Published: June 14, 2019
LONDON - Libya’s revolution in 2011 upended forty-two years of Muammar Ghaddafi’s rulership but the promise of greater suffrage for women never bloomed. As the lid off of authoritarian rule came off, a new authoritarianism sought to banish women from public life and prolong their silence.
As the gains achieved by women gradually rolled back, uncritical readings of how women truly fared in post-Gaddafi Libya across international press exposed a lack of gender consciousness. On screen women and in print press were celebrated or cast-typed as the surface of their struggle was barely scratched.
Director and actor, Naziha Arebi’s colourful film, ‘Freedom Fields’, offers a rich and holistic reading of women in post-Gaddafi Libya as she follows members of Libya’s national football team between the years 2011 and 2017. A year earlier Arebi marked her first homecoming as she and her father returned to their ancestral home but she returned 12 months later and stayed.
The film depicts what few have captured a plural Libya, multiethnic and multitalented, through the lens of ordinary youth which as Arebi said revealed during a premier hosted by birds eye view film took 6 months to track “like ghosts, they were”. The team, initially founded in 1997, was revived following Ghaddafi’s removal from power but its fate remained precarious and quality remained poor, in spite of the wealth of talents its members boasted.
Arebi, half British half Libyan, captures what few before her have — the plurality of Libyan society — away from the disservice of inflated stereotypes that skim over the lack of physical security and equal rights afforded to women after Gaddafi’s fall.
Women are placed at the heart of the film “all very different to each other,” Arebi told audiences at picturehouse premier in London, zooming in on the obstacles society, unknowingly and knowingly, places in the way of its women.
The team Arebi follows, represents one of Libya’s few post-Gaddafi democratic spaces. Girls from diametrically opposite worlds — an engineer, medical student and internally displaced youth — are united, alongside others, by their love of sport and hunger to represent Libya at the local and international level.
Lack of public support, the biggest barrier that stood in their way, coloured even the attitude of supporting parents aware of their inability to convert the Libyan street as it actively fought against aspiring Libyan sportswomen.
The hope that football represented for women quickly dissipated while in the political domain observers pointed to the ministry of health and social affairs headed by women as evidence of female empowerment in post-Gaddafi Libya. The emotionally laden film captures a cynical sense of humour that runs right through the female demographic that helps viewers unfamiliar with Libya to identify these contradictions.
Football therefore serves as the perfect metaphor of the double-bind dilemma women in Libya, and elsewhere in the region, find themselves in. On the pitch, athletes were sexualised and scapegoated for moral decay while off pitch, their efforts to break free from patriarchal norms were repeatedly thwarted, largely by men but also women.
The team’s complicated relationship with the Libyan Football Federation holds up a mirror to the relationship society at large has with power, characterised by betrayal, conditional support and exploitation which culminated in explosive arguments during the teams first ever international match, 4 years after the revolution, in Lebanon.
The humour, light heartedness and lion-hearted personas Arebi’s film teases out, neither downplays or exaggerates the deeply conservative texture of Libya where patriarchy infiltrates society at all levels, old and young, male and female.
“It’s up to people to take what they want from it” Arebi Arebi told audience members when asked about the film message and framing, “films ought to work on these different layers” and later added that “it was never really about football”.
She spoke of moments of friendship, laughter and conflict and how she and the films protagonists became “friends for life. I’m not just a journalist that goes in and leaves” Arebi said commenting on her responsibilities as a filmmaker.
Overall, the film, at all its levels, provides a corrective to the stereotypes that plaster over the lived reality for women who from a young age are shaped to accept an inferior status in society.
Arebi’s laborious 7 year old project goes further in her analysis of post-Gaddafi Libya than male news commentators and observers. She brings to life a story about the unravelling of state institutions and how this was matched by the erosion of women’s rights and an attempt to prolong their silence or confine them to the shadows of their homes.
The final victory for the girls comes not after competing in international tournaments but after they walked away from the federation that betrayed them to set up their own NGO, Hera, using sports to facilitate healing and trauma relief to nurture and not crush the aspiration of subsequent female generations.
The film is back on tour across the UK across the months of June and July.