The promise of Libya’s emergence as a democratic, sovereign nation following its 2011 popular revolution is a distant echo amid the rising din of armed conflict and civil strife engulfing the country today. Libya bears all the wounds of a failed state: political polarization with multiple government bodies claiming legitimacy, but none enjoying true support or control; the proliferation of non-state armed groups creating an environment of insecurity and lawlessness; the crippling of its oil industry — the engine of its economy, which is in near collapse amid a massive liquidity shortage and rising inflation; and the breakdown in the delivery of basic services such as electricity and water to the general population. Furthermore, these ills have opened channels for the infiltration of terrorist groups, including ISIS, and a regional migration crisis, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to reach Europe.
This devastation has led many citizens who supported the popular revolt against longtime dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Western allies, to look back on the regime with longing and regret, and not surprisingly so. How did it reach this point? Firstly, history has taught us the removal of a dictatorship is one thing, but agreeing on a common vision for a path forward is quite another, especially without any viable institutions to serve as a foundation. Secondly, stripping the vast North African country of its central authority without having a plan to secure it was extremely shortsighted on the part of the NATO coalition, especially after the lesson of the Iraq invasion. And the interim Libyan leadership is just as culpable for not insisting on the continuation of the military campaign to stabilize the country. Left unguarded, Libya was an attractive environment for all sorts of nefarious elements to breed and operate freely.
A cursory glance suggests one does not need to probe any further to account for the country’s implosion into failed statehood. Yet beneath the surface lies another very significant contributing factor to consider: the exclusion of Libyan women, an integral segment of Libyan society from the critical post-conflict phase, and one that could have helped prevent its unraveling.
In fact, among the surprises of the unlikely Libyan revolution was the pivotal role the female population played in its success. Beginning with the first protests that sparked the rebellion in Benghazi and throughout the war that ended the Qaddafi regime, Libyan women were, for the first time, at the forefront alongside the men. Inside and outside the country, they raised public awareness and funds, organized volunteer efforts, tended to the wounded, arranged meals for the fighters. Some were even involved in smuggling weapons to the frontlines. Women’s groups such as the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace would also be among the most dynamic and active members of the rich civil society that sprang up following the fall of the dictatorship. Libya was well positioned to benefit from its female citizens in this next phase of state building and it was assumed the transfer of their efforts would be seamless.
Sadly, this would not prove to be the case.
While the accomplishments of Libya’s female population were lauded around the world, they also drew the ire of certain groups within the country, particularly those aligned with religious extremists, who saw their new public emergence as a threat to their ideology and agenda. In fact, an alarming shift could be detected almost immediately after the war ended. It seemed that women were not just being pushed back to the status quo prior to 2011, but even further back, stripped of gains and rights achieved during the Qaddafi era.
On the momentous occasion of Libya’s liberation day ceremony, Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustapha Abdul Jalil, drew bewildered reactions in the country and around the world by announcing that the practice of polygamy in Libya, without the signed consent of the first wife or a court decision, would be reinstated. Not only was this beyond his authority and totally inappropriate for such a historic milestone, but it was a contradiction of Law #22 (1991) which required the legal permission of a woman or court order before a man could take on another spouse. On another important occasion, the female presenter at the official handover ceremony to Libya’s newly–elected Congress was pulled from the stage and relieved of her duties after being heckled by members of the audience because her hair was uncovered. A clear message was being sent to Libyan women across the country: this revolution was not intended to liberate you.
The public declarations or “fatwas” of religious leaders such as Sheikh Sadeq Al-Gharyani, the Grand Mufti of Libya, regarding women have caused further damage, essentially sanctioning the harassment of those who step outside these designated parameters. Most of the edicts have no theological basis and are simply an attempt to oppress the female population through an abuse of religious authority. Some examples are the suspension of a Libyan woman’s right to marry a non-Libyan, restriction on freedom of movement without a male chaperone especially when traveling abroad, segregation and forced “hijab.” The Mufti even issued a strongly worded condemnation against the 2013 UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), calling for greater action by governments to protect women and girls from violence and to challenge discrimination. He accused CSW of “advocating immorality and indecency in addition to rebelliousness against religion …” and called upon Muslim women to protest against it. These developments have had a very negative impact on Libyan public opinion concerning women’s rights with words like “feminism” and “gender equality” being equated with secularism and immorality. They may also be responsible for the sudden spike in early forced marriages.
Amid the collapse of security and general lawlessness that have overtaken the country in recent years, Libya’s female population has become particularly vulnerable. In fact, since the end of the revolution, Libyan women have become the victims of unprecedented levels of violence, including sexual assault. Just a few weeks ago, a graphic video of a woman being brutally raped by militia men in Tripoli went viral on social media, sending shockwaves throughout the country and sparking small protests in the capital. Some of the perpetrators were reportedly caught though the details remain sketchy. However, this was not an isolated incident. Rapes have become increasingly commonplace in Libya’s chaos, but go underreported because of the stigma and perceived shame to the victim’s family this crime carries within conservative Libyan society.
