Women in the new Libya: challenges ahead

Will the rights of the women, who participated in the struggles leading to fall of Gaddafi, be put under pressure in the new Libya? Kathryn Spellman-Poots assesses women’s status under Gadaffi and points to the perils ahead.

The seven month long struggle that led to the fall of Gadaffi and his regime saw Libyan women smuggling arms and strategic information, tending to the injured, and participating in the creation of symbols to represent the New Libya. In the aftermath, however, and not unlike their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, women have been excluded from the highest levels of decision making and are grossly underrepresented in the National Transition Council. Furthermore, in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, Gadaffi’s forty-two year long dictatorship has left Libya with a particularly impoverished institutional infrastructure in terms of both political and civil society. His years of dogmatism and scare mongering have silenced Libyans in public life, making the private sphere of family and tribe –with varying but often patriarchal gendered hierarchies - the main arena where day to day concerns and disputes are dealt with.

It is a momentous event, therefore, that the first-ever international women's rights conference, organised by the Voice of Libyan Women movement, took place in Tripoli from 11-15 November 2011. Activists from around the country assembled to discuss gender equality issues, focusing particularly on women’s involvement in politics, law, the economy, and health concerns. In the presence of the leaders of the NTC, including Mustafa Abdel Jalil and Abdurrahim el-Keeb, with an introductory speech by Ian Martin, the UN Special Envoy for Libya, the participants drafted 22 recommendations to secure women’s legal rights and full participation in the new polity. Although Libyans have a sense of national identity, the question remains as to whether these demands can be met in a society increasingly divided along kinship and regional lines, demarcated by varied but often conservative gender codes and expectations. Moreover, with the legacy of Gadaffi’s “state feminism”, as well as the relatively recent rise of Islamic social conservatism, can women’s rights have any impact on the power structures of the New Libya, avoiding being pushed aside or used for political leverage?

Gadaffi’s State Feminism

Similar to Saddam Hussein and other authoritarian ‘socialist’ leaders, transforming women’s roles in public life was featured in Gaddafi’s political vision. In his system of Jamahiriya (state of the masses), which was propounded in his Green Book in the mid-1970s, he declared socialism, gender equality, Arabism and anti-imperialism as the pillars of the new Libyan state. Changes in policies concerning women’s legal status, education and public presence were important instruments used to delineate the programme of the Jamahiriya and the advancement of revolutionary ideals. Determined to push women into the public domain, Gadaffi adopted radical measures. For instance, starting in 1979, women were required to undertake military training and obtain a military certificate before getting married. Additionally, without military training, families were not allowed to travel abroad or exchange the local currency. (Interview with Professor Amal Jerary, in Tripoli 2005.)

Over the years, a number of progressive laws were also drafted, asserting that women have equal access to education, social benefits and the legal system; rights to participate in the General People’s Committees and national security; rights in marriage, divorce and custody; rights to equal pay and full control over their income and assets. The commitment to gender equality, symbolised by Gadaffi’s female police force and body guards, was often used to showcase the progressive nature of his regime to international audiences. This image was reinforced through Libya’s signatory status to a number of international human rights treaties, including the African Charter on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified with reservations in 1989. In keeping with the “first lady” syndrome, in women’s rights advocacy in the rest of the Arab world, the women’s rights agenda was entirely appropriated by Gaddaffi and his inner circle – particularly his daughter, Aisha, who was the main spokesperson for Libya’s gender regime.

This top down approach did enable some women, particularly those living in cities, to make important advances in Libyan society; near-to-equal representation in education on all levels, and entry into prominent professions as doctors, lawyers and university professors. The state policies and international treaties also provided some women the leverage to question and challenge patriarchal notions prevalent in their households. But despite partial progress, Libyan women have remained economically, politically and socially under-represented in public life. Women accounted for only 22% of the labour force and top positions have often been occupied by women tied to the regime by patronage links.

Moreover, many of the laws to ensure gender equality – particularly in the realm of family and personal laws – were often ignored, unevenly applied or sidestepped by Islamic tradition and local custom. Gaddafi’s regime did not fully subscribe to CEDAW, as two Articles (2 and 16 c/d) were viewed as incompatible to Libya’s personal status code. Although civil and Shari’a courts were combined after the 1969 revolution, Shari’a judges continued to preside over court proceedings that dealt with family matters. This does not mean, however, that clerics enjoyed autonomy from Gadaffi’s regime. Throughout his years in power, Gadaffi often regulated religious practices to suit his evolving ideological vision. Under criticism from clerics, he created his own calendar based on Muhammad’s death, questioned the legitimacy of the hadith (sayings of the Prophet) as the basis for Islamic law, nationalised all mosques and closely monitored public religious activities. Family laws pertaining to matters such as marriage, adultery and divorce were therefore informed by a combination of sources, including Gadaffi’s own agenda on women’s rights, the Maliki school of jurisprudence, as well as local customs and traditions. Polygamy, for example, which has become a hot topic ever since Jalil mentioned its realignment to Islamic law in his victory speech - was legal but restricted in Gadaffi’s Libya. Although discouraged, and not widely practiced, a man could marry additional wives if he obtained the first wife’s permission in writing, and proved to the courts that he was financially and physically capable of supporting another wife.

