The way of life in Ghadames is built on working with the environment and making the best of what you're given to live in harmony with your surroundings. Living in the harsh desert means endless work for everyone which has lead to clearly defined gender roles. Men's and Women's work have always been clearly defined and segregated in Ghadames; for example, men would occupy the street level of the old city while women conducted their work on the rooftops. Surprisingly, this has created a population of women fully aware of their ability to make an impact on their society. Even now that the people of Ghadames live with every modern convenience, they have upheld this tradition of cooperation between men and women.
Khadija points to the door of her childhood home, as we walk through the cool dark streets of the Old City, and recalls how these streets were forbidden for women during daylight while she was growing up. Having lived through drastic changes in womens rights in Ghadames, Khadija is amazed at the progress women have made in her lifetime and proud of her own contribution to that progress.
Kadija was inspired to educate
herself at a very young age by her second-grade teacher, Soad Abdulsalam
Sleid. Soad, a mother of 11, performed her daily chores, including bringing
water from the well, every morning before coming to school to teach Khadija's
class. Khadija also recalls her mothers ability to do the household
accounting and fix radios and other machinery without ever having gone
to school. Khadija's strongest role model is her mother; she says her
mother "opened the way" for her to accomplish all she has.
By observing such women around her, Khadija
became convinced women could overcome all challenges and became aware
of women's influence on family and community.
Khadija began her career as a teacher at 17 after finishing middle school and earning a teaching certificate from the Teacher's Institute (a 2-year program after middle school.) She formed a strong bond with her students and became an icon for the community. Her community's support encouraged her to reach out for higher positions where she could have a stronger impact on her community.
Since childhood, Khadija dreamed of being a pioneer. In 1988, her dream was realized as she was appointed head of a government committee for youth needs. At age 26, Khadija accepted the position, proud to be chosen for her merits over a group of men. That year, she also obtained a second teaching degree and established the first kindergarten in Ghadames. She considers her first class of students to be her own children and has followed their progress through the years. In 1999 she received her bachelor's degree in sociology from The Open University in Ghadames.
Though she loves teaching, Khadija has always identified herself as a writer. She has finished writing her first book and is awaiting its publication. In her book, Woman: a mirror for Society, she asserts that "the progress of society is measured by the awareness of its women and their participation in planning for the future." She developed her thesis after formal study of sociology, but more importantly from observing women in Ghadames. "Each society has its own culture which is handed down to children through the mother. The aware woman would reflect the culture onto future generations." Khadija is currently writing her second book: Religion as Social Interaction. In this book she explains that the basis of all religions is human interaction, and all religions agree on the importance of how we treat those around us.
Khadija began her writing career with articles for several Libyan and Arabic newspapers and magazines. She wrote articles in Al-Bayt and children's stories in Al-Amal, in the 1980s and 1990s, under the guidance of Khadija al-Jahmi. Her articles were also published in the Kuwaiti newspapers Al Yakatha and Al Nahda. She also lends her talents to local publications in Ghadames: Al Baydaa and Al-Mar'a wa Al-Mujtama'a.
In addition to her teaching,
writing, and social service career, Khadija is well known in Ghadames
for her charity work and her work to promote and preserve the culture
of Ghadames. She has worked with UNICEF, Red Crescent , and Al-Hana association
for the care of orphans. She is the assistant secretary for girl scouts
in Ghadames. She also participates in organizing the annual International
Ghadames Festival as well as several other activities dedicated to women's
freedom and awareness. For example, she is an active member of the Women
Society where she organizes programs to teach traditional crafts. In 2002,
she was given the Leadership Award for Women by the Libyan government
for her dedication to social issues and cultural awareness, and especially
for her work with women.
Khadija's feminism is born out of the cooperation required for survival in a place like Ghadames. Furthermore, her views dont conflict with her culture but are inspired by her heritage and the history of strong women in Ghadames. She says, "Some women think men are an obstacle in the way of their progress; in fact, they can be a source of encouragement and support." Men and women share a respectful interdependence in Ghadames and their interaction is quite different from models commonly found in larger Libyan cities. Ghadames can certainly be characterized by the involvement and success of its women; a success made possible by the vision and efforts of women like Khadija Wawo.
*Magda Fehema-Sharkasi is a former board member and Cofounder of Tibra Foundation.
** With permission from Jorge Tutor