Annick Cojean: "Gaddafi's Harem"

A Monstrous Nexus of Power, Sexuality and Violence

In her book "Gaddafi's Harem", the French journalist Annick Cojean documents the extent to which the former Libyan dictator was obsessed with power and sexuality, as well as how he channelled his hatred of all those born into privilege into an abusive practice that subjugated their wives. By Gabriele Michel

There are books that really are the "axe for the frozen sea within us", as Kafka once said. Annick Cojean's "Gaddafi's Harem" is just such a book. Its original French title is "Les proies", or 'The prey'. In the case of Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years, the word 'prey' refers to all those women whose fate is described by the French journalist in her book. Prey for a terrible but at the same time celebrated leader who deployed sexuality to an unimaginable extent as a way of exercising power during his entire rule, abusing and raping countless women.

Cojean, a reporter with "Le Monde", travelled to Tripoli in October 2011 to explore the role of women in the revolution and discover how their situation was developing in post-revolutionary Libya. In the course of her research she happened to meet a young woman, named Soraya in the book, who divulged a terrible story – a story that leads back to the Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi. Cojean, aghast, documented Soraya's experiences. This report forms the first part of her book.

Annick Cojean (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Image)
With her book "Gaddafi's Harem", Annick Cojean partly achieves something that will no longer take place institutionally: It publicises Gaddafi's crimes thereby giving victims a voice – at last

In the torture chambers of Bab al-Azizia

Soraya was barely 15 years old when she was kidnapped by Gaddafi's henchmen and locked up in the cellars of the notorious military base and compound at Bab al-Azizia, together with other girls and women. She was detained here for three years, during which time she was repeatedly raped, abused and humiliated by Gaddafi. During this entire period, every day of her life was overshadowed by despotism, violence and fear.

In fact, Soraya's story is the story of a crushed existence. This is because there was (and is) a wall of fearful silence in Libyan society, which bolsters Soraya's isolation and helplessness to this day. She also told Cojean about the women who worked for Gaddafi, tormenting his prey on his behalf.

Many of them had previously been raped by the "great leader", or "Papa Muammar", as he liked to be known. After this, they were unable to return to their families – a single woman still has no place in Libyan society. Some women saw collaboration as the only way out – a cruel way for the victim to become the perpetrator.

Soraya did not choose this path. But her case also intermeshes personal trauma and social repression: The experiences of Soraya, initially childlike and completely overwhelmed, then deeply traumatized, are retold by Cojean so sensitively and with such attention to detail that one perceives them in a way that extracts them from Soraya's experience – and registers them as pure horror.

Gaddafi's war against women

The second part of the book collates the results of Annick Cojean's research. She documents the fate of other Libyan women who have had experiences similar to those of Soraya.

Cover of Gadaffi's Harem (photo: Grove Press)
Repression not liberation: Pumped up with lust for power, a drive later boosted by Viagra, the Libyan dictator abused numerous women (and men) every day. Gaddafi waged war against the very women he pretended to liberate

She summarises a report by someone employed within the dictator's inner circle, which like numerous other testimonials reveals to what unimaginable extent Gaddafi was obsessed with power and sexuality and, in view of his poor Bedouin background, how he channelled his hatred of all those born into privilege into a system that subjugated their wives; with gifts, and if necessary also with force.

The rapes were also often a way of exerting power over his partners at the negotiating table by appropriating their wives. Pumped up with lust for power, a drive later boosted by Viagra, Gaddafi abused numerous women (and men) every day; sometimes for a quarter of an hour – during political negotiations that he interrupted – and sometimes for days, weeks and – just as in the case of Soraya and many other women – for years. Gaddafi waged war against the very women he pretended to liberate.

The French journalist and prize-winning author also recorded a conversation with two women from what was known as Gaddafi's "Amazonian Guard" and a report by the former head of the education authority which reveals how he and his men scrupulously exploited their influence within institutions such as schools, universities, film, shows and theatre to supply Gaddafi with women.

This, and all the other evidence that Cojean has gathered with remarkable courage and presented with palpable indignation, means her book is both a harrowing and an alarming read.

Last year, the author was awarded the "Grand Prix de la Presse Internationale" for her book "Les proies". It has since been published in Brazil and has been translated into Arabic and German. Numerous other nations have acquired translation rights, and the book is rapidly gaining visibility – the book is already a bestseller in the Arab world.

A determination not to forget

In Libya, the issue brought female members of an NGO out onto the streets to protest in front of parliament. But although a rally such as this is a display of determination and guts, Soraya and many women who have suffered a similar fate must still deal with the consequences: Shame, feelings of guilt and instability mean it is nigh on impossible to lead a "normal" life.

The same goes for all those who were raped by Gaddafi's henchmen during the Libyan civil war, as a way of undermining the rebels' resolve. Experts within the country itself estimate that at least 2,700 people are currently affected – and this figure probably represents only the tip of the iceberg. They too are direct victims of the monstrous nexus of power, sexuality and violence practiced by Gaddafi.

Gaddafi's death prevented any legal processing of the crimes he perpetrated. And this is why Annick Cojean's book is so important: It partly achieves something that will not take place institutionally: it publicises Gaddafi's crimes thereby giving his victims a voice – at last.

This is why Cojean's shocking report must be taken seriously: As a reminder and as an appeal in the pursuit of real equality for the sexes, to bolster women's rights and fight for the anchoring of these in the constitution – in Libya and all the nations of the world.

Gabriele Michel

© Qantara.de 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Annick Cojean: "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya", published in English by Grove Press

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