MIDDLE EAST: Libyan Women Battle for Empowerment

Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," says Sara Mazik, from Women for Libya, a new group of women who have recently returned from exile.

Women now head two ministries in the new government - health and social affairs.

Salha Soussi, smartly dressed in a head scarf, high heels and a modest black gown, is unimpressed.

"That is not very good for us," she says. "But we are going to push for the inclusion of more women in the future. And we're going to make sure it happens."

New generation
Libya is a deeply conservative, male-dominated society where wedding parties and public gatherings are often segregated, and men traditionally make the political decisions.

Muammar Gaddafi may have had his famous women bodyguards, but few women actually prospered during his rule.

But now that the country has been liberated from 42 years of dictatorship, an assertive new generation of women's rights activists is emerging.

They gather every day in homes, offices and Tripoli's smarter hotels to discuss and set out their demands.

And they are pushing for a 40% quota for women in the parliamentary committee that will write Libya's new constitution following elections next year.

"We're mostly moderate Muslims, not extremists. But I'm worried that some people will try to make strict Sharia law a basis for the constitution," says Nisreen Adham, one of the activists.

Concerns deepened after the head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, announced in October that restrictions on polygamy would be removed - and the legal system based on Sharia.

"If we've got a committee full of Mustafa Abdul Jalils, then we may as well pack up and leave," says Ms Soussi.

Rapes 'unpunished'
But for many young Libyan women, this is a moment of huge opportunity - and of hope. For the first time in their lives, they can go out onto the streets and voice their opinions.

"As women, we are finally launching ourselves into society," 16-year-old Noor Torshani said at a recent demonstration in Tripoli. "We are actually practising democracy."

Dressed in a white headscarf and big sunglasses, she was attending a protest outside the interim prime minister's office.

Dozens of women covered their mouths with tape, to symbolise the silence with which rape victims were greeted by the interim authorities.

And they refused to leave until the new Prime Minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib, came out to meet them.

After a couple of hours, he did - promising to look into their demands.

"Injured men are being looked after properly and sent abroad for treatment," said Amira Nayed, from another new women's group, Phoenix.

"The women who also suffered during the conflict should be cared for too. They need psychological help. And we need awareness programmes so people know that it's not their fault that they are victims of a crime."

In Libyan society, rape is seen as the ultimate shame and, because victims do not come forward, no-one knows how many women might have been raped by pro-Gaddafi forces.

The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the rape allegations.

"I've heard that 36 women committed suicide last month alone because of the shame of it," says activist Sara Shukri.

"And that tells you a lot about the situation here in Libya. We are trying to change that."

The challenges are enormous. But so is the determination of Libya's women activists.

During the revolution, Dr Najwa Fituri helped smuggle drugs to treat Libyans injured in their uprising against Col Gaddafi.

A paediatric consultant at the al-Jalaa maternity hospital - responsible for the treatment of premature babies - she now nurtures ambitions for a new generation of Libyan women.

"If they're qualified, they should be leaders of Libya," she says. "Everyone has the right to dream."