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While Libyan women have progressed in securing legal and political rights, they still face a patriarchal culture and increased violence.
Yousef M. Sharqawi
For centuries, women in Libya have taken part in the political, military, economic and cultural domains. While Libyan women have progressed in securing legal and political rights compared to women in some other Arab countries, they still encounter numerous challenges. These challenges include increased violence against women in Libya and a patriarchal culture.
To address these difficulties, there is a call for more significant political participation and active partaking in the social and economic spheres, including efforts to promote peace in Libya and reduce gender-based discrimination.
In her study, The Changing Role of Women in Libyan Society, researcher Souad Ghamid categorises the development of women’s conditions in Libya into six stages. Due to a lack of information regarding the role of women during the first period of Ottoman rule in Libya between 1551 and 1835, these stages do not encompass this particular era in Libya’s history.
The first stage spans from 1835 to 1911, marking the second Ottoman period in Libya. This period significantly influenced the prevailing traditional culture in Libya, particularly concerning women. Since 1835, the presence and role of Libyan women can be examined by looking at the development of the exclusively religious Ottoman educational system.
In 1908, Libyan women founded the Najmat al-Hilal Association, marking the inception of Libya’s first civil society organisation for women. The association aimed to teach women etiquette, behaviour and various Islamic teachings. According to researcher Sami al-Qanbour, the association’s motto was “Virtue, Homeland, Compassion.”
With activities primarily focused on social aspects, the association’s objective was to support future mothers. Al-Qanbour contends that the participation of 107 women in the comprehensive meeting held by the association in 1911 serves as evidence of the evolving role of women in Libyan society.
The second stage covers 1911 to 1943, corresponding to the Italian rule of Libya. During this period, Jewish missionary schools played a role in educating women in skills such as embroidery, needlework and homemaking.
Additionally, several schools were established for Libyan Muslim women. Ghamid characterises the involvement of women in resisting the Italian occupation as extraordinary. However, the role of Libyan women nearly vanished following the departure of the Italians. In the post-liberation phase, their participation became extremely limited.
Mabrouka al-Allakia is considered one of the Libyan women who made a significant historical impact through their involvement in the resistance. Historical accounts describe how al-Allakia disguised as a man to conceal her identity while participating in combat. The roster of Libyan resistance fighters also features Salima bint al-Meqous, who played a role in the Battle of Qarqarash alongside numerous other Libyan women who actively resisted the Italian occupation.
The third stage spans from 1943 to 1951. During this era, Libya was governed by British and French administrations. Key developments during this time include a growing recognition of the significance of education, the establishment of multiple schools and women assuming leadership roles in the management of three schools.
The fourth stage encompasses the 1950s and 1960s when Libya existed as a kingdom under the auspices of the United Nations. During this time, the Libyan government prioritised education, leading to advancements in the status of women in this field. The country’s initial constitution established education as a guaranteed right for “all Libyan citizens,” and compulsory education was introduced for both boys and girls at an early stage.
However, there were fewer girls than boys in the educational system during the 1950s and 1960s. This disparity was attributed to early marriages among females and the prevailing traditional culture favouring males in all life aspects, including education.
During this era, several female Libyan activists made notable contributions to the advancement of women’s status. Hamida Tarkhan al -Anezi emerged as a pioneer of the women’s movement in Libya and became the first primary school teacher.
In 1954, Tarkhan established the al-Nahda Women’s Charitable Society to enhance women’s cultural, social and moral development. Her initiatives extended to founding the first nursing group and launching the Girl Guide Movement in 1960. She also played a pivotal role in setting up the first institute for female teachers and creating the first two classes dedicated to teaching literacy to girls.
In 1963, she oversaw the establishment of a voluntary evening school to teach women how to read and write. Additionally, Tarkhan established the first women’s cultural library in Benghazi and actively participated in the formation of the Libyan Women’s Union in 1965. This union allowed Libyan women to engage in numerous local and international conferences.
Khadija al-Jahmi was another prominent Libyan woman during this period. She was an advocate for women’s rights since the Italian colonial period. In 1964, al-Jahmi published the Women’s Magazine, which later became al-Bayt Magazine, and became its editor-in-chief in 1965. She also created the first children’s magazine, al-Amal, and served as its editor-in-chief. Furthermore, al-Jahmi played a significant role in establishing the Libyan Women’s Union and assumed the organisation’s presidency in 1972.
