Almost two weeks ago, the official liberation of Libya was celebrated in Benghazi. The speech given by the country’s interim leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has since gained international notoriety. The attention it got was justified but, unfortunately, it was also marred by misreporting. Meanwhile, some of the interesting aspects of the aftermath in Libya – from social satire to meaningful media silence – seem to have zipped under the Western media’s radar.

Among the wired-up youth, (Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s) speech served to open up a vein of gender-based joshing and satire- Ranier Fsadni

First, the facts.

In his Benghazi speech, Mr Abdul Jalil stated that, in the new Libya, the Sharia (Islamic law) would be the main source for the country’s legislation. He had already said this five weeks earlier, before a massed crowd in Tripoli. Then, he had gone on to speak of Libya’s “middle-ground Islam” and of women as ministers of government. In Tripoli, the notion of “source” suggested room for considerable 21st century contextual reinterpretation.

In Benghazi, however, the idea of the Sharia as a source of law was given different examples. Mr Abdul Jalil said that banking practices involving the charging of interest would need to be abolished. And that marriage law would need to be realigned with the Sharia. “Source” here suggested the basis of detailed legal drafting.

The international press generally misreported this speech as announcing the introduction of polygamy (strictly speaking, polygyny). In fact, Muammar Gaddafi had never abolished the right, given to men by the Sharia, to marry up to four women at a time. What he had done was curb it. A man wanting to take a second wife now had to give reasons before a (state) court as well as have his first wife’s permission, which was to be declared in person before the judge. Furthermore, the first wife was to be given the house she was living in.

Mr Abdul Jalil was therefore proposing to roll back women’s marital rights. (It’s not clear from his short speech whether he was also proposing to take away a state court’s right to examine any man’s reasons for divorce – the legal aim being to curb male arbitrariness.) It may not have been to the extent suggested by the reports. However, despite his dismay, the attention that part of his speech got was justified, especially given that he was using the example to illustrate the new Libyan order he had in mind.

However, while the international press focused on the Western reaction, little attention was generally paid to the reaction in Libya. The speech surprised and dismayed many Libyans themselves. At Tripoli University, the New York Times was not able to find a single woman, veiled or unveiled, who welcomed it. Most were angry. My own conversations have been similar. And it is noteworthy that, although one report spoke of “several hundred men” celebrating the speech in Benghazi, several hundred is relatively few in comparison with the thousands who attended or watched it on TV.

Among the wired-up youth, the speech served to open up a vein of gender-based joshing and satire. Facebook pages filled up with taunting jokes and rhyming banter. Young men teased with their glee; young women retorted with rhymes imploring Col Gaddafi to return. His infamous “zenga zenga” speech (in which he vowed to hunt the rebels down in every nook and cranny) was adapted for the marital hunt: a chant of labyrinthine self-irony, complete with an allusion to the hallucinatory drugs that the young men must have swallowed, while also, however, bidding young women to be less demanding so that they can hold on to their man.

Equally significant is what has not taken place. Libyan TV these days is chock-full of discussion programmes and phone-ins. As far as I can tell, polygamy has never been discussed. Programming remains steadfastly “un-Islamic” – at least by Islamist standards. TV hosts include young women in short-sleeved Western dresses, loose hair and make-up. Guests include pop stars in T-shirts (music is also frowned upon by the kind of Islamist who would cheer repealing the Gaddafi law on polygamy). On the only occasion I came across an Islamic preacher hosting a phone-in, the emphasis was on national unity and brotherhood.

The media silence has, of course, not kept Mr Abdul Jalil’s polygamy clause from being the subject of serious discussion in “the street”. The proposal was especially puzzling because polygamy has long been on the wane in Libya for reasons that were unrelated to law. Why, therefore, should it seem prioritised? The speculation has ranged widely. Was it due to the interim President’s personality (he is personally much respected but not regarded as completely clued-up politically)? Did it signal a shift in the balance of power within the National Transitional Council?

In a Muslim country, the Sharia is a symbol with many meanings, not just a body of jurisprudence. So was Mr Abdul Jalil really trying to signal a more legally disciplined Libya – not so much a theocracy as much as a law-and-order government?

Such satire, silence and speculation tell us much about the new Libya as much as the speech itself.

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