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Women's protest in Libya, 2011
Women’s protest in Libya, 2011

The royal Constitution of Libya of 1951 provided no specific protections for women. Article 11 simply stated that ‘Libyans shall be equal before the law. They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without distinction of religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship, or political or social opinions’.

This Constitution was abolished after the 1969 coup and not replaced. The third volume of the Green Book contains a long section on women, beginning: ‘It is an undisputed fact that both man and woman are human beings’ – which emphasized the differences between women and men. It stated: ‘A woman, whose created nature has assigned to her a natural role different from that of man, must be in an appropriate position to perform her natural role.’ It concluded that ‘there is no difference in human rights between man and woman, the child and the adult, but there is no absolute identity between them as regards their duties’.

Against the background of these conservative pronouncements, Libya was the first Arab state to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), although it made reservations about parts of it referring to equality before the law (where it referred to the rules of inheritance), marriage and family relations. Libya was also one of several Arab states that signed the International Labour Organization’s Equal Remuneration Convention.

Libya scored high in the Gender Inequality Index of the Human Development Index, a composite measure accounting for inequality in achievements between women and men in reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market. In 2012 Libya received a score of 0.216, compared to Tunisia’s 0.261 and Kuwait’s 0.274.

Specifically, the Gaddafi regime liberalized the legal position of women. The minimum age of marriage is twenty years. Marriage by proxy or coercion is prohibited, and Libyan women were given the same right to divorce as men. Polygamy was effectively abolished: a man may marry only one additional wife, for specific reasons only and on the condition that his first wife gives permission. Equality of salary was legally mandated. Women were obliged to perform one year of military service at the age of eighteen. Traditional male professions such as the military, aerospace, and engineering were formally opened to women.

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 reported that Libya had achieved equality between the two sexes in higher education; enrolment of Arab women in higher education varies, being highest in Libya and the UAE, although it also pointed out that professions that did not fit the traditional Libyan view of women were prohibited. In fact, few women actually enter the labour force after graduation. Data from Index Mundi show that 28.2 percent of women participate in Libya’s labour force in 2011.

On the other hand, from 2005 onwards, human-rights organizations reported unknown numbers of women and girls imprisoned on suspicion of violating codes of moral conduct. They were confined in so-called ‘social rehabilitation’ facilities, after their families rejected them. Some were victims of rape and were imprisoned because families felt dishonoured by the women’s supposed crimes.

The interim constitution promulgated by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in 2011 did not specifically mention women. Article 6 stated that ‘Libyans shall be equal before the law. They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without discrimination due to religion, doctrine, language, wealth, race, kinship, political opinions, and social status, tribal or eminent or familial loyalty.’ But it also firmly committed itself to a traditional view of gender relations. Article 5 said: ‘The family is the basis of society and shall be entitled to protection by the State. The State shall also protect and encourage marriage. The State shall guarantee the protection of motherhood, childhood, and the elderly. The State shall take care of children, youth, and the handicapped.’

This conservative outlook was reflected in the NTC’s decision in January 2012 to drop a proposal to create a 10 percent minimum quota for women in Parliament. In the elections of July 2012, 1.3 million women registered to vote, 540 women registered as candidates on party lists, and 85 females ran as independent candidates (2,415 men ran as independent candidates). Women candidates did well in party lists and won 32 out of 80 seats, but only one female candidate won an independent seat (out of 120 possible seats) (Libya Herald, 20 October 2012).

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