Tripoli - The young woman police officer swaggers through a crumbling Tripoli slum, her dark hair cut boyishly short, an empty gun holster and walkie-talkie hanging from her police 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 Muammar Gaddafi. His image is on her cellphone, his face emerging from rays of green – the iconic regime colour. Her ring tone is a tinny pro-Gaddafi chant.

Gaddafi 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 like Mansour give him another title: emancipator of women.

“Muammar Gaddafi is the one who opened the opportunities for us to advance. That’s why we cling to him, that’s why we love him,” says Mansour. “He gave us complete freedom as a woman to enter the police force, work as engineers, pilots, judges, lawyers. Anything.”

Among Gaddafi’s most ardent loyalists are a core of Libyan women who have risen to high-profile roles in the police, military and the government, and credit Gaddafi with giving them greater career avenues than many of their sisters elsewhere in the Arab world.

They consider any threat to his regime as a threat to their own advancement.

Even as Gaddafi’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 deeply conservative nation. The most well known example is Gaddafi’s personal guard of female bodyguards, but women have also been elevated to prominent positions in government ministries.

Gaddafi’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. And, just as for men, advancement depends on total adherence to Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule.

Women were also at the forefront of the protests that launched the anti-Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi, 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 Benghazi.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Enas Al-Dursy, a 23-year-old activist. “We feel like we are being marginalised.”

Throughout Gaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold, female soldiers – a rare sight in most Arab countries – patrol roadside checkpoints in khaki uniforms and Muslim headscarves.

They keep order at fuel stations made rowdy by severe shortages that cause days-long queues. Policewomen sporting large sunglasses cruise by in cars.

Senior government officials in coifed hairstyles lunch at an upmarket hotel where reporters stay in Tripoli.

Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha is a prominent lawyer.

Women are also involved in Gaddafi’s mechanism of oppression against his opponents. Women run their own interrogation centre for suspected female anti-Gaddafi activists, according to a resident who said she was hauled into one last month.

One of the most hated figures among the Libyan rebels seeking to overthrow Gaddafi is a woman – the former Gaddafi-appointed mayor of Benghazi, Huda Ben Amer, known as “the executioner.” During a public hanging of a regime opponent in 1984, Ben Amer pulled down on the man’s legs so that he would die faster.

About 27 percent 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 percent in 1986, according to the International Labour Organisation.

“In part to boost its legitimacy, the regime promoted a more open, expansive and inclusive role for women,” said Ronald Bruce St John, who has written five books on Gaddafi’s Libya.

This is all because of Father Muammar,” said Ibtisam Saadeddin, a 35-year-old soldier who wore gold-edged pins of a smiling Gaddafi on her khaki uniform and headscarf.

“He is our air and sustenance. We can’t be without him,” she said. - Sapa-AP