Two days after Libyans were celebrating the sixth anniversary of the Libyan revolution that led to the ousting and death of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, a military general in the eastern province declared a travel ban on all women under the age of 60 without a male guardian. The ban unleashed a wave of protests amongst women’s groups but the results of that have not led to positive impact.
In a country where infighting between various political factions has taken over since the revolution and where religious extremism, including Daesh/ISIS, has emerged in ways never seen before in Libya, the travel ban was suspected to be seen as a religiously driven one. But when speaking to Libyan women activists on the ground, one uncovers another story of military takeover, political manipulation, and even what some suspect as division within the women’s movement.
It all started with a rumor of a travel ban on February 17. Two days later, during an interview on national TV, General Al-Nathouri confirmed his decision on the ban. According to Al-Nathouri, who is said to rule over the eastern province of Libya above any constitutional law and with backing from Russia and other regional countries, the decision was based on the unsubstantiated claim that traveling women are constituting a national security threat to the country — and that the ban has nothing to do with religious reasons.
What he was really referring to is women’s attendance to the Switzerland Peace conference organized by U.N. women and UNSMIL in November of 2015 in Geneva and later in January of 2017 in Tunisia. According to General Al-Nathouri, some of the 40 Libyan woman who attended this conference were recruited by international agents as spies. In reality, the conference was about women’s role and participation in peace building, and women’s agenda for peace. Women who are active in the civil society and women’s movement suspect that the undertone of this decision is that the general and all the military factions in Libya do not want peace. “They don’t’ want peace. They want to continue the war. They don’t’ want U.N. women or U.N. mission to strengthen women fighting for peace”, Amel, a young activist who asked to me to use a pseudonym in reference to her out of fear of being identified.
Despite the claim of national security as the motivation for the ban, religious fundamentalists have had an increased and more prominent rule in Libya since the revolution. Voices such as that of Osama Al Otabi, a Saudi clerk brought to Libya with the endorsement and protection of Gen. Haftar, are advocating for causes that many Libyans see as weird — if not crazy. Shaykh Al Otabi, for example, has been preaching on national TV about how the earth is flat, how women should wear blue and white beside the black robes to cover them head to toe, and how he was authorized to give lectures to the army about Islam.
In January of this year, Marj province issued a ban and confiscation on all books that are of Sufi (mystical Islam), Shia, Jewish, secular, and promiscuous nature — claiming that they are a threat to society. All the while, inner fighting between various religious factions from selfist, Muslim Brotherhood, to Daesh/ISIS has intensified under the auspices of war on terrorism, leaving women’s rights activists, victims and targets in the midst of the larger political fighting within Libya. Those who were trying to protest the confiscations of the books, or the severing of women’s or civil rights, were accused of supporting this religious faction or that, which led many to stay silent out of fear of getting entangled with the larger political fighting that they are not part of.
The travel ban crossed another major line in eroding more rights. Women were quick to vocally protest the the ban in Benghazi of the Eastern Province, though they were not initially allowed to protest in the streets. The right to protest without pre-approved security authorization was also taken from all Libyans under the current military rule. So few women went to personally meet General Al-Nathouri on February 20 and seek permission to protest that he gave him the permission to do so.
They took to the streets en masse on February 21 and with international news coverage, General Al-Nathouri agreed to freeze the ban at first. But freezing does not mean suspending. Activists such as Zahara Langhi of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and Defender Center for Human Rights warned that if the temporary freeze stays in effect for 60 days it becomes a law that he can activate any time he wishes — a leash he would like to continue holding all women on, and one that can further divide the women’s movement. The implied message of the freeze basically suggests that he will only allow women to travel if they support him. If they don’t, he can impose the ban anytime he wants.
Though the general has no legal mandate for ruling and his power is stemming only out of a military government, the target of his travel ban is women civil society activists who are actually working on peace building and human rights in Libya. Langhi states that “this is political struggle and the problem started with militarization, removal of elected heads of municipalities and the appointment of military people instead as part of a stagy of counting terrorism.”
After a few days of women protests in the streets of Benghazi and international coverage, General Al-Nathouri just issued another iteration of the ban on Thursday. This time it is a more gender neutral ban on all women and men between the age of 18-45. None can travel outside of Libya without prior permission from Libyan intelligence. In a statement issued by the Libyan military intelligence agency, it stated that no member from any civil society organization or employees of the public sector are exempt from the new travel regulations.
Some Libyans were joking that President Trump does not need to do anything about the U.S. Muslim travel ban as Libyans are doing it for themselves. But beyond the jokes, this new regulation is a serious hindering of progress for civil society and women’s rights leaders — ultimately suggested that indeed the military factions in Libya are not interested in peace or those who are promoting it from within Libya.
It is easy to ignore Libya in the midst of what feels like political, religious and military chaos. But if the international community and women’s rights organization worldwide do not support Libyan women’s rights and civil rights activists, the price for their silence will create long-term damage in Libya. It is crucial that those who are taking risks to speak out for women’s rights in Libya are supported and stay alive and free to move around worldwide.
International voices may still matter for General Al-Nathouri and other military men around him.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.