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By Tom Pfeiffer
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - More Libyan women are venturing from home in search of work but they complain of antiquated male attitudes that decades of gender equality reforms have failed to dislodge.
Muammar Gaddafi's 1969 Islamic Socialist revolution began a gradual improvement in the legal rights of women, who once could not walk the streets without a headscarf and the presence of a male relative.
Female illiteracy has fallen over the years and today's women can seek careers where their mothers could only hope to be housewives. Polygamy is restricted and child marriage banned.
But the streets of Tripoli remain a male preserve where women are often subjected to verbal abuse and harrassment. Single women in western dress say they are taken for prostitutes and avoid taxis after dark for fear of being molested.
Yolanda Zaptia, a foreigner married to a Libyan, said Libyan men must get used to seeing more women in public and behave better or risk damaging the country's development.
"The authorities need to confirm that this male behaviour is unacceptable," she wrote in the Tripoli Post newspaper. "If Libya wants to increase the number of women making an active contribution to the economy they must be better protected."
In the workplace, women often accept less prestigious jobs with lower pay than men with inferior qualifications.
Huda el-Wafi, born in Libya but educated in the United States, returned to her country in 2006 and works for a government agency in Tripoli.
As a mid-level manager she was marked out as unusual in an organization where most of the women were secretaries.
"The situation for women is getting better every year. You wouldn't have seen many women working in companies 10 years ago," she said. "But they all face the problem of being taken seriously and regarded by male peers as their equals."
AIRLINE PILOTS, SOLDIERS, DOCTORS
The number of Libyan women in secondary and higher education rivals that of men today and demand for qualified graduates is growing fast as the government tries to improve education, health services and the economy, experts say.
More Libyan women are choosing to work to support their families and making careers as airline pilots, lawyers, doctors, business executives and government officials.
"Life here is getting more expensive and it's necessary for both men and women to work to support their lives and their children's lives," said business consultant Fathia Khalifa.
Illiteracy among Libyan women was 29 percent in 2003, far below the average for Arab states of 55 percent, according to the 2005 United Nations Arab Human Development Report.
The glamorous female soldiers who escort Gaddafi as bodyguards on his foreign visits might be just for show, but Libya is rare among Arab countries for having women in its army.
Rights groups still complain of double standards and say Islamist groups are blocking progress of women's emancipation.
Some say conservative attitudes among women themselves are another obstacle.
"There are only small problems that women can overcome themselves," said Salma Gezaoui of Libyan humanitarian body Food Without Borders. "We have the foundations to build high."
Others blame years of sanctions that made it harder for Libyan women to travel abroad and widen their horizons.
"This country suffered deeply from the embargo. We suffered and we were misunderstood," said Khalifa, who went to London in 1998 and set up her own business offering consultancy services to foreign firms wanting to export to Libya.
Sanctions curtailed those exports until 2004 when business began to take off. Today Khalifa's firm advises top U.S. drug, medical equipment and baby food makers selling to Libya.
She says there are successful Libyan women who could serve as role models, if only they would speak up.
"There are some very exceptional ladies in Libya, but most don't talk," she said.
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