By Mel Frykberg *
Following the Libyan revolution, in which women played a crucial part, and the participation of large numbers of female citizens in the July 2012 elections, Libyan women are now looking forward to a partnership and full equality with their male counterparts.
“Libyan women were instrumental in the country choosing a liberal and progressive government in the recent elections as many of them voted for the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA) of Mahmoud Jibril,” said Nadine Nasrat, from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
“They also played a crucial role during the revolution but much of this was overlooked by the media. During the war women smuggled weapons and ammunition in their clothing. They provided logistical, medical and intelligence support to men,” added Nasrat who is also the chairperson of the Tripoli branch of the Committee to Support Women’s Participation in Decision Making.
“They cooked for and fed many of the rebels who would otherwise have gone hungry as the fighting raged. They also took care of the homes and children,” said Nasrat.
Beyond Baby Steps
However, despite these baby steps towards political emancipation and societal acknowledgement, many recognize that the road ahead will be filled with obstacles due to historical, cultural and religious constraints in Libya’s conservative and patriarchal society.
The elections proved to be a double-edged sword. Over 500 female candidates, comprising almost half of the total candidates, contested in the July elections. While this was a historic milestone for Libyans in general and the country’s women in particular, the backlash was instantaneous.
Ibtisan Staita, a member of the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA) from Dernah – a port city in eastern Libya – won a seat on the National Council. However, in a case of mistaken identity, her cousin who resembles Ibtisan Staita was assassinated by suspected Islamists who vehemently oppose the participation of women in politics.
Najad Al Khaikha, a candidate from Benghazi, who bagged more votes than any other male candidate in the country’s second largest city, will not lead the local council due to male opposition. In a further sign of male resistance to female participation during the election campaign, posters of female candidates were torn off walls and flyers with female candidates were ripped up.
These are just some of the issues Nasrat’s committee is up against. Her committee has several hundred members throughout Libya who have been working with international NGOs to promote the rights of women.
Furthermore, the committee, whose membership comprises a number of female politicians from several political parties, intends to use its newly-found political leverage to increase the participation of women in Libya’s new government who in turn will lobby for legislation implementing change.
One of the first steps is to ensure that women comprise 30 percent of the Constitutional Committee, which will be responsible for drafting new legislation for the new government.
Calling for Change
“There are many things we want to change,” said Nasrat. “One of the things we want to change is Libya’s divorce laws. Because when a woman gets divorced and has no children, she is forced to leave the house. Why should women become homeless after a divorce?”
“Another important issue is women having to fight on a monthly basis for spousal support for their children after divorce. In addition to the amount being very low – another problem which has to be addressed – the women are forced to go to the courts every month and fight red tape and bureaucracy before a pittance is handed through a hole in a window,” said Nasrat.
“This is a very humiliating experience. According to one court ruling, the money should be paid into a woman’s bank account automatically. Following a divorce, should a woman remarry, she loses her children which then go to the grandmother. This is something else we want to fight,” said Nasrat.
Abortion is illegal in Libya and sexual violence legislation still provides for a reduction in punishment for a man who is violent to a female relative following an alleged sexual transgression by her.
Rape victims are victimised twice. “As the law now stands, women who are raped are forced into marrying their rapists. The man is only sent to prison for a few years if he refuses to marry his victim. This is an incredibly traumatic experience for any woman to be forced into a partnership with her abuser. Rape is not seen as a major crime in Libya,” explained Nasrat.
“Many women were raped during the war but most will not come forward to report it because they are ashamed and some people believe the women brought it on themselves. These women should be encouraged to come forward as what they suffered is not morally worse than men who lost limbs during the fighting. The government has to address this,” stated Nasrat.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Social Institutions and Gender Index, Libya is also a destination and transit country for women and men trafficked from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia for purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
“We also want laws against domestic violence introduced. At present a man can only be penalised if he beats his wife to the extent that her injuries require hospitalisation for days, the same as any other case of assault,” averred Nasrat.
