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Book review: Gaddafi's Harem, By Annick Cojean, trans. Marjolijn de Jager

The 'liberator' of Arab women in fact exploited and enslaved them at every opportunity

When the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011, no one was in any doubt about the horrors he had inflicted on opponents. Thousands had been imprisoned, tortured or murdered during his 42-year regime. But few knew of his other poisonous legacy - the rape and imprisonment of hundreds if not thousands of young women to fulfil his sexual fantasies.

Annick Cojean is an award-winning French journalist who noticed, covering the downfall of Gaddafi for Le Monde, how few women were vocal in the revolution. She heard stories of girls being abducted by Gaddafi and used for sex, sometimes for a day, sometimes kept for years. She made it her mission to uncover the fate of these forgotten women. Procured for Gaddafi by his posse of helpers, cajoled into meeting with the dictator by false promises, girls, often in their early teens, were sought out at official visits to schools and other public occasions. A signal by Gaddafi would indicate which young girl presenting him with flowers he wished to procure.

The irony was that Gaddafi was lecturing other Arab nations on the rights of women. Ostensibly, he seemed progressive. He raised the legal age for marriage to 20; granted rights for divorced women, and, in 1979, opened a Military Academy for women. Many of his personal bodyguards were women. When Cojean investigated, it transpired that most were part of his harem, rewarded with presents for compliance, punished or even executed for escape.

The book contains the harrowing testimonies of several women. Soraya was plucked from school aged 15. She was then imprisoned and forced to participate in frenzied sex sessions in which the dictator would bite, hit and even urinate on her. Escape was futile: she was now seen as "soiled" in Libyan society. Her family rejected her.

Khadija is another witness: a law student expelled in her first year. A woman in a salon offered her help in being reinstated, but she was one of Gaddafi's gang of recruiters. Khadija was raped by Gaddafi. She escaped Libya but Gaddafi's vengeance was to have his people sneak narcotics into the suitcase of her brother, returning from a trip abroad, and use her return as blackmail to save his life.

This is a grim book in many ways, but the story is important. Gaddafi's image as an emancipator of women was a front. He ruined the lives of so many girls. These women were forgotten, cast out, neglected. Cojean's book has now been published in Arabic, as well as in other languages, and people in Libya and elsewhere are learning the extent of Gaddafi's vile crimes.

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