While such dangerous developments impact the physical safety of all Libyan women, prominent female civil society activists, politicians, and professionals have been particularly targeted, and some even killed because of their work in public spheres. Well-known human rights attorney and activist, Salwa Bugaighis, was murdered in her Benghazi home on the day of Libya’s 2014 legislative elections after urging her countrymen to vote. Former Congresswoman and Girl Scout leader, Fariha Barkawi, was shot and killed at a gas station in Derna. The following year, young activist, Intissar Al-Hasaari, was shot to death while in her car in Tripoli. Such horrific crimes have caused many leading female figures to cease their activities or even flee the country altogether, impairing the remarkable work of Libya’s nascent civil society, a vital component of an emerging democracy.
It’s no coincidence that as the plight of Libyan women has deteriorated the trajectory of Libya’s post-revolution transition has taken a steep downward turn. The critical role of women in peacebuilding and post-conflict transitions has been well documented in countless studies. Then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stated, “Women who know the price of conflict so well are also better equipped than men to prevent or resolve it. For generations women have served as peace educators, both in their families and in their societies. Women build bridges, not walls.”
Research has also shown a direct, profound correlation between a nation’s economic, political, and social development and the participation and leadership of women in these areas. This is particularly applicable to post-war societies. Evidence suggests that elevating the role of women by giving them a voice in politics results in different and better policy making as women are less hierarchical in dealing with local communities. Giving women control over resources also has a positive effect because women tend to invest more in nurturing the family unit than men, devoting expenditures to healthcare, nutrition and education. This has an influence on the general allocation of resources on a larger scale too, thereby impacting development and reconstruction.
It was hoped the United Nation’s sanctioned Government of National Accord (GNA), created as a result of a year-long dialogue between Libyan stakeholders, would be a first step toward recovering the integrity of Libya’s transition including more female participation. At a January 11th meeting of Libyan women’s groups in Tunisia, United Nations Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler expressed his strong support for a more prominent role for Libyan women by calling for 30 percent female representation in the newly formed GNA. Additionally, he requested the speedy establishment of The Women’s Empowerment Unit under the new government, adequate representation in all the committees stemming from the Libyan Political Agreement, and a focal point for women in the Presidency Council.
But these calls went unheeded. In the proposed cabinet, only two ministries were assigned to women, out of a whopping 32. This cabinet was subsequently rejected by the Libyan House of Representatives, Libya’s elected legislative body. However, its poor inclusivity of women cast a great doubt on the promise of the GNA to turn a new page. In fact, thus far the GNA has failed to establish a meaningful presence on the ground, assert any kind of authority over the country, or draw any true measure of popular support. A new proposed cabinet of ministers is still being finalized but it remains to be seen whether its composition will reflect the previous demands made for more female inclusion during the U.N. meeting in Tunis.
No one understands the plight of Libya’s female population better than civil society leaders, especially those continuing their work under such challenging conditions. According to Khadeja Ramali, one of the co-founders of the Libyan women’s organization, Project Silphium, there is a prevalent feeling that now is not the time to discuss the status of women and that they should wait until the country is stable to bring their issues to the table. But what Libyan leadership and the broader society need to grasp is that there will be no stability with the exclusion of half of the nation. Any attempts to resuscitate the country’s transition and build a lasting peace will have no chance of success without reintroducing Libyan women into the political and decision-making process and actively supporting their meaningful participation in all public spheres. Western allies and the United Nations, who are well aware of this reality, need to carefully apply more pressure to ensure it happens.
There also needs to be a concerted effort to bring younger Libyan women into the fold. This sub-group of the population is critical towards charting the course for the future. They have adopted social media, digital technology, and other innovative tools to amplify their voices, extend their reach, and build the capacity of Libyan women and their causes. However, they are often dismissed or excluded from the discourse by the older generation of women and men who are far less knowledgeable and experienced in this realm and hold a narrower, more traditional view in defining the scope of Libyan women’s public participation. International NGOs also tend to reach out to the same figures for their conferences and capacity building workshops although many do not even reside in the country, thus diminishing any positive impact on the ground.
The 2011 revolution revealed to the world what Libyan women could accomplish when uninhibited and empowered by little more than love of country and a desire for the common good. We can only wonder what Libya might look like today had women been allowed to continue their engagement. But there is no question that its current status as a failed state is in large measure due to a post-war transition from which its female citizens, representing more than half the population, were forcedly absent. And for a country of only six million people already lacking in institutions and human resources, their continued marginalization is a recklessly self-inflicted wound. The tragedy here lies not just in the fact that Libyan women were deprived of their rights, but that Libya was deprived of their valuable contributions that just might have saved it from a catastrophic fate.
Hanan Dakhil is a Libyan-American freelance writer, activist and consultant. This Op-Ed was written as part of the Libya Policy Forum initiative, an independent U.S.-based, non-profit organization that seeks to address the lack of accurate information and analysis of the current Libyan context. You can follow her on Twitter here.