BENGHAZI - Muammar Qadhafi famously surrounded himself with a personal coterie of female bodyguards during the decades he ruled Libya. But it was more a sign of his eccentricities than a real commitment to equality for women in this conservative Islamic society.
Now the revolutionary forces that swept the longtime leader from power last month are offering military training to scores of women, some of them housewives, others high school teachers. On Sunday at a military compound in the eastern city of Benghazi, dozens of women with machine guns slung over their shoulders listened attentively to instructions in shooting and martial arts. They are the latest group of trainees as Libya's new leaders work to build a national army.
Women were at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Qadhafi uprising in February, demanding democracy for the country and justice for loved ones who had been killed. Many women now hope the revolution will herald full equality.
"We should be equal and we're fighting for the same goal, so why should the men have to carry the burdens of this fight while we sit and watch?" said Amal al-Obeidi, 35, who teaches business management at a high school in Benghazi.
"The least we can do is learn to protect ourselves so the men can focus on fighting Qadhafi on the front lines knowing that we have their back," added Obeidi, who wore a headscarf and was brimming with enthusiasm.
She said Islam doesn't forbid women from fighting alongside the men.
"The men have died on the front lines as they had to fight with no weapons and they sacrificed their lives to protect us ... while we were at home doing nothing to help like a piece of a valuable antique furniture," she said as she struggled to hold a heavy machine gun with two hands at the school. "Qadhafi's mercenaries could come back at anytime so I want to be ready to defend myself and my house if I have to."
Volunteers at the military training center say they felt helpless during the months of fighting leading to Qadhafi's ouster, especially with reports about rapes by Qadhafi's forces, and no longer want to sit on the sidelines.
At least 200 women have graduated from the program since it began at Benghazi's Technical Military Compound in late March. They are given the choice of joining the National Security Force, which operates like the US National Guard and allows them to operate in their own cities. There's currently no talk of sending women to the front lines.
The Benghazi training center is one of several set up around the country.
A unit of 20 unarmed women was deployed last month when British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Benghazi and addressed a crowd in the main city square. The female guards stood watch and searched other women with fears high that male attackers could try to disguise themselves with all-encompassing robes.
Abdul-Basit Haron, a military commander in Benghazi, said all revolutionary fighters, including the women, would get a one-time fee of $5,000.
Col. Mohammed Garaboli, the commander of the compound where the training takes place, said women's involvement in the military is important for morale.
"Women feel like they are neglected and they came here to prove that they are equal to men in this society," he said. "They want to show the world what the Libyans are made of and how open-minded they are as well."
The role of women is sensitive in this conservative Muslim country, even though Qadhafi regime long touted policies it said were aimed at breaking cultural taboos concerning women's work and status. The erratic leader had a contingent of female bodyguards and a small number of women were elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.
Female soldiers — a rare sight in most Arab countries — were a trademark of Gadhafi's regime, patrolling roadside checkpoints in khaki uniforms and Muslim headscarves and often sporting sunglasses and heavy makeup. One group of women even reportedly ran their own interrogation center for suspected female anti-Qadhafi activists.
However, there was not a fundamental commitment to improving women's lot in life across all aspects of society.
Qadhafi's policies were in part aimed at weakening traditional tribal and religious powers so he could impose his own vision of society, and just as for men, advancement depended on total adherence to Gadhafi's authoritarian rule.
Col. Sabriya Mohammed al-Shraidi, a Benghazi native who graduated from the military school in the city in 1986 and specialized in military intelligence, said eight officers were training 36 volunteers in the current class, which she said would be the fourth group to graduate.
"Most of these women are housewives and working ladies. They have no experience in the military and they don't know how to use guns so they come here to get the training in case they have to defend themselves and their children," she said. "You never know when you need these skills."
She said they're given training in all types of light arms and self-defense. Those who join the force will help provide security for demonstrations, banks and other institutions.
"People are wrong when they say it's bad for women to be in the military," she said, pointing out that women already had provided humanitarian aid and helped smuggle weapons to the former rebels by hiding them under their robes.
"Women have contributed to this revolution in many ways," she said. "But they are still neglected and isolated and we are trying to show ... it is not a shame to be a part of the army and the society unlike during the Gadhafi era when military women had a very bad reputation."
Wafa al-Rayth, a 29-year-old housewife, said she signed up to join the revolutionary fighters to "show the world that the Libyan women are capable of standing next to their brothers and we are an open-minded society."
"It is about time we help to spread peace and secure our cities, especially since our traditions require that women guard places where women gather and check their bags and make sure it is not a man dressed in women's clothes and planning to commit an act of terrorism."
Lameis Aghnaish, a 20-year-old engineer wearing a camouflage uniform, said she had been trying to move abroad under Gadhafi's rule, but is now proud to stay.
"I was planning on leaving Libya to another country because life was difficult here and I never felt like I belonged to this country in any way, but now things are different," she said. "I will sacrifice my life if I have to for this country."
She said she was putting her career on hold to join the military.
"I will go back to my old job after everything has settled down because what we need now is safety and security and I am helping to provide that by volunteering to be a women guard," she said.
Wafa al-Gargouri, a 49-year-old housewife who is known as a mother of the revolution for her role in leading protests, said people used to revile women soldiers, calling them Gadhafi's toys and speculating that he used them for pleasure.
"We want the people to change the way they think about the military women," she said.