What Can We Say About Qaddafi’s Female Guards?

Dear CF,

Whether it’s women in auto-racing or women as bodyguards, the image of a woman performing activities traditionally coded male has been a powerful inspirational idol for 20th century Westerners and, specifically, for Americans. (That includes feminists and others—here’s a Fox News story about the merchant marines illustrated, puzzlingly, by a photo of two female welders.)

There’s a reason Rosie the Riveter became an icon, and it transcends party lines. Here’s an archive of those images from the Library of Congress. The image is above is of a woman fixing the nose section of a bombardier, an image which was prepared by the Office of War Information in 1942. In other words, it’s an image put forward by the government—a piece of PR, in fact.

So what do we do with these images of Qaddafi’s female bodyguards?

A few things leap to the eye:

  1. The Libyan women in these photographs lack the fragility that typifies the 1940s image of the American worker-woman I started this post with, who looks like she’s (for lack of a better word) nurturing that bombardier.
  2. Whereas the American woman in the image above looks like she’s in a lovely dream in which fuselage is the gossamer glister-loom for the ballet of American warfare, these bodyguards hold AK-47s as if they were AK-47s. They are quite real. Regardless of whether or not these photographs were staged (who knows?), the fact remains that these bodyguards are real soldiers, trained to kill. They are not—and this apparently needs saying—a cute harem.

That’s not to say rumors don’t abound. They do. For example:

  • That Qaddafi demands that the guard be composed exclusively of virgins. In this NY Times interview, Raina Ajami, who made a documentary about the bodyguards, she says that several of the guards are in fact married).
  • That they must wear makeup and lipstick and sometimes heels. Maybe? But it looks like several aren’t wearing makeup here. (BTW, take a look at Rosie’s mascara, courtesy of the War Production Co-ordinating Committee).
  • That they service Qaddafi sexually, and that many a young woman dreams of serving the Leader. Doug Sanders (who does not equate sex with service the way many others do) describes the women’s dedication this way:  “The Leader, as he is universally known, personally selects his Protectors from their ranks and from a neighbouring female military academy. The women here worship him – – some wept as they described their desire to become Protectors.”

That is SO terrible.

Here, by the by, is what (liberated Western woman) Holly Williams writes in her profile of Hugh Hefner for The Independent:

What I wanted to be when I grew up, more than anything, was a Bunny Girl. I had always been keen to meet Hugh Hefner, the man behind these iconic creations and who was something of a hero to me in the sexual wasteland of my youth. And now, living in Los Angeles, and with the publication of Hefner’s six-volume, illustrated autobiography, I was finally going to get my chance. Maybe it was not too late to fulfill my Bunny aspirations.

As far as compensation packages go, the Libyan bodyguards receive the standard policewoman’s salary, which was around $250 in 2004. Here’s one of Hefner’s Bunnies’ account of her remuneration:

Like others, though, she took the deal and writes that upon picking up the $1,000 from Hef’s bedroom every morning (the time when he would discuss their failings), girls also received a $10,000 down payment on a car, and all the plastic surgery they wanted. Apparently, breast augmentation is the first and most urgent of Hef’s requirements in his girls and costs him over $70,000 a year.

While we’re on the subject of the Western media’s obsession with power-drunk males and what they do with all that power (CHARLIE SHEEN CHARLIE SHEEN PORN STARS CHARLIE SHEEN), let’s take a gander at Qaddafi’s visit to Italy in 2009, which includes this tidbit:

Khadafy’s itinerary includes:

* A potentially explosive meeting tomorrow with 700 women who are prominent in Italian business, culture and politics. The get-together at a Rome concert hall will be hosted by Maxim model Mara Carfagna, who was named appointed minister of equal opportunities last year by Berlusconi.

My point: this isn’t an Arab vs. Western thing. And if we had to choose between forms of misogyny that coexist in weird ways with female empowerment—ah, but we don’t, do we?

That’s the problem.

I don’t know what to say about Qaddafi’s female bodyguards. I’ve been thinking a great deal about them—about their command, their makeup, the unwritten agreements they’ve made that I can’t see. On a personal level, I get a nostalgic pang it gives me to see women driving tanks, because in my heart I like violence. The reptilian parts of my brain want equality there too.

The smarter layers of my psyche correctly remind me that this isn’t equality: it’s another form of military servitude, and there is one important difference worth remarking between Rosie the Riveter and Qaddafi’s guards In the U.S. it was the war—and scarcity—that finally broke the system and let women weld and install electrical systems. In Libya it’s luxury, not poverty, that allows 40 women to do the work of guarding the Leader.

