What Revolution?

Libyan Women Are More Visible in Post-Gaddafi Libya, but They May Have Lost Ground

Free elections notwithstanding, the role of women in Libya is tenuous and uncertain, writes Jamie Dettmer.

Anis Mili, Reuters / Landov

At times there are two competing realities in post-Gaddafi Libya. For most ordinary Libyan women, there’s domestic drudgery and subordination to their men. For the more educated, drawn from higher ranks and involved in newly minted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), there’s hope of change and greater opportunities.

The two realities seldom meet. As Libyans head to the polls this weekend to vote in their first national elections in nearly 50 years, there are two fundamental questions to ask about the prospects for women in post-Gaddafi Libya. Will those two realities ever start overlapping? And will the space that elite women have opened up since Gaddafi’s fall be reduced?

Listening to NGO women at conferences held at Tripoli’s smarter hotels, it is hard not to get swept along. The women spearheading the NGOs and standing as candidates are highly capable and determined to secure great change, despite the conservatism of this North African country. They’ve been emboldened by exile or study overseas or draw confidence from roles in the ouster of Gaddafi.

They say they will not be content to remain passive spectators in a male-dominated society where outside Tripoli wedding parties, public gatherings, and even restaurants are usually segregated, and where walking outside without a headscarf invites trouble.

Fowzia Shweigi, a 42-year-old widow with six children, has no intention of being sidelined. A burka-wearing candidate for a small party, she has been campaigning assertively in Tripoli, including hustling for support in male preserves such as coffee shops. “You want a free society, don’t you?” she demands of startled hookah-smoking patrons. “I hope that women will occupy a strong place in the new Libya,” she says, explaining that women should be able to choose what they wear. She believes that men have “changed their minds about women because of the good things they did in the revolution.”

But while women like Shweigi are determined not to be window-dressing, that’s what they were at the July 3 launch of the elections media center at the Tripoli International Convention Center in the compound of the luxurious Rixos Hotel. The televised event attracted the diplomatic corps, U.N. staff, and the country’s transitional leaders. In the foyer there were a series of huge posters, a stirring one depicted women with the caption “Rebelling to be heard.” Alas, no women were heard from the rostrum–just five men, including Libya’s prime minister and the chief election commissioner. But then there are no women on the election commission, only one on a national transitional council numbering 102 and two women ministers.

U.N. envoy Ian Martin praised the election process, noting that for years only one face was displayed publicly but now with campaign posters thousands of faces are. That is indeed heartening, but he didn’t note that in recent days vandals have been defacing posters of female candidates by scratching out or inking over their faces.

For Ahlam Abdulnasfer-ben-Tabun, who works for the Foundation for the Future, a domestic NGO, the lack of women in political office is cause for alarm. She’s the epitome of a young woman whose life has been altered dramatically by the uprising. The 26-year-old was the manager of a Tripoli clothes store before Benghazi revolted and she joined an underground group who smuggled arms and essential medicines to the rebels. “No, I wasn’t afraid, but thought I would get caught eventually,” she says. “Friends of mine were and some were killed.”

A political-science graduate, she spurned during the Gaddafi era what she could have had: a government job. She didn’t want to be associated with a regime she despised. Many young Libyan women graduates did the same. “The general feeling among women here is that they are trapped by culture and religion and they can’t make decisions for themselves. The state doesn’t protect us and doesn’t secure our freedom,” she says. Even now she fears the future. “The politicians pay lip service to our views; they’re not really listening.”

Others remain more optimistic, drawing comfort from the fact that 625 women are standing in the elections for the National Congress, 540 of whom are party candidates and 85 running as independent candidates.

But how comforting is that figure? There are 1,206 party candidates in the elections and the parties were required to offer an equal number of men and women, something not quite achieved. More disappointing is the tiny percentage of female candidates running as independents–in all there are 2,501 independent candidates. Women make up less than 3.5 percent.

Thanks to the party lists, it is theoretically possible that women could make up 20 percent of the National Congress. But some activists fear that even if that happens, Libya will mirror neighboring Tunisia, where 49 women were elected, 42 from the same Islamist party Ennahda. Their voices have been subsumed by the louder collective voice of the party.

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Some women worry the clock could even be turned back. “Compared to Libya’s neighboring countries, at least on the books, women under Gaddafi were in a better position in Libya,” says Samer Muscati, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Gaddafi improved women’s legal status and access to education and social benefits. They had better rights in marriage, divorce, and child custody than elsewhere in North Africa.

But only a small elite benefited from Gaddafi’s “state feminism.” Women-friendly laws, especially in the family or sexual realms, were sidestepped by Islamic tradition and custom. Most working women remained locked in low-paid, insecure jobs. And for most women life, then as now, revolved around a home ruled by husbands and punctuated by births.

The biggest fights ahead for Libyan women will be to ensure that they influence the writing of a new constitution. And here there’s the worry that if the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties dominate the new Congress, then Sharia (Muslim religious law) will form the basis of the new constitution.

Another fight will be over changing the judicial code. Currently, there’s no such crime as spousal rape. Activists want to see that changed and want to see the banning of rape victims being prosecuted for adultery or judges coercing rape victims and rapists to marry in order to restore “family honor,” something that condemns a woman to a life of injustice.

Overshadowing the tussle over women’s rights is how post-Gaddafi Libya will handle the widespread sexual violence and rapes that occurred during the uprising, crimes that on the whole were only allowed to speak their names when it served the rebels’ propaganda purposes. According to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Gaddafi “decided to punish, using rape” and there’s evidence suggesting hundreds were raped. Because the stigma of sexual assault runs very deep in Libyan culture, foreign journalists and human-rights organizations have struggled to document cases, having either to rely on the testimony of medical staff or confessions of soldiers who raped under orders.

The raped are silent--they and their families terrified of being shamed. The women suffer without official support or care. A double taboo is to even hint at rapes committed by rebels. But women activists say it did happen, although to a lesser degree. It was mainly committed against women from pro-Gaddafi tribes, especially darker-skinned tribes of the south, they say.

A handful of groups have taken up the cause, which they see as key to the development of women’s rights, by mounting periodic protests, demanding that the interim authorities take seriously the issues thrown up by sexual violence. At their protests they depict the plight of victims by taping over their mouths.