By Rhiannon Smith
Thursday, March 8, marked International Women’s Day and, all over Libya, events were held to celebrate and encourage women’s empowerment.The events touched on familiar themes such as political participation, domestic violence and women’s rights.
Since the revolution, a great number of local women’s NGOs have sprung up and on International Women’s Day they rose to the occasion, demonstrating just how far Libyan civil society has come in the short months since the end of the war. There is no denying that the flame of female activism has been ignited in Libya, but is it a fire that will light up Libya from desert to sea, or merely a candle burning in the dark, illuminating only those close enough to see its glow?
Mention women’s rights in the right circles, at international functions, the go-to events and you will hear only praise and encouragement for the women’s movement in Libya. There is nothing but criticism and hand wringing concerning the dearth of women in Libya’s fledgling political environment. The only argument will be about how best to support Libyan women in their struggle. However, bring up the same issue with those who are not on the NGO contact lists, those who do not go to such events, and the situation is often startlingly different.
Libyans use Facebook and watch the news; they know the issue of women in Libya is a topical one. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, many dismiss or worse denounce it, failing to see its importance. Some are indignant that women seem to be out to tarnish the post-revolution spirit. They claim that now is not the time for this fight; let Libya come safely out of the post-conflict period and then worry about women’s role in society. Others are more vociferous in their rejection of this women’s movement, accusing it of damaging Libyan culture, of being anti-Islamic, of portraying an inaccurate, negative picture of a woman’s life in Libya.
For many, the very mention of women’s rights raises hackles, as visions of scantily clad girls, drunkenness and debauchery race across the minds of mothers and fathers alike. Women’s empowerment is reduced in the eyes of some beholders to a purely Western idea centred on sexual promiscuity, an idea which threatens to corrupt the very nature of Libyan society.
Such difference of opinion is nothing new. Neither is the debate about the role of women in modern society, their role within Islam or the issue of gender equality in patriarchal Middle Eastern societies. However, these issues do need to be discussed within a Libyan context in order for Libyans to work towards a shared vision of the future. To this end then, surely women’s groups in Libya are achieving their goals. They have brought the issue of female empowerment and participation to the table and have sparked an ongoing debate on the role of women in the new Libya. However, there are three major flaws in the movement to redefine women’s roles in Libya which threaten to cut short the impressive progress that has been made so far.
Firstly, there is a lack of focus. The debate about women in Libya has been too wide ranging, lacking a clear priority — touching upon, but not getting to the root of — many issues which are controversial in modern Libyan society. This is the first time Libyan society has had the opportunity to discuss such issues openly and confidently, so it is only natural that there are a large number of issues to be addressed. But in order for debates to be productive and have real impact within Libya, there must be clear priorities.
In three months time, the first nationwide elections in Libya will take place. The body responsible for determining Libya’s constitution will be chosen and thereby, the rules and regulations under which Libyans will live in the new Libya. If women’s groups, activists and international organisations are unable to focus their efforts unilaterally to encourage, educate and lead women’s participation in these elections, then their labours in all other areas may well become smoke in the wind. If women do not exercise their rights to vote or to stand as candidates, then Libya’s future socio-political environment will at best be unrepresentative of Libyan women, and at worst will become a barren desert in which the women’s movement will cease to flourish.
Secondly, there is an assumption that those who fall into what is seen as the ‘anti’ women’s rights camp are all male misogynists or extremists and are not worth wasting time on. This simply is not true and prevents any real change of attitudes taking place. Yes, there are people who fit this description, but they are in the minority. Most Libyans share the same values and beliefs on which this women’s movement is based, and yet many Libyans, both women and men, are uneasy about the issue of women’s rights. The problem is lack of awareness on both sides. Activists, women’s groups and the media in Libya bandy the term ‘women’s rights’ about but rarely define it or move beyond the ‘male oppression’ paradigm.
As a result, many see the movement as merely sensationalist propaganda with little substantial value.
In order for Libyans to understand that women’s empowerment is actually an extension of the values of freedom, equality and democracy which so many fought and died for in the revolution and that it is not an affront to Libya society, programmes for raising awareness must be targeted at everyone, men and women, young and old. Libyans as a people are politically unaware and inexperienced, so efforts must be made to educate both sexes about how political participation works. The aim is not to have women voting only for female candidates and men for males. The idea is that voting takes place based purely on policy — that you vote for the candidate who best represents your personal values and visions. This is difficult in any society, but even more so in one that was so politically starved and repressed for so long. Real change will only occur in Libya when both men and women work together to achieve the aims of the revolution and thereby equality for both sexes. After all, women are only one side of the gender coin.
The third issue that must be tackled is the assumption that the kind of change advocated by the women’s movement is the change that most Libyan women want. To some extent this is of course a valid assumption. You need only look at the positive support and publicity for women’s NGOs, such as the Voice of Libyan Women, to see that they are striking a chord with Libyan women, as well as making a name for themselves on the international stage. However, the danger is that by claiming to speak for all Libyan women and presuming that all LIbyan women want to be empowered, the women’s movement in Libya is actually alienating many women because there isn’t enough emphasis on what the positive, tangible outcomes of gender equality are. Some women who have had little exposure to the concept of women’s emancipation often see it as a foreign idea, something backed up by the visible international support for women’s causes in Libya. Many also fail to see how having women in parliament would have any effect on their own lives, and in any case are quite happy with their life style and do not wish it to change.
In order to convince Libyan women that political participation is paramount to Libya’s future, not just for women but for all Libyans, women’s NGOs must not approach the issue heavy-handedly or judgementally. Women’s empowerment is not about belittling the role of mothers and housewives, nor about ensuring that women get highly-paid, influential positions. It isn’t even about achieving an equal proportion of men and women in schools, workplaces or the government. It is about ensuring that everybody, whether male or female, has the same opportunity to achieve such things if they want to and are not restricted simply because they are the wrong gender. It is about freedom of choice; about being able to determine one’s own path in life free from social roles determined by sex. Women who stay at home and raise families are not more or less commendable than those who choose to do both, or those who decide to focus more on their careers. This is a message which has been missing from the rhetoric in Libya so far. It is women who raise the children in Libya, women who teach their children the ways of the world and instil in them the values by which they will live their lives. If these women remain suspicious, dismissive or simply unaware of the changes being fought for by women’s NGOs in Libya, then this attitude will be passed on to their children, the new Libyan generation.
Libyan women, women’s groups and international organisations in Libya are playing a very important role in Libya’s future and are making a sterling effort to create change and raise awareness concerning gender equality. However, the biggest challenge, and one which must be urgently addressed, is how these groups present themselves. They must not shy away from the difficult issues or the values they stand for, but equally they must present themselves in a way which the majority of Libyan society can relate to. Awareness must be raised about exactly what women’s empowerment and participation means, how it can be achieved, and most importantly why it is a goal worth fighting for.
This struggle should not be portrayed as women fighting against oppressive men, because often it is not and by portraying it as such risks alienating a significant proportion of the population. Women are often just as vocal in their dismissal of women’s rights issues — and by ignoring this fact, there is a real danger that any progress that is currently being made will turn out to be superficial.
Sensitive issues such as rape, domestic violence and female sexuality must be tackled in Libya. But if palpable change is to take place, women must first of all ensure their platform for free speech and open discussion is guaranteed in the elections and the constitution so that long term solutions to such problems can be implemented.
If Libyans do not understand why women’s participation is so important, then they are probably unaware of why their own political participation is so crucial, and come the elections in June, Libya’s hopes and dreams of freedom, transparency and democracy will be dashed at the first hurdle.