So far, I’ve been triangulating Rosie the Riveter, the Playboy Bunnies and Qaddafi’s guard, and I’ve done so partly because the media has been so insistent over the years on figuring the bodyguards as “Bond girls,” “Glamazons,”  etc. There’s an insistence on sexualizing the guard that may have something to it, but doesn’t ring true for me. The women in the photographs above don’t look like sex slaves. They may be—I really don’t know. But I find the universal belief that they are and must be frankly bizarre.

Other ways the guards have been read: some see them as a “feminist” challenge to Islam. These women have their faces uncovered. They wear men’s clothing and makeup.

Others read them as Austin Powers lady-robots, lacking only semi-automatic nipples.  As a corollary, some suggest that women are harder (conceptually) to kill, which makes them a very effective guard.

It seems to me that the images above prove what we’ve always known: that power smears itself across the worldscape in ways that fracture our theoretical models and our alliances. That leaders are brilliant at exploiting the fissures that exist just under the surface of any society. That women are a useful substrate for leaders launching a new cadre of moral enzymes.

There’s another reason I wanted to compare the Playboy Bunnies to Qaddafi’s guard, one that goes back to Rafia Zakaria’s post for Ms. Magazine comparing breast augmentation and female genital mutilation. It was a controversial post, mainly because people read past her argument and went straight to the analogy. They objected, rightly, that breast augmentation is “voluntary” and elective surgery that is available to adults, whereas FGM or FGC is imposed on minors. In doing so, they missed Zakaria’s point, which was that Westerners are amazingly quick to assume that they exist in a universe where they have free will, and that no one else does. By making the comparison to breast augmentation (a procedure with major health risks whose principal function is to gratify male tastes), she was suggesting that women in nations we “pity” for their “oppression” live in a mental universe not unlike our own, wherein the illusion of choice runs rampant.

In other words, Western women are very quick to take up arms on behalf of women they believe to be oppressed. That stance isn’t unlike “white-knighting”—the practice wherein male gamers sail in to “protect” female gamers from other male harassers, weakening the female gamers position.

The best version of this argument I’ve seen in recent memory is Laila Lalami’s impeccably titled article, “The Missionary Position,” in which she observes that

being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the “burden of pity.” The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.

She goes on:

These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

This is the tyranny of the Western feminist, which Meghan Drury sketches out beautifully here.

Lalami considers the strange double-bind the Western feminist is in, and offers some advice:

So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues.

I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s what I think we need to do with these images of Qaddafi’s bodyguards: regard them as a group that chose to side with and defend a dictator for reasons that to them may have seemed compelling, and with which we’re free to disagree.  However anticlimactic that may seem, it’s the only sane and respectful choice.



23 Responses to What Can We Say About Qaddafi’s Female Guards?

  1. Sunny says:

    Abusing space to type. You make some good points. Yet must take issue with the Doug Sanders quote somehow equating to sexual favours. Women worshipped Hitler too, although not necessarily provided sexual favours. Thought of Frau Goebbles especially re Sanders’ quote.
    Thinks again issue of culture/history (or race/ethnicity) are getting missed out. It also ignores how “femininity” is defined in cultures. Strangely – and with no offence meant – I find most of my Asian women friends tougher and bigger risk takers although my European/American friends (read white) are more convinced of their “feminist” credentials. The former are stronger women although they may have a more sexually and emotionally complex take on traditional feminism.
    The pics remind me of Indian army officers who wear the sari with decorations, weapons etc. And actually my grandmother who swam, rode, shot without ever stepping out of her sari. Used some of those women for the intro for my second book: http://sunnysingh.net/single_extract.html
    Best. See you on twitter

  2. lapata says:

    Thanks for the discussion! Your reference to the notion of ‘choice’ in terms of breast enhancement reminds me of a discussion I read by Talal Asad about how seduction is a critical engine by which capitalism functions. He was referring to advertising, etc., but I think that his argument is another way of engaging with the notion of Westerners’ perception that they possess free will when others do not.

    As far as Qaddafi’s guards go, I am fascinated by how unsexy they look (in the sense of make-up, etc.). Sunny Singh and I were discussing on Twitter how they do not look like GI Barbies at all. If you were just told that Qaddafi had an all female guard, you might assume (because Qaddafi is an evil dictator, etc.) that they were all of a certain kind of attractiveness [to him] and that they played some sort of role in his febrile megalomania. But the images themselves speak of a group of women that are clearly military guards, despite the Calgary Sun’s attempts to dress it up by calling them ‘Amazons.’