The list also features Zaeema al-Barouni, a trailblazer in women’s literature in Libya and the first Libyan woman to author and publish a book of short stories. Her collection titled Al-Qasas Al-Qawmy, published in 1958, is the second collection of short stories published in Libya, following Abdel Qader Abu Harous’ Nufus Ha’ira. Al-Barouni was among the founding members of the al-Nahda Women’s Charitable Society and actively participated abroad in conferences focussing on women’s issues. Notably, she attended the Afro-Asian Women’s Conference in Cairo in 1960, accompanied by Hamida Tarkhan.
The fifth stage corresponds to the time Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya from 1969 to 2011. During this period, there were several policy changes aimed at promoting women’s involvement in the nation’s development.
However, the ideology of the Libyan regime stressed the physical and biological distinctions between males and females, asserting that each gender had a designated role.
Moreover, the prevailing societal belief that restricted women to their roles as mothers resulted in Libyan women experiencing a sense of isolation, with limited opportunities to assume administrative positions. Only a handful of women held such positions, leading to their underrepresentation in international and global forums and absence at the local level.
The sixth and final period commenced with the February 2011 revolution. According to researcher Souad Ghamid, this period marked a significant transformation for Libyan women. She believes it “brought Libyan women out of darkness into the light, showcasing their presence and resistance against the 42 years of injustice and tyranny that had prevailed in Libya. During this time, women became actively engaged in Libyan society and on social media platforms.”
However, it is worth noting that, due to the political divisions and the unfolding of the civil war, women activists faced new challenges at the end of 2013, further intensifying in 2014.
Libyan activist Laila al-Maghribi suggests that “the revolution removed some of the restrictions that previously limited women, providing an opportunity to advance their rights and work towards a gender-discrimination-free civil society.”
However, the emergence of extremist political movements and armed groups in Libya’s forefront disrupted the activities of Libyan activists and feminists, making them targets for all parties involved. This targeting extended to some members of the Libyan National Council.
Activist Abeer Ibrahim highlights that the intimidation and targeting of Libyan female activists “began in late 2013, not only by armed groups but also by official institutions.”
She added, “It started with Dar al-Iftaa, which vehemently opposed agreements Libya had signed, such as CEDAW, along with other decisions and laws supporting women’s rights.” She adds that the National Congress tried to undermine these rights and even overturn existing laws covering women’s rights.
Libyan female activists and journalists were systematically targeted to stifle their voices, suppress their opinions and disrupt their activities. This tragic list of victims includes Nassib Miloud Karfana, Fariha al-Barkawi, Sarah al-Deeb, Intisar al-Hasairi, Salwa Bughaighis and human rights activist Hanan al-Barassi, who lost their lives between 2014 and 2020.
The term “feminism” gained popularity in Libya during the 1940s. Salha Dhafer al-Madani was the first to introduce feminism to Libya in an article addressing the conditions of women in the country.
However, it is important to note that the concept and practice of Libyan feminism had existed for many years within society, intersecting with political, economic and social aspects long before the terminology became widely recognised.
In 1951, when the Constitution of Independence was ratified, it explicitly established equality between men and women through several articles. Article 11 of this Constitution proclaimed that “Libyans are equal before the law.”
Article 12 further affirmed that “personal liberty is guaranteed, and all individuals enjoy equal protection under the law.” This equality was extended to encompass the right to education and employment, as was outlined in Articles 14, 28 and 30.
Starting in 1954, feminist organisations began to emerge in Libya. However, in 1964, a legal issue concerning women’s political rights arose as a result of the electoral law that was in effect.
Article 5, Paragraph A of the law stipulated a fundamental requirement for National Assembly membership: “The candidate must be a Libyan male.” This explicit provision effectively excluded women from the opportunity to run for political office at that time.
Between 2012 and 2014, a wave of new organisations came into existence, including Ayna Haqqy?, Al-Nisa’ Qadimat, Libyan Amazonians and The Women’s Action Union. However, the rise of Islamic-oriented groups in the political landscape and the formation of a parliamentary majority backed by armed militias had detrimental implications for the feminist movement in Libya. This period saw increased hostility towards and persecution of feminists, resulting in the commission of their murders and assassinations, as previously mentioned.
