured. The story is told that the guard, Aisha, threw herself to save Gaddafi’s life.
No one knows if the details are exactly as the government’s propaganda but that’s not the point. The story added verve and glory to the image of the nuns.
If you are Libyan, or a believer in Gaddafi, you would ask how the “Brotherly Leader” gets women to be this bold. And then you would say however they are trained.
Writing for Digitaljournal.org in 2007, Samantha Torrence explained how the women were brought up: “The Amazonian Guard are put through rigorous training at a special academy and if they make it through the basic training ordeal, [they are] experts with firearms and martial arts, making them trained killers. The women who qualify for duty are required to be virgins and must be hand picked by Qaddafi himself.”
It should come as very little surprise that in selecting who gets to put their life on the line for the president, some moral and spiritual significance is attached to a woman who has never had sex.
In recent times, however, it has been reported that becoming a member of the guard was not optional for some women. They are pried away from their families at the threat of dire consequences should they refuse.
They are raped, sometimes by Gaddafi himself and other times by members in his power circle.
The Daily Mail in 2013 reported that Gaddafi weaponised rape of young women, seeking either of two things.
One was to get them to fearfully agree to join his cabal, probably as revolutionary “nuns”. And two, rape was used as a means of getting the male members of these women’s families to acquiesce to Gaddafi’s demands.
Mabrouka Sherif, a close confidant of Gaddafi, was reputed to have been a procurer of young women, preferably virgins, for Gaddafi. Sherif rose in favour with Gaddafi with every batch of women she provided.
Dr. Seham Sergewa, a Libyan psychologist who began investigating how the guards were picked and trained after the fall of Gaddafi, found bizarre testimonies.
In 2011, Dr Sergewa said: “So far I have managed to convince eight women to step forward to testify and it has been difficult. Some women have been abandoned by their husbands, others are too ashamed to share their secret with their family.”
It would appear Gaddafi’s obsession with his female guards was an aesthetics move and not necessarily for the sake of his life.
Torrence describes the women as usually dressed “in western style fatigues, can wear makeup, western hairstyles, high heels, and other clothing not deemed acceptable in the Muslim world. Their very existence challenges the role of women in the Islamic world…”
After Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, a lot of the revolutionary nuns went into hiding from the rebels who would have most definitely exacted a similar evil on them as Gaddafi did.
It would have been something of a progressive victory if the story of Gaddafi’s revolutionary nuns were as advertised. But as we continue to learn about the complicated man, we can do well to separate the pan-Africanist from the person.