    • Millicent says:

      Lapata–I totally agree. Everyone I’ve seen write about them from the 90s onward wants them to be GI Barbies, because that’s an explanation can (sort of) understand. They’re the “hot bodyguards,” etc. Really—and this is the point I was trying to make—there seems to be a possibility that they are actually very well-trained soldiers doing a job we don’t expect women to be doing. With no sex involved. That might—to both the American left and right—be worse than anything else.

      I love your point about advertising, which is basically the SCIENCE of depriving people of free will while nominally allowing them the empty husk of consumer choice.

      • lapata says:

        After reading Oscar Wao, I read a bit about Trujillo’s exploitation of women, etc., and I think these prodigious sexual appetites are what we expect of unhinged dictator types (viz., Qadafi’s ‘buxom Ukranian nurse’ of Wikileaks fame). Now this is not to say that Qaddaf doesn’t have unhinged prodigious sexual appetites, but I think you are right in that the idea that his tastes may not run toward his guards is somehow unacceptible to people.

      • Millicent says:

        Yes—speaking of unhinged sexual appetites, have you read The Feast of the Goat?

  3. Millicent says:

    Just updated to clarify that Doug Sanders didn’t make that equation between sex and service—sloppy point condensing on my part. The claim that the guards serve Qaddafi sexually is available all over the internet, however.

    Yes, women worshipped Hitler too; that’s precisely the issue, I think: for any discussion of women to make real sense, they need to be regarded simultaneously as human beings with the will to choose a “right” or “wrong” side (and be judged accordingly) *and* as products of their culture. It’s difficult to keep both concepts in our heads at once; much easier to reframe the Qaddafi bodyguards as EITHER “empowered women” or as “brainwashed victims” (with the third implied option of “GI Barbies,” which fits either category) neither of which takes into consideration the fact that the guards are, as you say, complex.

    (The phrase “women and children first” does so much damage, largely because of the infantilizing association it makes by linking the two.)

    I don’t know how useful it is to speculate on Asian vs. European/American femininities—the differences are so great even *within* regions that it seems futile to generalize along such broad strokes. (Reminds me of the pervasive tic in the media, wherein everyone tries to describe “Arab” culture or “Islam”.) It may be a conversation well worth having, however. And a difficult one to have! I’m persuadable, and if you’re so inclined, please do start it up! I’d be fascinated to listen in.

    At a guess, I’d hazard that such a conversation would probably include a broader definition of “strong” than the one you put forward (quickly, I realize) here: one that would include qualities besides toughness and risk-taking … there again, though, even “risk-taking” is so vague. Is it having lots of sexual partners? Going to protests? Bungee-jumping? Childbirth? Illegally crossing a border? Espionage? Is it “tougher” to have children or to resist and pursue a career? Tougher to shoot a gun or be a nurse? Etc.

    Anecdotes are magical, however, and you make a great point in your last paragraph on how fiction can speak obliquely to issues that non-fiction has trouble addressing squarely. Two anecdotes came to mind in response to yours: the elastic on my grandmother’s underwear broke during her tennis championship; she had to use one hand to hold it up and won the match one-handed. My great-aunt was the first female engineer in South America, raised seven sons, dressed them all identically and refused to let them so much as watch a movie, so careful was she about their moral education.

    Can’t wait to read your intro. It’s delightful to “meet” you.

  4. lapata says:

    Feast of the Goat? No! Running to look it up.

  5. peacay says:

    I was under the impression — I seem to remember reading some article a few years ago so I won’t vouch for its authenticity or veracity etc — that Qaddafi’s choosing women for his personal protection squad was based on his belief that women were apt to be more loyal and less likely to be corrupted by the trappings of power or the offer of bribes (or, at least, approximate beliefs along those lines).

    Nevertheless, I don’t disagree with your conclusion; viz: we can’t really draw any major conclusions about the guards en bloc. That (unusally) unprejudiced observation is a sort of first principle standpoint for many a situation. The Millicent Principle?

    • Millicent says:

      I’m fascinated by this possibility—that women might be desirable because they’re *less* likely to be corrupted by the trappings of power. Are there studies that suggest this? I wonder if there’s a “literature of brainwashing” that aspirational leaders consult. It would be so interesting if L. Ron Hubbard, Qaddafi and Charlie Sheen had some literature in common.

      The fact that Qaddafi might have an exalted sense of female loyalty (put positively) or brainwashability (put negatively) might not affect our own conceptions of gender, but it’s certainly destabilizing and *interesting*. The intellectual history of our framing devices is so cool. (Slight tangent: I’m reading Tom Laqueur’s “Making Sex” right now, which is all about how the “one sex” model of gender gave way to the “two-sex” model.)

