Hopes dashed of more freedom for women

When Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, many women held very high hopes for the future. They hoped that they would become more visible in a freer society; that they would be able to take up the places in society that their qualifications entitled them to. Many Libyan women are very well educated. Before the war, almost as many women as men held bachelor's degrees or higher.

Nevertheless, it is traditionally very difficult for women to find skilled employment, because they live in a society where the work done by a woman is not held in the same regard as the work done by a man and because many of them live in rural regions where there is the strong conviction that a woman's place is in the home.

In many families, there is no room for wives, daughters or sisters to voice opinions on political matters. For decades, the state required women to remain silent. While there was more security under Gaddafi, says Mohamed, and women could move freely about the country, "we had no civil society." Nor were they actively involved in public or political life. "That is another reason why there was a revolution."



But the transition process after the overthrow of Gaddafi became increasingly overshadowed by violence that pushed women further and further to the sidelines, says human rights activist Rida al-Tubuly. Every one of the people who then took hold of the reins of power were men. Islamist extremists flooded into the country and tried to ban women from public life. Wherever they were in power, they launched campaigns to ban women from driving cars or travelling alone. At the same time, the number of militias grew. Some of them were more religious, others less so, but to this day, all of them continue to undermine state control.

There are too many militias and too many guns, says al-Tubuly. "And the militias rule like the mafia." Young men join the militias because they get paid by them and can do what they like with impunity. "If you are part of a militia, you have power," says al-Tubuly. "You are protected. You have a network." Women, on the other hand, she says, did not want to found militias or shoot at each other. Nor were they, in most cases, supported by the influential clans because the clan leaders preferred to see women at the kitchen sink.

On the road to peace?

It is hugely important that women are adequately represented in politics and administration, especially now when there is the prospect of something like peace in Libya.

In October, al-Sarraj and Haftar agreed to a cease-fire. According to the terms of the agreement, all foreign fighters have to leave the country. In addition, 75 representatives of Libya from the fields of politics, the military and civil society are currently negotiating the future of the country in a dialogue forum under UN leadership. So far, the delegates have agreed that elections will be held in December 2021. At the same time, negotiations in the Libyan port city of Sirte are being held to hammer out the details of the ceasefire.

Even if all this sounds like a massive improvement in the peace process that stalled for several years, many observers are only mildly optimistic. They are critical of the fact that the composition of the dialogue forum does not represent the Libyan people: the delegates were selected by the UN and not by Libyans themselves. What's more, many of the delegates have no real influence on the balance of power. Many groups in Libya have already said that they will not recognise any agreements reached by the forum. It also remains to be seen whether the basic conflicts can be resolved so quickly: the clan feuds, for example; the fight for oil and money; the large numbers of militias and mercenaries that have not yet been willing to withdraw; the weapons that continue to be smuggled into the country.

No stability without women

There is one major perspective missing from these negotiations: the perspective of Libyan women.

Of the 75 delegates who are discussing Libya's future, there are 17 women. This, says Marwa Mohamed, is "a good number, but not yet enough." Many of those who are currently steering the peace process are not interested in handing over more power to Libyan women. "It is not enough to have a few women sitting around the table," says Mohamed. "We must ensure that women are really involved in the political process and hold key positions in government."

Moreover, she adds, key freedoms must be ensured if free and fair elections are to be held in one year's time. These freedoms include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of participation. Mohamed says that Libya is a far cry from all that at the moment. "Hanan al-Barassi was killed in Benghazi in broad daylight, while the UN-led delegation was discussing Libya's future," says Mohamed. This shows the contradiction between what is being discussed in theory and what is happening on the ground in the country."

Professor Rida al-Tubuly agrees. Many politicians in Libya and representatives of international organisations are of the opinion that peace and stability in Libya should be ensured before talking about women. "But there can be no stability unless women are directly involved," says al-Tubuly. She says that she is constantly hearing people say that Libyan women are not qualified enough to assume positions of responsibility. Whenever she hears this, she gives the same reply: "If the men of Libya were so qualified, we would not have had this chaos for the last ten years."

Andrea Backhaus

© ZEIT ONLINE/ Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

This article first appeared on ZEIT ONLINE.

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