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Women in post-revolution Libya

Tamsin WalkerFebruary 17, 2014

Three years ago Libya was hurtling headlong into the revolution that culminated in the death of Moammar Gadhafi. Although instrumental in the fall of the regime, women face mixed fates in the country of new men.

Libyen Frauen Proteste
Women were vocal during the revolution, but being heard can be hardImage: AP

When Gadhafi was pronounced dead in October 2011, it was the end of the revolution and of the regime that had held the nation in its grip for 42-years. After eight months of battle and bloodshed, the future shone with a promise brought within reach by the power of unity.

Having played an active role - as fighters, doctors and correspondents - in the events leading up to that moment, Libyan women were emboldened and hopeful the country they were helping to redefine would be a place of liberal values and reasoned thought. And some have fared well.

In 2012, Omnia Etayari started her own training and consultancy firm with no certainty of how it would be received. Her client list include government authorities, banks, oil companies and insurance companies, all of whom she says have been unwavering in their support.

"Wherever I go, I find appreciation that a woman is doing my job and doing it well," she told DW. "In some ways I would say women get more encouragement than men, because it is not too special to find a man doing well in business, whereas for women it is new."

Restrictions on freedom

That said, the Tripoli-based entrepreneur believes women in the east of Libya face greater restrictions on their freedom than elsewhere in the country. "In some cities we see strict religious or extremist groups slowly gaining control and preventing women from moving around easily."

Women cheering in a car
Not everyone welcomes women driversImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Magdulein Abaida can testify to that. She was involved in the revolution from the outset, and continued her work at the helm of a women’s rights group once the fighting stopped. In 2012, she travelled to the eastern city of Benghazi to participate in a conference exploring the potential of the new Libyan constitution. While there, she was kidnapped and tortured by a group she says was shocked by the ideology of her organization, whose members were liberal and secular.

The activist says her kidnappers were members of an Islamist group that had made itself known to her in the past. "They said they had to get rid of us and our Western ideas," she told DW.

When her captors let her go, she applied for and was granted asylum in the UK. In the year and more since leaving her native Libya, she believes the situation for women there has deteriorated. "Before the revolution people were conservative, but the ideology of the system was not," she said. "That has changed."

Militia-made rules

Abaida accuses militias operating on the ground of rewriting the place of women both in history and society. "Some ideological parties are trying to show that the only role of women in the revolution was to cook for the fighters, but this is not true." She says the about-turn is also putting women under pressure to dress conservatively and not drive.

Rola Abdul-Latif, research manager at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), recently published a report exploring the civic, political and economic participation of Libyan women. She too, found that activists had struggled to be heard after the revolution.

An election campaign poster with a female candidate
Finding support as a female candidate has proved hard for someImage: Reuters

"Women leading civil society or advocacy groups experienced intense pressure when trying to express themselves, and were repeatedly told to go home," Abdul-Latif said.

She believes there is a long way to go in changing attitudes and familiarizing people with the idea of women in political and leadership roles. This is backed by statistics that show a mere three percent having signed a written or email petition in the 12 months prior to the survey. Likewise only 10 percent said they had contributed to a social media platform, whereas 25 percent said they might do so in the future.

"What we try to highlight is that there is a quite a bit of a disconnect between the level of interest expressed by women, and their actual interest."

Saying vs. doing

Omnia Etayari has noted a similar discrepancy. She recently conducted an experiment, inviting her Facebook friends to share their interpretation of the role of women in building Libya, and was surprised that most replies - both from men and women - focused on raising the next generation.

"Many of these people are my clients, who treat me well and respect me and encourage me all the time, but they say women should stay home, raise a good family, bring up well-educated men to build the country," she said. "They don’t fight a woman who runs her own business, but what is in their mind is still in their mind."

A child writing
Education can play a vital role in confidence building and consequently nation buildingImage: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/GettyImages

As far as Etayari is concerned, these entrenched beliefs are the direct result of a lack of confidence both in and between women, few of whom work full-time or are professional leaders. "The examples around women are not successful ones," she said. "Those who are successful were either brought up by successful fathers or had successful women around them."

Rola Abdul-Latif’s research also found room for greater mutual support among women, not least when it comes to elections. "Those trying to drum up political support have often said it is much harder for them to get it from other women, who tend not to vote for them."

Etayari talks about breaking the pattern by helping people realize their potential and thereby systematically empowering Libyan society as a whole.

But for Magdulein Abaida it is about more than that. "People are killing each other in Libya, and there is no value for humanity," she said. "And if there is no value for men and children, how can there be a value for women?"