Two years ago at the height of the Arab Spring, hopes were running high among progressive women in Libya that their support for the uprising against Col. Muammar Gaddafi—from running guns and medicines to tending the wounded—would translate into a greater role in public and political life after the revolution. But dismaying setbacks are now coming thick and fast for them and the dangers of speaking out are escalating.
Last week the country’s Grand Mufti, Libya’s top religious authority, issued a fatwa directing women teachers at schools and universities to veil themselves when instructing boys who have reached puberty or are even approaching it.
The ruling by Sheikh Sadik Al-Ghariani generated social media criticism from activists but not the public outcry it would likely have triggered just a year ago.
After a series of reversals and public humiliations, including women’s meetings being disrupted and male lawmakers complaining about the presence of women at events, many activists have backed off. The lack of progress on curbing widespread sexual harassment of women on the streets of Libya’s bigger cities or on incidents of girls being abducted—47 girls or young women have gone missing in the past month across the country—is prompting many women to feel cowed.
“A lot of women who were active during the revolution, and years before that as well, are tired. It is like being a salmon, you always have to swim upstream,” says Nisreen. Like many activists, she asks for her family name to be withheld, fearing reprisals for speaking out.
“It is sad to see women my age, who now have daughters and who were strong-willed at one stage, are giving up and telling their daughters to ‘cover your hair, shut up, don’t say anything, don’t contradict your father, don’t contradict your brother. Do you want to have a happy life or do you want to have a hard life?’ They have learnt the hard way that if you are going to voice your opinions, you are going to have an uncomfortable life.”
And life is getting more difficult for those women who remain active, campaigning on a host of issues, ranging from greater female political participation to gender equality being enshrined in any future constitution. Activists say that Islamists are targeting them, threatening and intimidating their families—an effective browbeating tactic in a tightly family-knit society. “People don’t want to have their husbands or sons worry the whole time. We have had women whose sons are calling them up saying, ‘Mom are you okay?’”
“If you are an activist you are constantly at risk,” says Nisreen, a brunette who lived for several years in Europe. She doesn’t wear a scarf to cover her hair—an omission that risks harassment in parts of Tripoli from Islamic vigilantes, who are all too often members of Libya’s self-willed and unruly militias. “You can talk about the government, you can criticize the General National Congress—that’s fine because they are fighting them as well, but don’t you dare go anywhere near religion.”
Activists do not take phoned threats lightly—recently a women lawyer was abducted, and a male attorney representing a mother seeking to gain post-divorce access to her young son in a highly public case was savagely beaten. “We are in a very difficult time,” sighs Nisreen.
Leila, a 20-something activist, says she hasn’t been threatened herself yet but many of her friends have been. “They target the families just to silence them, to shut them up. They are like an octopus, their tentacles are everywhere.” She laments that in the contrast to the first year after Gaddafi’s ousting “fewer women are being active.” “She adds: “Post-revolution we saw a lot of women trying to be in the political arena but that is now vanishing and at best they restrict themselves to agitating on Facebook.”
A pious Sunni Muslim country where religious observance underpins every social norm, Libya was never going to be easy ground for progressives and social reformers. Many ordinary Libyan women have deeply ingrained conservative values and without greater visibility, women activists are unlikely to shift attitudes even among their own gender and to encourage them to challenge what Libyan women’s rights campaigner Zahra' Langhi dubs a “politics of dominance and exclusion.”
For Leila, the fatwa issued by al-Ghariani last week is just the latest in an Islamist campaign aimed at restricting women’s liberty—and likely the start of a serious effort to bring about gender segregation at schools and colleges. That’s something the Grand Mufti has made clear he would like to see in the long run, arguing in an open letter to lawmakers in the winter that if Libya wanted to avoid incurring Allah’s wrath, total gender segregation should be imposed—from schools to offices.
In this go-round, al-Ghariani contented himself with ruling that children and students must at least be segregated during break times in playgrounds, corridors and halls and there should be separate entrances for the sexes, although added that total segregation would be the “ideal solution.”
Rebel leaders appointed al-Ghariani as Grand Mufti during the uprising, a post he held under Gaddafi as well. Libya’s reformers have become increasingly frustrated with what they see as his meddling in politics but he wields semi-official influence and while his fatwas don’t have the force of law they can dictate government policy.
Ministry of Education officials say they will now have to consider what to do about the fatwa. In September, before they turned to the Mufti for “clarification,” they had said there would be no segregation at the country’s education institutions on the grounds that the vast majority of teachers are females, thus causing staffing problems.
That was followed by a groundswell of Islamist activity at schools and colleges, with some schools going ahead separating kids at break times and more women teachers starting to cover up. In eastern Libya, officials at Derna University were told by members of an Islamist militia that male and female students must be segregated, if the militiamen were to continue providing security at the campus.
“This is what they do,” says Leila. “A step at a time. They are waiting for the reaction that’s going to be. That is their way of trying to take over.”
For Nisreen the Islamist targeting of the country’s education system is depressing and menacing. “It is very sad to see this is the way our education system is going—that they are looking at segregating women, men and children.”
She adds: “It is a long-term political agenda because when you want to change a nation you target education because you are breeding the future generations. And so you target education because that’s when you are ingraining what the future will be so by targeting the schools, they are sowing the seeds of the future they want.”