      And thanks for the kind words. I might be blushing a little.

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  7. bungars says:

    Thank you Millicent for this sublime post which represents an utter refusal to take any bait of any kind. It’s magic, and instructive.The tightrope that you continuously insist on walking is for me nearly impossible to find before I read your post, and almost always impossible to stay on once found. I struggle with desiring what for me would be a “better” life for those Muslim women in their burkas, and now I see how ridiculous that is. What I actually mean is, I want a better life for me, in the US, and if they want a better life for themselves, surely this would look like a different animal than my version of better. I want sexual and political and personal liberation from inner demons, from the aesthetics of patriarchy, whereas you show in this post that the images we receive of those women are OPAQUE–these aesthetics of patriarchy may be their very liberation.

  8. lapata says:

    Just found a photo of Qaddafi’s ‘voluptuous Ukrainian nurse’ for the first time: http://huff.to/hqPT4l. A nice looking woman, but not the image conjured up from the wikileaks cables. The image not only served as a reminder that we must remember the cables are subjective testimonials of US government officials invested in creating a particular narrative, but also cast the notion of Qaddafi as sexually voracious further into doubt. What if she is just his nurse? That’s kind of what she looks like.

  9. Sunny says:

    Hey! Great discussion all. Just another couple of pennies worth of thought.
    In that GI Barbie construct there is also another implicit and dangerous idea that all women must fit a certain criteria of attractiveness – ie that modelled on Barbie. I agree that these women look like efficient and well trained soldiers but am puzzled by the assumption that either military training or lack of fitting a particular aesthetic model makes them sexually unattractive (not by anyone here but in general narrative). More importantly, what about their own sexual desires and ways of articulating those? That aspect is entirely silenced in the narrative.
    One final point: Russia apparently has a rule regarding counter-terrorism ops: very simply, shoot the women first (as opposed to women and children first). Its based on studies (separate area of debate) that women tend to often be more sceptical of ideologies at the beginning but far more committed to the cause once they decide. This also echoes Chanakya’s classical political science treatise (300 BC approx) that recommends having women as the inner most circle of bodyguards – and for risky espionage ops – for the same reason.

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  13. James Madison says:

    Seems to me you need to find a picture of a woman actually working in order for this to be fair. By choosing a propaganda piece (and a posed one at that), you’ve set up something of a straw man.

    http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsac.1a34953/ would be a better piece for comparison.

    And again, Hugh H. is not a structural analog to a head of state. He’s not really even a ceo so much as he is a pimp.

    This post is a fun read but insists on saying that apples are oranges.

    • Millicent says:

      Hi James,

      The image you point to is a great one. (Everybody, go look at it.) However, my goal is precisely *not* to make a straight comparison. It’s to show that we (and the content of that “we” isn’t you and me, it’s the English-speaking internet—try googling “Qaddafi female bodyguard” and see how many of the autofill options are sexualized words like “hot,” “sexy,” etc.) are working pretty hard to transform these images of the Libyan bodyguards working into the glamour-shot I started the post with. Why? As far as I can tell, because sex is the only way we can account for them. That’s what puzzles me.

      The images of the bodyguards are much closer to the one you point to than to the one I chose—that is, pragmatic, not sexualized—and yet the only explanations we can generate for the female bodyguard revolve around rumored sexual servitude. I don’t know what that says about them, but it certainly says a lot about us.

      • Millicent says:

        By the way, sorry your comment got stuck in moderation—I just found it in my Spam filter!

  14. Kate Norlock says:

    Great post on the women you write about alive today, but as a grand-daughter of a Rosie Rivetter, I can’t resist pointing out that the archive of photos you link to contains a majority of photos which are less Barbiefied and very real. Indeed, the photo right below the one you selected is of an individual, strong, ass-kicking and unsmiling African-American woman operating a hand drill. She’s real. Dig her reflection.

    • Millicent says:

      That’s absolutely right. I think it’s telling that the “real” images from that archive (as opposed to the Office of War Information ones intended as ads/propaganda) nicely illustrate the gap between how the US thinks of women doing men’s work (a necessary evil, feminized to an extreme to make it palatable) vs. what that reality looked like. That was then, of course, and this is now, but “THEY MUST BE SEXUAL IN SOME WAY” reactions to the bodyguards still abound, and come mainly (I think) from the West. That suggests to me that perhaps we’ve been socialized to see women—particularly women doing traditionally male jobs—as sexual no matter how unprovocative the image.

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