Prehistoric Amazons Inspire Modern Libyan Women – Al Marsad

The symbolism of the ancient and powerful female warriors of antiquity, known as the Libyan Amazons, who predate their Greek and Asia Minor counterparts, are the contemporary inspiration for the Benghazi-based National Organization of the Amazons of Libya. In this exclusive feature on civil society organisations in Libya, Al Marsad speaks to its founder Khadija Bsekri on the work of the modern-day Libyan Amazons. 

Ancient Greek myths tell of female Amazonian community who were fierce fighters who ruled the land of North Africa and Libya in particular, and assumed political and military roles. Their title draws from the ancient Greek name Ἀμαζόνε (or Amazónes, singular Ἀμαζών Amazōn) meaning “Breastless”, as legends say that the female Amazons had to cut one of their breasts to be able to wear armour, and use bows and arrows without impediment.

A helmeted Amazon with her sword and a shield bearing the image of the head of the Gorgon.

The female Amazons are depicted on Libyan prehistoric sculptures and drawings of the Acacus Mountains and elsewhere in the country. They are portrayed as graceful fighters wearing bird-like helmets. Despite their beauty and flair, they formidably vicious fighters as any seasoned warrior. In fact, as mythological accounts state, the Libyan Amazons were the first to use horses for combat purposes.

The North African Amazons (Libya) pre-dated the East Amazons (Asia), since the Libyan Amazon society had completely disappeared prior to the Trojan War, while the East Amazon society while were at their apogee.

A sarcophagus fragment showing the Libyan Amazons in action found in Wadi Khamish, west of Tolmeita, Cyrenaica, Libya (circa 2nd century AD)

The myths indicate that the Amazons of Libya existed, and were gone before the Greek Amazons and those in Asia Minor rose to prominence. They are the true precursors of the Wonder Woman, or Diana the princess of the Amazons, whose tales of bravery narrated through mythology were popularised by Hollywood films.

The Amazonian society with its special social organisation and norms (as portrayed later by the ancient Greeks) has been the subject of an immensely rich history. This image that celebrated and glorified the strong and powerful woman, became a symbol of the Libyan woman. The strong women who are now emerging, drawing on the spirit of their Amazonian ancestors, are showing their nation that they are capable of building peace in the midst of conflict and war.

The female Amazon remains mythology, yet its rich symbolism continue to inspire many women. The tribe of Amazons were independent, powerful and wise, just like the modern day members of the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya, an organisation founded and inspired by Khadija Bsekri.

Twenty-first Century Female Amazons

“In the history of Libya, the female Amazons have fought to survive and even fought Macedonian Alexander, but we fight ignorance and backwardness and we mourn our heritage with the strong myth of the woman,” said Professor Khadija Bsekri, founder and president of the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya.

Khadija Bsekri, founder and president of the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya

National Organization of the Amazons of Libya, or as they are commonly know, “The Female Amazons of Libya”, is an organisation founded in 2011 in Benghazi, under the slogan of a conscious national woman capable of facing the struggles of life. Bsekri explained its manifesto as follows:

“We are against segregation or discrimination between men and women, but in the presence of these facts in our society today of male control and domination and viewing women as inferior in perspective, we must revive a feminist movement through which women support each other.”

The Female Amazons of Libya

The organisation, which is a member of the Arab Visions Network launched by the Jordanian Women’s Union whose membership includes feminist associations from all over the Arab world, has focused since its establishment on promoting women’s political and social participation, and its programmes have included a range of issues, such as programmes accompanying the elections, supporting female candidates, encouraging citizens to participate in the promotion of human rights concerning Libyan women, the project to support Libyan women married to foreigners in obtaining their rights and the rights of their children, and the project on the role of women in national reconciliation.

In addition, a number of awareness campaigns have been launched on issues such as violence against women, the campaign to raise awareness on breast cancer and the necessity of early detection, campaigns about environmental safety such as boycotting the use of plastic bags.

