Post Arab Spring

Libya’s Woman Fight for Constitutional Voice

After playing a critical role in Libya’s revolution, women are being shut out of the political process.

Guillem Valle / Corbis (FILE)

A year on from the ouster of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan revolution is turning sour for women, who had hoped that they would find the new Libya open to them to play a far greater role in public and political life—and on their terms rather than those defined by men.

With frustration mounting, activism has decreased, with some women saying they see little point now in agitating for change.

Each setback—from a woman presenter who, hosting a ceremony in August before the new parliament, was forced off the podium because her head wasn’t covered, to a militia in Benghazi harassing a women’s conference—prompts more women to return to private life. That’s a far cry from the heady days following the revolution when women believed they would gain widespread acceptance because of their significant roles in the uprising, from the perilous smuggling of guns and medicines to organizing media outreach overseas.

Women activists are finding the going tough even when it comes to trying to persuade the country’s new rulers that they should have a big say in the drafting of a constitution for post-Gaddafi Libya. They warn that the tussle for women’s rights isn’t in fact just about women and that men who want a more open Libya are being shortsighted by not backing women and their demand for greater inclusion. How women's rights fare will set the tone for how authority treats the governed more generally, they caution.

Activists, who say that at least 20 members of a still-to-be-formed constitutional committee should be women, were warned this week by the vice president of the new parliament, Dr. Jumma Attiger—a man who has been supportive of women’s issues—that he fears there won’t be any women appointed to the 60-strong panel.

His comments at a meeting in Tripoli on Dec. 3, organized by the Voice of Libyan Women—an NGO seeking to advance women’s political rights—dismayed the 26 activists present, adding to their fears that they are losing ground. “Men claim they know about women’s rights and what’s best for women, so there don’t have to be any women on the committee,” says Lutfia Al Tabib, a former Tripoli school principal. “I have a problem with that. What they are basically saying is that women can only get rights through men.” She suspects that in the end a couple of women will be placed on the committee “just so the men can say, ‘Look, we have women.’”

She worries that the fight is going out of Libya’s fledgling women’s movement. “Right after the revolution there was strong activism among women, forming new civil-society organizations and campaigning. But women have become discouraged. Activism is dwindling and meetings are drawing far fewer women,” says the mother of six daughters.

Al Tabib places some of the blame for this on the women’s movement itself, arguing that it hasn’t done enough to reach out and recruit from beyond the ranks of the more educated and the elite and to broaden its appeal. “You see the same women over and over again drawn from the same families and groups of friends, and I don’t see new recruits from different walks of life joining the cause.”

Other activists concede the elite nature of Libyan women activism but argue that it has been hard to reach out beyond the higher social and professional ranks in a highly conservative Islamic country. But they argue also that that setbacks aren’t helping in keeping the movement determined to effect change.

“What happened after the revolution was amazing—within weeks there were about a thousand NGOs,” says 20-year-old Issraa Murabit, a medical student from the town of Zawiyah and a vice president of the Voice of Libyan Women. “But people have gone back to work and gone back to school because they got tired with nothing happening and no one listening to them. Now you are left with the hardliners who are going to stick to it.”

Murabit, who was raised in Canada in her preteen years by her Libyan parents before moving back to Zawiyah, says the women’s movement isn’t alone in suffering this falloff and that fatigue is setting in across Libyan civil society. Activists in neighboring Egypt were complaining of agitation fatigue in recent months, too, before the political crisis this month erupted over Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s decree expanding his powers to help him push through a mostly Islamist-drafted constitution.

In Libya, there has been plenty of discouragement since the elections in July when women’s participation was high in terms of registering to vote, turning out to vote and contesting seats for the 200-strong parliament, the General National Congress (GNC).

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Thirty-three women were elected in the first free elections since the NATO-backed revolt last year toppled the Gaddafi regime—but then nearly half of all the candidates running for the 80 seats reserved for the parties were required by electoral law to be women. That quota requirement was due in many ways to international pressure.

In the contests for the 120 seats reserved for independents, ominously, only one woman was successful—“a depressing result”, according to Sabra Bano, director of Gender Concerns International, an NGO based in the Netherlands.

Libya’s first elected postwar prime minister, Ali Zeidan, appointed two women to his cabinet in November but predictably to the “soft” ministries of health and social affairs. In the higher reaches of government and in the prime minister’s own office, there’s an absence of women.

Women GNC members privately complain that they feel they are being ignored when it comes to key committee assignments and are left out of the loop in negotiations between party leaders. But some activists argue that women parliamentarians have hardly helped themselves, or the cause of women, by being compliant—a charge leveled also by civil-society leaders in Tunisia against women lawmakers there. Forty-two of the 49 Tunisian women parliamentarians are members of the Islamist Ennahda party.

“Everyone likes to say 30 or so women got elected and that proves women are making progress,” says Murabit. “But if you talk to the average Libyan woman they will say they have not benefited at all from these parliamentarians. In fact, those women don’t represent us and they are doing a terrible job. When do they bring up women’s issue? They never talk about them. They are window dressing and they know it.”