The many challenges Libyan women face

The challenges facing women in Libya are much greater than those faced during Qaddafi’s rule.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Libyan women attend a sewing workshop supervised by a charitable association to help widows, divorcees and the needy in Benghazi, on September 22. (Reuters)
Daily struggle. Libyan women attend a sewing workshop supervised by a charitable association to help widows, divorcees and the needy in Benghazi, on September 22. (Reuters)

LONDON - Libyan society is not prepared to give its women the voice they never had, even if women’s participation in public life is considered in prosperous and stable societies as an investment.

Seven years have passed since the fall of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Throughout that time, promises were made by politicians who said they were willing to establish a state in Libya that respects human rights. Women pinned hopes on those promises.

At the beginning of the post-Qaddafi era, Libyan women achieved some success, winning 33 seats in the National Congress during the parliamentary elections in 2012, the first such elections after 42 years of Qaddafi rule.

However, what has not been achieved far surpasses what has been. There is virtually no state in Libya due to political infighting that has wiped out any chance of democratic governance. The country is run by armed militias, which impose their will by force and Libyan women live in a spiral of poverty, despair and personal insecurity.

“The fall of the Qaddafi regime portended a gradual opening up of Libyan society to women’s rights, especially after women took the lead in supporting the army and police forces and stood united against terrorism,” said activist Ines Boshanaf. “They tried with all their might to have their voices reach the world.

“Our participation may be simple but we always strive to be in the front lines so that we do not get marginalised in the political process.”

It seems the picture of Libyan women standing proudly at the front lines and demanding Qaddafi’s departure and more freedom and equality for women has vanished

The challenges facing women in Libya are much greater than those faced during Qaddafi’s rule. There are several complicating factors, including the growing influence of Islamist currents, which are a threat to the lives of every woman not abiding by their principles.

Sheherazade Kablan, an international education consultant, said she deplores the condition of women in Libya. “The infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood onto the Libyan scene has been a major cause of the deterioration of the political and economic situation in Libya. The first signs of this infiltration appeared on October 23, 2011, when Libya was proclaimed ‘liberated as an Islamic state’,” she said.

“The controlling role of the Muslim Brotherhood was established more firmly during the ceremony celebrating the power transfer in Tripoli one night in August 2012, when the young TV presenter Sarah Meslati was ordered to step down from the podium because she was not wearing a head scarf and was replaced by another one who was veiled,” Kablan said. “These two events had an important effect on women in Libya and marked the beginning of the process of excluding Libyan women from the political process.”

“My friend Salwa Bughaighis was assassinated and her husband Issam al-Qallal kidnapped. Four other women were assassinated. This is another bloody message for women in Libya to stay away from the political process,” Kablan added.

Amid the fragmented political scene in Libya, many Libyan women do not expect their opinions will be heard or sought or that women’s rights will have priority on the country’s political agenda. Their biggest challenge is the absence of legislation protecting women from violence and deteriorating living conditions in the country.

“Women in Libya are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said journalist Lobna Younes. “They struggle daily to stay alive and keep a job. No matter how qualified and ambitious a woman may be, she will always remain a second-class being in the eyes of some managers and officials. This sombre picture reflects a systematic policy to keep females away from the political scene, especially the qualified ones.”

Younes said it’s not just decision makers who look down on women but “the entire Libyan society considers women second-class beings, good only for those traditional professions that have historically been associated with the female sex, like education, medicine and nursing.

“Even when a female comes from a family background that is open and supportive of her ambitions, she won’t be able to avoid the multiple obstacles that pop up on her path if she wants to work in politics because decision makers in Libya are interested in women’s issues in Libya only as a means to win world sympathy and United Nations funds.”

History Professor Khayriyya Faraj Hafalish compared the status of women in Libya to that of women in Tunisia, concluding that Tunisian males and females reached an advanced level of equality in political practice that does not exist in Libya.

“The great Tunisian political leader Habib Bourguiba has put in place in Tunisia a civil state that still breathes his name. It was the state that nurtured diversity and equality at all levels, socially, economically and politically, in Tunisian society,” Hafalish said. “As a result, when society revolted and overthrew the regime, the state remained in place. This is not what happened in Libya.

“In 1969 in Libya, a group of small-ranking and inexperienced officers had put an end to 18 years of efforts to build a modern state. They had put in place a dictatorial regime that fused the state with the dictator. So, we can’t say that there had been a state in Libya since the state was the person of the unique ruler. When the dictator was gone, the state crumbled as well, and Libyans must start rebuilding their state from scratch, just like their predecessors in the second half of the previous century.”

Hafalish insisted that “the problem in Libya goes way beyond the apparent issues related to gender differences. It’s a problem of intellectual immaturity.”

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