Furthermore, the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya initiated a project to strengthen the capacities of activists and media professionals and document violations in partnership with International Press Organization for War and Peace, and also a programme to improve the status of migrant shelters in partnership with the International Migration Organization (IMO), as well as the organization’s cooperation with UNFPA to support and protect women who have been subjected to violence and to inform them of their rights. This project that seeks to develop a comprehensive civil law that protects women and is to be presented to the League of Arab States.

Khadija Bsekri, being an accomplished Libyan poet, has also ensured that the programmes of the Female Amazons of Libya always incorporate various cultural activities for all age groups of their network.

Economic Empowerment and Alleviating Poverty

Bsekri also explained another important dimension of the organisation’s work. “As a response to the country’s conditions, women’s need for economic independence and society’s need for women’s economic empowerment, we offer cooking courses, sewing and other handcrafts to help women improve their family income. Although this is a deviation from our basic goal and I am personally opposed to the woman’s role in the kitchen and the house, we believe that poverty is the greatest enemy of humanity, and we believe that women should be qualified to support themselves and their families.”

In fact, the courses received a lot of demand from citizens of different age groups, who are practicing crafts that provides them with a decent living. As the labor market may be complicated for those who had not previously been involved in it, the organization’s administration decided to establish a service center for sewing, embroidery and cooking to set up events for female graduates to participate. This provides them with an  income and enable them to train more women. The organization also seeks today to establish a permanent online presence for marketing the crafts produced by their members as a source of revenue for women.

Such activities create a positive spirit by offering material and moral support and value. This association, which started as an awareness institution, is currently operating in many areas and supporting many women, to help carry family burdens and promote self-reliance.

Psychological and Emotional Support

However, the important project that distinguishes the Female Amazons of Libya is the Psychological Support Center at the association’s headquarters in Benghazi, under the supervision of a distinguished team of psychological support specialists, who work morning and evening to provide all support and advice.

Although acknowledging the need for psychological counselling is still very much taboo in Libyan society, the organization’s team confirmed Al Marsad that the reception of the centre’s programmes confirms the beginning steps of the reconciliation of Libyan women with themselves and their courage in requesting counselling support.

The team of Female Amazons of Libya told Al Marsad:

“The most important thing we have achieved through this project is to provide support for the wives and mothers of martyrs. They passed through a phase of isolation and fear after the martyrdom of their loved ones, including women who have been abused and many others. Every Libyan woman who knocks on the door of our organization will have her sisters to receive her with a wide range of advice and counselling.”

Organized Institutional Work

 “We are not a charity organization that provides relief and financial aid to needy families, nor do we have contempt for the role of such associations. On the contrary, they have a very important role to play. However, the role of civil society should be stronger in working for reforming society and spreading a culture of awareness and knowledge”, said the founder and president of the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya, Khadija Bsekri.

She presents the summary of her experiment in the form of advice and a work charter and ethos. She says, “We advise emerging organizations, which tend to mostly work as charities, to develop their vision, goals, and projects. I also hope there will be a gathering and a system to organize and unify their efforts”

The National Organization of the Amazons of Libya participates in a book rescue campaign

Finally, Khadija Bsekri says, “Civil society organizations have played a monumental part in the absence of the role of the state, especially during the war on terrorism, but there is certainly some weakness, especially as many of them have emerged as a sort of a reaction to the circumstances found in society. Therefore, the Civil Society Commission must perform its evaluation role of the work of civil organizations and provide support based on this assessment, introducing a system that invests the experience of the veteran associations in supporting the emerging organizations—a role we play in the Female Amazons of Libya—but not in an organized manner.”

As civil society organizations in Benghazi and in other cities in Libya begin to consolidate and expand their efforts to meet the challenges faced by women, the formidable work of the Female Amazons of Libya will continue to light the difficult path ahead for the nation as women rebuilt their lives towards a more inclusive and prosperous future.

© Al Marsad English. 2019.


Further Resources

For more information on the work of the National Organization of the Amazons of Libya or to support their work please visit their Facebook page.