Engaging women in a democratic Libya: an optimistic view of the Libyan elections

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Obstructing your wife, sister or daughter from voting is utterly unacceptable and an infringement of her newly-found liberties. The NTC, NGOs and society must face this challenge together.

Sara ElGaddari
7 June 2012

Returning from voting at their local schools, women in their thousands have just taken part in their first ever democratic elections. In the local council elections of Benghazi on May 19, women not only voted, but they stood as candidates too across its 11 electoral districts. Nejat Rashid Mansour Al-Khikhia even received the most votes for the Benghazi district of Al-Birka, enough votes to secure one of the seats in the country-wide National Transitional Council (NTC).

On May 19, going home with ink-stained fingers, women held parties and celebrations with family and friends all over Benghazi. A real feeling of excitement and political engagement permeates the towns and cities in Libya. Foreign embassies and a growing number of women’s organisations (such as Alaa Murabit’s Voice of Libyan Women) have been busy on the streets, in the souks, and in office buildings conducting information and awareness sessions on how to engage in the electoral and voting processes. Women have been asked: “Are you going to vote?’ and “What will this mean for you?”

Almost all Libyans are excitedly anticipating the June national elections that will replace the interim NTC with a National Assembly . Daughters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers turned out to vote in May, and will turn out again, because they hope the electoral process will give them a practical way of influencing their own futures. The process is already creating a new national symbolism that adds cohesion to strong local identities.

The national elections on June 20 should follow a similar format to the city council elections. The local schools are large and accessible to many, and have proven to be the favoured location for the voting process.  People have registered and received their registration cards.

The challenges are large, but not insurmountable. The first hurdle is one of time. Ramadan is all but six weeks away, and it’s vital that with even a small delay, as High National Elections Commission (HNEC) Chief Nouri Al-Abbar stressed , the voting is still held before the fasting period begins. This is what Libyans are expecting and what the NTC, with the support of external agencies such as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will hopefully achieve.

The second challenge is far greater, and it is traditional male attitudes that permeate a largely-conservative Muslim populace. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of first-hand accounts of women being stopped from exercising their right to vote – most often by their husbands.

The most disturbing and unexpected part of this story is that these women are not house-bound: they are professional women such as teachers,who are being told by their husbands that they cannot participate in the voting process. The reasons for this range from the singular, such as the objection to non-familial males being around the electoral registration/voting location, to the much more complex, encompassing men’s fears about what female political participation means for them, their family, and ultimately how society will perceive them.

Obstructing your wife, sister or daughter from voting is utterly unacceptable and an infringement of her newly-found liberties. The NTC, NGOs and society must face this challenge together. Men, indeed the population as a whole, need to be educated about what political participation and expression through the voting process means and what the implications will be.  

We all share a responsibility to speak to our neighbours and actively engage and support women in exercising their rights, beginning right now with a greater engagement in the electoral process. As Tunisia and Egypt have recently shown, NGOs and a newly emergent civil society can only do so much  – in Libya women need the institutional backing of the National Transitional Council too.

This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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