Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 14:08 UK

Women's lib takes off in Libya

By Rana Jawad
BBC News, Tripoli

Kulthum Bouseyfi graduated as one of Libya's first female pilots and three years on she is still one of the country's few.

Kulthum Bouseyfi
The sky is the limit for Kulthum Bouseyfi

"I remember one time when I announced, 'This is Captain Kulthum Bouseyfi', some elderly men panicked," she says, recalling some funny moments working for state-run Afriqiyah Airways.

"They started shouting, 'How is that possible? It's a woman!

"Then the cabin crew took some of them to the cockpit and reassured them that the system could be learned by anyone."

The aviation industry in Libya is arguably one of the country's most male-dominated sectors.

But Ms Bouseyfi's story is a sign that things are changing in what was once a man's world.

"I thought that no-one would accept women working in such a field," she says.

"But I see people's respect when they find out I am a pilot."

Ms Bouseyfi's dream is to establish her own commercial aviation company.

The times they are a changing

The emancipation of women in Libya has come a long way in the last few decades.

They now make up more than 22% of the workforce, compared to just 6% in the 1970s.

Libyan law provides free and equal participation for women in all social, political and economic activities.

Famous women have included ministers and judges, as well as doctors and lawyers.

As the country shifts towards privatisation, female entrepreneurship is bearing fruit from IT companies to accounting firms.

Ibtissam Ben-Amer owns a franchise of the French chocolatier, Jeff de Bruges, in Tripoli, but her experience has been bitter-sweet.

"It was not easy," she says. "I started in business 15 years ago when there was an embargo on Libya, so that was a really difficult time."

Ibtissam Ben-Amer's chocolate shop
Ibtissam Ben-Amer wants to open more chocolate shops

"Right now things are getting better and the Libyan market is opening up very fast."

She is looking to branch out with her chocolate shop in other parts of Libya.

But in North Africa generally, fathers, husbands and brothers still have a huge say in women's choices, so women's lib is an uphill struggle.

Haifa El Geblawi, who works for a foreign oil and gas company in Libya, says she has the support of her family to pursue her career but other women are not so lucky.

"Some men prefer their wives to work in schools - that way they get to come home earlier," Ms El Geblawi says.

"The husband still depends on her to take care of the children, the housework and cooking. So even if she works, she still has to do all of that as well."

Rough terrain

In private, young Libyan women, who are considered "too liberal", will complain of being sidelined or even excluded from business trips abroad because their male bosses want to pre-empt any gossip.

Our society is very conservative and patriarchal
Libyan business woman

A young Libyan business woman shared her experience on condition of anonymity.

She works in a government investment firm while most of her peers work in the private sector.

It is in the civil service, she says, that she comes up against many barriers.

"Our society is very conservative and patriarchal," she says.

"It is unusual for a woman to live on her own and work in the public sector. I struggle all the time to overturn the stereotype of women working only as secretaries.

"As a result, my ability to do my job is often hindered and made difficult. I deal with bureaucratic and chauvinistic obstacles every day."

The Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, has been seen as an emancipator of Libyan women.

He has challenged social taboos and even appointed female bodyguards.

Libya's military academy for women also had foreigners training in it during the 1990s, including recruits from Sudan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

But despite the progress, Libyan women in the security field are in the minority as society's perceptions of more traditional roles for women prevail.

And the abiding image in Libya is still of women who rarely mix with men in public and still cover themselves up with a veil.

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