Rami al-Shaheibi, Associated Press
BENGHAZI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi famously surrounded himself with a personal coterie of female bodyguards during the decades he ruled Libya. But it was more a sign of his eccentricities than a real commitment to equality for women in this conservative Islamic society.
Now the revolutionary forces that swept the longtime leader from power last month are offering military training to scores of women, some of them housewives, others high school teachers. On Sunday at a military compound in the eastern city of Benghazi, dozens of women with machine guns slung over their shoulders listened attentively to instructions in shooting and martial arts. They are the latest group of trainees as Libya's new leaders work to build a national army.
Women were at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Gadhafi uprising in February, demanding democracy for the country and justice for loved ones who had been killed. Many women now hope the revolution will herald full equality.
"We should be equal and we're fighting for the same goal, so why should the men have to carry the burdens of this fight while we sit and watch?" said Amal al-Obeidi, 35, who teaches business management at a high school in Benghazi.
"The least we can do is learn to protect ourselves so the men can focus on fighting Gadhafi on the front lines knowing that we have their back," added al-Obeidi, who wore a headscarf and was brimming with enthusiasm.
She said Islam doesn't forbid women from fighting alongside the men.
"The men have died on the front lines as they had to fight with no weapons and they sacrificed their lives to protect us ... while we were at home doing nothing to help like a piece of a valuable antique furniture," she said as she struggled to hold a heavy machine gun with two hands at the school. "Gadhafi's mercenaries could come back at anytime so I want to be ready to defend myself and my house if I have to."
Volunteers at the military training center say they felt helpless during the months of fighting leading to Gadhafi's ouster, especially with reports about rapes by Gadhafi forces, and no longer want to sit on the sidelines.
At least 200 women have graduated from the program since it began at Benghazi's Technical Military Compound in late March. They are given the choice of joining the National Security Force, which operates like the U.S. National Guard and allows them to operate in their own cities. There's currently no talk of sending women to the front lines.
The Benghazi training center is one of several set up around the country.
A unit of 20 unarmed women was deployed last month when British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Benghazi and addressed a crowd in the main city square. The female guards stood watch and searched other women with fears high that male attackers could try to disguise themselves with all-encompassing robes.
Abdul-Basit Haron, a military commander in Benghazi, said all revolutionary fighters, including the women, would get a one-time fee of $5,000.
Col. Mohammed Garaboli, the commander of the compound where the training takes place, said women's involvement in the military is important for morale.
"Women feel like they are neglected and they came here to prove that they are equal to men in this society," he said. "They want to show the world what the Libyans are made of and how open-minded they are as well."
The role of women is sensitive in this conservative Muslim country, even though Gadhafi regime long touted policies it said were aimed at breaking cultural taboos concerning women's work and status. The erratic leader had a contingent of female bodyguards and a small number of women were elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.
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