Several witnesses outside the family are also required if a man is to be penalised – something which is not easy for women to provide due to the stigma and shame of getting outsiders involved in affairs which are considered private.
Despite Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime, women’s rights in Libya were reasonably progressive – at least on paper – in comparison with those of women in the Gulf and other Arab countries. Subsequently, women have the legal right to own, manage and administer land and property in Libya. In practice, however, social convention dictates that men retain control and ownership of land, according to the OECD.
Women also have the legal right of access to bank loans without their husbands’ consent and to enter into various forms of financial contracts. In most cases, however, husbands or fathers take responsibility for any financial undertakings and commitments, and may also expect women to hand over income.
In 2010 Libyan women inherited the right to pass on their citizenship to their children which was hitherto only the right of fathers as is the case in many Arab countries. Whether this will be implemented into Libya’s new constitution is questionable.
Even under Gaddafi’s autocratic rule a lack of democratic institutions and freedom of assembly and expression in Libya limited women’s ability to lobby for change.
Comparing with Tunisia
In neighbouring Tunisia women have historically fared far better than their sisters in Libya. Tunisia, which is where the Arab uprising began spontaneously in December 2010 and saw the ousting of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, passed the country’s 1956 Personal Status Code enshrining women’s rights.
The code proclaimed “the principle of equality between men and women” as citizens and prohibited polygamy. It also legalised divorce and abortion – 19 years before abortion was legalised in France. The country’s female literacy rate, at 71 percent according to UN figures, is the highest in North Africa.
Following Ben Ali’s deposition after 23 years in power, feminists demanded that secularism and gender equality be explicitly outlined in the new Constitution. But the results of the October 2011 elections for the Tunisian Constituent Assembly have raised concerns for some Libyan women.
The October 2011 poll gave the Islamist Ennahda party the majority of the seats in the Assembly and led to the inauguration of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who heads a government that some have called an “Islamist dictatorship-lite”.
In the run up to the elections Ennahda sought to allay the fears of progressives by promising to guarantee women’s rights and freedoms. But the party’s symbol of moderation rapidly transformed into a force of moral censure, defending “morality” and calling Tunisia’s single mothers’ status “ill-repute”.
Furthermore, references to Sharia law, statements on polygamy, Islamic marriages and female circumcision have added to concerns despite the fact that women’s rights have so far not been affected.
In addition to fears about growing Islamisation limiting the rights of Tunisian women, there remain areas where women continue to be second-class citizens to men. A case in point is that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men unless they convert; the same does not apply to Muslim men.
Inequalities remain evident in inheritance rights, which are governed by Sharia law. Under Sharia law, Muslim women may inherit from their father, mother, husband or children and, under certain conditions, from other family members. However, their share is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. Daughters, for example, inherit only half as much as sons.
Although domestic violence is prohibited in Tunisia, the issue is generally viewed as a private matter and the police typically refuse to intervene, often because they lack the training or resources to carry out investigations or protect victims effectively.
Furthermore, the OECD Gender Index cites a survey, according to which, 38.5 percent of men questioned said they believed that a husband had the right to beat his wife in certain circumstances.
It remains to be seen if the freedoms obtained in the Arab Spring will also benefit the female citizens of those countries who fought so hard for their liberation.
* Mel Frykberg began her journalism career writing on unrest in black townships, including Soweto in South Africa, during the apartheid era. She later worked as a journalist in Sydney, Australia and has been reporting from the Middle East for over a decade, among others for Inter Press Service (IPS) and National Public Radio (NPR).
**This article has been commissioned by Global Cooperation Council, a sponsor of IDN-InDepthNews. It is part of a collection of essays to be published on October 8, 2012 in a book titled ‘Good news! How men and women transform violent conflicts and save the environment’. Publishers are Germany’s Heinrich Boell Foundation and Ute Scheub, a publicist and women rights activists. The book will be presented on October 14 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. [IDN-InDepthNews – August 12, 2012]