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Libyan women ground their artwork in tradition

To many in the Western world, Arab women are mysterious, repressed and shrouded in long black robes. And many Libyans are aware of that sweeping stereotype. But Libyan women are active in politics, academia and government. They also have a presence in the arts.

ambi: art gallery

Najla Fitouri is enjoying the opening night of a gallery exhibit where pieces of her artwork are on display. She uses vibrant shades in her acrylic paintings: yellows, plums, and magentas.

Most of the paintings feature Libyan women communing with each other. Earlier that day, Fitouri explains one the paintings to me. Four smiling women are adorned in gold while preparing for a wedding.

FITOURI: They have seven days. This is the last day. We have the party, and the henna.

Fitouri fades

Week-long weddings are a central part of Libyan society, as common as the Col. Qaddafi billboards plastered around the country.

Fitouri in Arabic

Fitouri says most people are surprised to see faces of Libyan women in her artwork. But they like it.

Arabic ambi continues

Fitouri studied art at a university in Tripoli, drawn to the Expressionist era. She’s had exhibitions abroad. One of Fitouri’s paintings portrays several women huddled together. They are mourning.

FITOURI: Every day I saw this on TV. Women in Gaza. You find this woman in all of the world – the sadness woman, the poor woman.

Fitouri continues in Arabic

Fitouri challenges the popular embodiment of Arab, Muslim women as sad and cloaked in veils. The twist in this painting is that the women are donning brighter hues instead of the expected black. One of the women plays a traditional Arabic instrument.

Fitouri’s acrylics depict parties; women carrying cauldrons of incense; and young, modern women at a coffee shop.

Paintings that reflect tradition and customs are important to her.

ambi fades

Tradition is also important to Rabia Ben Barka, the woman known as Libya’s first - and most successful – fashion designer.
ambi up at Ben Barka’s home

She lives on a lavish family compound and is dressed just as lavishly. The petite Ben Barka, who declines to give her age, wears a cream turban and matching pants. A dusty-rose colored blouse is underneath a cream stole tied as a toga.

ambi of music

Ben Barka’s Tripoli-based fashion line is named Azzia Kareema. Her grandfather owned a textile factory and she grew up learning to sew with leftover fabrics. The fashion line had a breakthrough in the early 1980s. She’s designed clothes for the Qaddafi family and has a global clientele…along with fashion shows in Europe.

Tonight she puts on one in her home with two models.

The man has chiseled looks that belong in a cologne ad. The woman is a brown and statuesque like Iman. They strut down a winding staircase modeling several different Azzia Kareema outfits.

Ben Barka gives sideline commentary.

BEN BARKA: The jewelry is important in any Libyan costume.

That gold jewelry complements a shimmery dress the color of the inside of a pistachio.

Next up is a men’s suit with traditional Libyan embroidery etched on the sleeves.

BEN BARKA: It reflects everything that is in Libya: the desert, the Roman ruins, the history.

Azzia Kareema uses traditional Libyan striped fabrics. The designs are modern, elegant and upscale.

BEN BARKA: What I did is modernizing our national costume. Not modernizing in a way to disappear. No. I want to modernize it for the new generations to know the values of each items they’re using is from their traditions, their grounds, you know?

These looks belie the belief that Arab women are always covered. The woman who wears an abaya, or black robe, to, say, the grocery store in the morning might look different at night.

BEN BARKA: They should come and see us at home. If they come and see us at home or in our weddings or in any parties, they will be amazed. You find how much richness, how many diamonds, how many golds, how many Yves St. Laurents or Chanel dresses.
ambi fades

Whereas Ben Barka and painter Najla Fitouri use aesthetics to express their Libyan identity, author Razan Almoghrabi explores unsettledness among some Libyan women.
ambi up

We are sitting outside at a hotel coffee and hookah lounge. Almoghrabi smokes cigarettes and sips on a cappuccino. She started her career in newspapers after giving up on an accounting profession. She’s written seven novels. Almoghrabi’s second one tells the story of Libyan women in a conservative society and how it may not be what it seems.

ambi: Almoghrabi in Arabic.

VOICEOVER: It talks about women who are looking for things they can’t find in the privacy of their own homes or married life. Even here in Libya there are instances where women do go outside of the home to find fulfillment in the evening.

Almoghrabi doesn’t want to go into too much detail without spoiling the book. But through an interpreter I tell her since I can’t read Arabic, I need a hint.

ambi Arabic

She answers that some of her characters have a lot of relationships outside of their marriages. Her writing is based on friends’ experiences - plus the idea that these types of feelings happen all around the world – the human quest for fulfillment.

Almogrhrabi reveals a darker side of Libya. She acknowledges that patriarchy does hinder women in Libyan society. She knows the law is equal toward women, but there are societal contradictions.

She says education, and cultural exposure and maybe one of her books may help reverse those contradictions.

Check out the blog Natalie Moore wrote while in Libya:

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