Libyan exile Shahrazad Kablan was teaching school in Cincinnati when the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi began in her hometown, Benghazi. She put her house on the market and within weeks had moved to Qatar, where she hosted a taboo-busting show on the pro-rebel Libya TV.
On Wednesday night she was in Manhattan, drumming up support among women’s rights activists for the long slog ahead as Libya rebuilds.
“We need help,” Ms. Kablan said. “I want people to remember that Libya is a story of hope, but we need the international community to play its part.”
Ms. Kablan had joined another Libyan diaspora activist, Sara Maziq, and New York Times reporter Anne Barnard (who is married to the author of this blog post) to discuss the role of Libyan women after Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. During the uprising, women used their clandestine nongovernmental organization networks to smuggle weapons to rebel fighters and pass intelligence. Ms. Barnard’s reporting on Libyan women activists drew the attention of advocates in the United States, who organized Wednesday’s symposium in New York.
“The idea is to connect people who can bring attention to the cause and offer technical help,” said Jill Iscol, the philanthropist who hosted the meeting in her Fifth Avenue apartment. Ms. Iscol, a longtime patron of women’s causes, is the author of “Hearts on Fire,” a book scheduled to be published in November about social activism.
During the uprising, Ms. Kablan used her show to openly probe topics that normally went unmentioned in public forums, like systematic rape by Qaddafi fighters. Since then, she has been advising Libya’s National Transitional Council on education reform. Her small, mostly self-funded nonprofit already has recruited dozens of American teachers willing to spend next summer in Libya working with special needs children.
Ms. Maziq, a former investment banker, quit her job in Dubai to devote herself full-time to Colonel Qaddafi’s overthrow. She helped supply communications equipment to fighters in Misurata, her home city, and since the liberation of Tripoli her Libyan Civil Society Organization has been working to open women’s centers around the country.
“Most of us dug deep in our pockets. Now we’re tapped out,” Ms. Maziq said.
Ms. Iscol’s meeting, organized in tandem with the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit organization that promotes women leaders around the world, sparked some immediate connections.
An officer at a New York foundation volunteered to connect Ms. Maziq and Ms. Kablan with women judges and legal experts who could provide advice to Libyans drafting a new constitution; they agreed to meet the following day. A former prosecutor and a foundation head both offered support for programs helping victims of sexual violence. An official at the American mission to the United Nations invited the Libyans to give a presentation. A Dutch diplomat said his government had money available for women’s activists in Libya.
Ms. Kablan and Ms. Maziq are headed to Libya again in the next month. If they can raise enough funds, both hope to expand the fledgling nonprofits they currently run with support from friends and family.
“Libya has no infrastructure,” Ms. Maziq said. “People tell me, ‘We’ve done what we know how to do. Now, you need to come back and rebuild our country.’”
Thursday morning Ms. Kablan was woken up by a text message from a friend in Libya: Colonel Qaddafi, according to early reports, finally had been captured.
Still in her nightgown, Ms. Kablan smiled and restrained a shout of joy.
“We really needed this,” Ms. Kablan said as she read the latest news on her laptop. “This is a great boost for us.”
Published in the New York Times on 21 October 2011: