'Muammar Qaddafi is the one who opened the opportunities for us to advance. That's why we cling to him, that's why we love him.'
Women of loyalist Libya see Qaddafi as their liberator
TRIPOLI // The young woman police officer swaggers through a Tripoli slum, her hair cut boyishly short, an empty gun holster and walkie-talkie hanging from her belt. A tattooed man with a cigarette dangling from his lips shrinks away.
He doesn't want to mess with 25-year-old Nisrine Mansour.
A member of the regime's vice squad, her hero is Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. His image is on her mobile phone, his face emerging from rays of green - the regime colour. Her ringtone is a tinny pro-Qaddafi chant.
Colonel Qaddafi has bestowed many titles upon himself during his 42 years of iron-fisted rule over Libya, branding himself "King of Kings" in Africa and "Brother Leader of the Revolution" in Libya.
Women such as Ms Mansour give him another title: emancipator of women.
"Muammar Qaddafi is the one who opened the opportunities for us to advance. That's why we cling to him, that's why we love him," Ms Mansour says. "He gave us complete freedom as a woman to enter the police force, work as engineers, pilots, judges, lawyers. Anything."
Among Colonel Qaddafi's most ardent loyalists are Libyan women who have risen to high-profile roles in the police, military and government, and who credit Colonel Qaddafi with giving them greater opportunities than many of their sisters in the Arab world. They consider any threat to his regime a threat to their own advancement.
Even as Colonel Qaddafi's regime has cracked down brutally on dissent, locking up and torturing opponents, it has also long touted its policies of breaking cultural taboos concerning women's work and status in the conservative nation. The most well-known example is Colonel Qaddafi's personal guard of female bodyguards, but women have also been elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.
Colonel Qaddafi's policy was in part aimed at weakening traditional tribal and religious powers so he could impose his own vision of society.
It was only somewhat successful. Women who have gained prominence are a small minority in an otherwise strongly male-dominated Libya, far from the popular regime myth of a society filled with revolutionary fighting women. Advancement depends on total adherence to Colonel Qaddafi's authoritarian rule.
Women were also at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Qaddafi uprising in mid-February, demanding democracy for the country and - they hope - better rights for themselves. Still, while they have no rosy memories of their lives under Colonel Qaddafi, they say their struggle for equality is ongoing. Women activists were dismayed when the rebels appointed only one woman to the interim administration in their de facto capital of Benghazi.
"We are very disappointed," said Enas Al Dursy, a 23-year-old activist. "We feel like we are being marginalised."
For Ms Mansour, there is nothing a woman such as herself cannot aspire to in Colonel Qaddafi's Libya.
"I've never felt that I was treated differently because I'm a woman. Even when I'm picking up drunkards off the street, nobody ever said, 'She can't do that, she's a woman,'" Ms Mansour said.
A woman hugged her as she patrolled the rubbish-strewn alleyways of the Hara Kabira slum in Tripoli's walled old city - once the pretty, brightly painted Jewish quarter, now a crumbling mess of homes filled with impoverished Libyans and African migrant workers.
Throughout Colonel Qaddafi's Tripoli stronghold, female soldiers,- a rare sight in most Arab countries, patrol roadside checkpoints in khaki uniforms and headscarves. They keep order at gas stations made rowdy by severe shortages that cause long lines. Policewomen sporting large sunglasses cruise by in patrol cars.
Women are also involved in Colonel Qaddafi's mechanism of oppression against his opponents. Women run their own interrogation centre for suspected female anti-Qaddafi activists, according to a resident who said she was hauled into one in May.
Early on, Colonel Qaddafi created a cadre of female bodyguards, glamorously made-up women in form-fitting military-style uniforms and high-heeled boots known as "amazons". He pointed to them as evidence of his commitment to promoting non-traditional roles for women.
Just over a quarter of Libya's labour force were women in 2006, low by world standards but high for the Arab world. Only Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia had higher rates, and the increase in women's participation in Libya over the past 20 years was by far the highest in the region, rising from 14 per cent in 1986, according to the UN International Labour Organization.
In her studio in an upscale Tripoli suburb, 25-year-old Radia al Bodi, a television anchor for Libyan state TV, said women such as herself would fight to defend Colonel Qaddafi's regime because of the promise it offered women.
"This is all because of Father Muammar," said Ibtisam Saadeddin, a 35-year-old soldier who wore gold-edged pins of a smiling Colonel Qaddafi on her khaki uniform and headscarf. "He is our air and sustenance. We can't be without him."