Libyan Jew: I want to scream

The desperate situation of Afghan women under Taliban rule  has prompted Giulia Boukhobza  to write this heartfelt Times of Israel blog, protesting the apathy of the West’s ‘woke’ brigade to women’s rights in the Muslim world. As a Jew and a woman, she  was well acquainted with the way men harassed girls in Libya. Giulia fled  her native Tripoli for Italy in 1967, before re-settling in the USA. (With thanks: Denis)

Afghan women dressed in burqas

I was born in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in 1951. I am the second oldest of six sisters and two brothers. Even though Libya was in some ways more cosmopolitan than Afghanistan — we had movie theaters and concerts, an American airbase, and Italian schools where I had my education — Muslim women still had to wear a burqa in the streets, covering the entire body except for a mesh screen to see out of, and did not work outside the house.

We, as non-Muslim (Jewish) females, were allowed to wear Western clothes. Yet, I knew from a very young age that I belonged to the worst group of all: Being both a female and an “infidel.” You can argue which was worse. In my view, it was being a female.

Wearing Western dress made me a perpetual target. Or, to paraphrase the countless men and boys who tried to pinch me, touch my breasts, and expose themselves to me (and my sisters and female friends), I was a “whore,” a “sinner,” a “prostitute” and a “dog.”

They would attempt to “bump” into me while walking, or, if I was in the water, come from underneath to try to remove my bathing suit. I could feel their repressed lust coupled with unbridled hatred. My fear was indescribable. I became so traumatized that, to this day, decades later, I am still reluctant to enter the water and can barely swim.

Surely, their hatred was a function of religious indoctrination coupled with the frustration of desiring women but being taught that their own women had to be essentially hidden from sight and “pure.” Yet strangely, because I did not know any better, because I had never seen the world outside Libya, I somehow adjusted to this life. I instinctively understood the tactics for survival – try to stay quiet, keep my head down, cross the street if a male approaches. And, yes, confide in my girlfriends in a similar position for the sake of my own mental health, but never with my parents or brothers in order to protect them from their own sense of helpless rage.

After all, we were a tiny minority within a larger minority of non-Muslims in an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority society. And we felt it. We girls more than others.

I remember vividly an episode that encapsulates so much for me.

A new girl from Greece arrived in our school. She and I become fast friends. Earlier, she had lived in Italy, and I thought she was sophisticated, elegant, and beautiful.  One afternoon, she and I were walking in the center of Tripoli and some men started groping us. She immediately began screaming at them. I saw danger. I took her hand and started running with her, entering the first store I saw.

Breathless, I told her she cannot yell like that. We could have ended up being punched, killed, or imprisoned on some trumped-up charge. I’ll never forget her reaction. She looked at me as if I were crazy and said: “No, they can’t do that to me. I have my Greek embassy here to protect me.”

I came home and broke my own rule by telling that story to my mother. Her reaction was that from now on I could only meet my new friend at my place or hers, but not outside because if something happened, I did not have any “embassy” to help me.

And then in 1967, after a hate-fest that saw some Jewish families slaughtered and my family almost burned alive by a mob, we were allowed to leave Libya with one bag each and the equivalent of thirty dollars per person. I was never to return.

Italy offered us refuge. The ten of us arrived on July 14th, crammed into one room in a hostel, and four days later two sisters and I started working to help our family survive. At the time, we were 17, 16 and 15 years old.

Life was not easy and we were as poor as church mice, but I still remember that period in Rome as one of the happiest times of my life. It took me a while to understand exactly why. And then one day it came to me. It was the discovery of freedom. Freedom to be me. Freedom to be a female. Freedom to walk and not be scared of being harassed. Freedom to appreciate that when young Italian boys would flirt with me, they knew they had no right to touch me or call me a “whore” just because I didn’t wear a burqa.

Now at the age of 70, I cannot even begin to fathom living without that freedom, or, even worse, that my granddaughters would have it denied to them.

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