The public and the private: the growing divide

This is not to say, however, that family grievances and private matters necessarily reached the courts of law. Maintaining the family’s honour - particularly the reputation and respectability of women – was (and remains) crucial in Libyan society. In order to avoid the perils of gossip, private matters were often settled within familial networks. Staying clear of entanglements with the State’s legal system was an added incentive to settle matters in private.

The distance between the public and private domains became even more pronounced during the 1990s when Libya was subjected to international sanctions. As was the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, when faced with the deterioration of public services, Gadaffi strategically empowered certain tribal and family leaders to maintain political control. Inadvertently, local networks and the burgeoning parallel economy were pushed further underground. Although women played an active role in informal networks, particularly by catering to social welfare concerns, social conventions that undermined gender equality gradually grew more rigid during this period. A new culture of religiosity, stemming mainly from Egypt, also became widespread in Libyan society. Changes in gender roles and expectations began to be shaped by these religious currents, which, in turn, became increasingly visible in public life. Gadaffi’s regime, mindful of the popularity of this new religious sensibility, tolerated overt public display of Islamic piety as long as it was not seen as a sign of political or militant Islam. Over the years, even the most liberal minded Libyans began to feel the pressure to dress and behave in line with the socially conservative outlook that had become dominant in public life.

After years of political and economic isolation, Gadaffi’s regime had little choice but to thaw diplomatic relations with the West. The sanctions were softened in 2003-4 after the regime publicly renounced weapons of mass destruction, allocated compensation to Lockerbie families, and pledged to join forces with Britain and the US in the war against terror. As the travel bans were lifted, Libya (haphazardly) started to open up to investors, international agencies, academics and tourists. The ‘official’ women’s rights agenda which had been placed on the back burner during the 1990s, was once again used as a symbol of Libya’s democratic aspirations, and a tool to reintegrate itself back into the international community. But despite promises of genuine political and social reform at home, the political inertia in Libya persisted since there were strong vested interests around the status quo. Consequently, when the spirit of the “Arab Spring” spread to Libya in February 2011, starting with street protests in Benghazi on 15 February, it was women’s informal networks that became politicised and contributed to the eventual fall of Gadaffi’s regime.

Women’s rights in post-Gadaffi Libya

What does the future hold for the women of Libya? Still recovering from the aftershock of the violent struggles, Libya faces a number of immediate challenges during this period of transition, including restoring security, building trust across regions and clans and providing basic services to the Libyan people. Nevertheless, women activists have not wasted any time in their newly found freedom, to assemble and develop agendas to protect their rights in the new Libya. The first ever international women’s rights conference in Libya is just one example of the many platforms they used, several of which are linked to international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch, that have emerged over the past few months. Debates surrounding the future of women’s rights in Libya also extend to and are informed by Libyans living in the diaspora, who have been playing an active role in the recent struggles. Libyan women activists have also stressed the importance of learning from women’s experiences in neighbouring countries. As secular liberals, Islamists and tribal leaders declare their positions and party affiliations in the lead up to the elections, questions surrounding gender equality, particularly in relation to Islamic law, will inevitably come to the fore. The ways in which the New Libyan state chooses to appropriate or obliterate the remnants of Gadaffi’s gender regime also remain to be seen. The National Transition Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil’s comment on removing restrictions on polygamy demonstrates how gender issues are already being used to advance (or appease) ideologies and to stake out the political boundaries of the new Libya. Although his comments raised eyebrows in Libya, and were scrutinised at the International Women’s conference, it is generally assumed that Islamic law will inform the legal and political framework of the new Libya to a greater extent than was previously the case. Similar to Egypt, there has been an absence of any detailed discussion on what this could mean in real terms. The chasm between the goals of state building and the rule of law and the practices that are prevalent in the private domain is likely to become exacerbated the longer armed militias hold sway. As in many other instances of the collapse of law and order, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, women are the principal victims of increasing levels of violence and insecurity. Until the private sphere in Libya is scrutinised - and seen as a societal and political domain - by both the new Libyan state and the burgeoning civil society, women’s rights will continue to be brushed aside or used as political stakes in the power struggles among the various contenders for power.

 

About the author

Kathryn Spellman-Poots is Associate Professor at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, author of Religion and Nation: Iranian Local and Transnational Networks in Britain (Berghahn Publishers, Oxford and New York, 2005) and co-editor of Spellman-Poots, K., Dupret, B. Pinto, P., and Pierret, T. edited volume Ethnographies of Islam:Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices (Edinburgh University Press March 2012)