Recently, there have been notable strides towards increasing women’s involvement in Libya’s political life, as highlighted by the appointment of five Libyan women to ministerial positions.
Ilham Endiri, a Libyan jurist and women’s rights activist, believes that appointing women to some ministerial positions is primarily a response to international pressures rather than a genuine internal shift in the country: “Although it is somewhat satisfactory, those in high positions in Libya are also subject to the quota system. Those who hold independent opinions often face threats, violence and enforced disappearances, as seen with MP Siham Sergewa, Salwa Bughaighis before her and Fariha al-Barkawi, among many others.”
Libyan women indeed face substantial social resistance and backlash when they deviate from traditional gender roles, often experiencing threats and harassment, particularly through online platforms.
A 2020 United Nations report emphasised that the absence of women’s participation in Libyan political processes is not merely a matter of representation but a tangible barrier to achieving substantial progress. Research has demonstrated that women’s involvement in conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms significantly reduces the likelihood of their failure by 64 per cent and enhances the likelihood of their sustainability for at least 15 years by 35 per cent. Moreover, women’s participation contributes to post-conflict economic recovery.
The most recent official Libyan law, issued by the National Unity Government led by Abdulhamid al-Dbeibeh, has sparked significant controversy and outrage. The law restricts Libyan women from travelling without a male companion and has led to heated debates and legal and human rights concerns.
Under this measure, Libyan women who wish to travel alone are mandated to complete a form that includes intrusive questions about the purpose of their travel, the absence of a companion and their travel history.
In response to this decision, numerous human rights organisations and prominent figures have issued a statement expressing their strong opposition and calling for its immediate repeal. The statement, titled “Violating Women’s Right to Freedom of Movement is an Insult to Libyan Women and an Unacceptable Violation of the Constitution and Law,” garnered support from 12 human rights organisations and 119 individuals.
Libyan women endure various forms of violence, including theft, physical assault and domestic abuse. Additionally, women constitute 51 per cent of the displaced population in Libya, which places them at heightened risk within shelters and displacement camps. These environments often lack adequate privacy, safe spaces and effective security measures, making women vulnerable to harassment.
Violence against women also extends to Libya’s electoral process. In 2022, the High Electoral Commission initiated a training programme titled “Monitoring Violence against Women in Elections in Libya.” Rabab Halab, a member of the Commission’s Council, highlighted that the data collected via questionnaires indicated a decline in women’s participation in the electoral process. The data made evident that a higher percentage of women’s participation in elections was associated with increased violence against female voters.
Human rights and civil society organisations have long advocated for the swift enactment of legislation to safeguard women and empower them to defend themselves. Human rights activist Badriya al-Hassi highlights that a draft law aimed at criminalising violence against women was presented to the House of Representatives over a year ago, yet it has not been discussed. She asserts that the formation of a committee to address this issue has likely been a response to the public outcry following several femicides carried out by relatives.
Al-Hassi further explains that the proposed law is comprehensive and attuned to women’s rights and various forms of violations. It not only criminalises electronic violence and hate speech on social media platforms but also outlines protective measures and delineates the responsibilities of government and judicial institutions in addressing and preventing different forms of violence against women.
The urgency of approving the aforementioned draft law has escalated in recent months, particularly following the visit of Reem al-Salem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, to Libya at the end of 2022.
During her visit, al-Salem urged Libyan authorities to take immediate action to protect all women and girls from pervasive violence and abuse. She emphasised the importance of fully implementing preventative measures and ensuring comprehensive protection and support for victims.
In her statement, al-Salem expressed deep concern about the widespread, systematic and alarming violence against women and girls in Libya. She noted that femicide, the killing of women, is on the rise for numerous reasons, along with acts of physical, economic, political and social violence in both private and public spheres.
Al-Salem attributed this distressing situation to political deadlock, insecurity, instability, governance challenges and inadequate legal frameworks that do not align with Libya’s international human rights obligations.
While Libyan law is considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world concerning women’s rights, including provisions for gender equality, the right to work and travel and protection against gender discrimination in wages and employment, the country still faces significant challenges.
Libyan male and female activists, such as Menna al-Qadi, point out that societal attitudes and beliefs in Libya often override the legal framework, and these prevailing beliefs “hinder women’s progress, push them backwards, and confine them within prescribed roles set by men, limiting their ability to travel independently, hold high-ranking positions or assume leadership roles with significant responsibilities.”