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.