Abstract: The 2011 political change in Libya brought about a proliferation of civil society groups, most notably, women’s rights organisations. Many women’s human rights activists called for a more inclusive society, greater equality and respect for rule of law. But in the context of an on-going military conflict, many Libyans now regard women’s issues as inconsequential, albeit, entirely trivial. In this article, I want to take the opportunity to analyse and challenge these arguments in my attempt to effectively undermine them. By presenting evidence from gender and economic empowerment literature’s, I will show how women’s issues lie at the heart of understanding the current conflict and therefore, cannot be ignored. I will equally show how well-informed discussions about women’s issues in Libya can help to foster better gender relations, correct misinterpretations and construct a better way of life not only for women but for the collective society.
In Libya, an on-going political and military conflict has had profound ramifications on the economy and society. The Libyan economy depends almost exclusively on oil exports for revenue and since the conflict, oil production has been reduced to around a fifth of what it was two years ago. This decline in oil exports has led to revenues plummeting and the Libyan dinar losing value against foreign currencies – causing spiraling inflation. Rising prices, coupled with a severe shortage of liquidity in the banks and long periods of electricity blackouts represent some of the suffering faced by Libyans today.
These socioeconomic hardships impact citizen outlook, their behaviour and their relations towards other citizens. But while these hardships have affected the collective, a recent image published on-line has revealed the gendered element to the economic crisis. In the image, a group of Libyan women stand outside a bank waiting to receive their earnings. Among them, a man with a large stick and aggressive expression pushes one lady back – threatening her, it appears, with physical violence. Understandably, the image conjured up feisty debate on-line with comments expressing pity and compassion for the lady – asking her to have sabr (patience) in these challenging times. Other commentators, however, put the blame on the lady for standing outside the bank without a male guardian. Some commentators even trivialised the violence, normalising it as a part of everyday life in Libya.
The comments reveal the attitudes that affect Libyan women especially in public spaces. In a recent article entitled “Core issues affecting Women’s Lives in Libya”, Amna Abdullatif wrote about their major preoccupations based on qualitative research findings. She found that security, representation and government incompetence were the three main concerns. But what was striking about the article was that it revealed that ‘for many women, the women’s movement is scary’, ‘opportunities are limited due to limitations on travel’ and that ‘women are often prisoners of their own stereotypes’. These are very interesting revelations that highlight the intersecting forms of oppression that disable Libyan women from progressing and openly engaging in women’s empowerment initiatives.
Considering this, I want to present evidence from gender and economic empowerment literature’s to show how women’s issues lie at the heart of understanding the current conflict and cannot, therefore, be ignored. I will equally show how well-informed discussions about women’s issues in Libya can help to foster better gender relations and construct a better way of life not only for women but for the collective society.
Recognising the multiple dimensions of gender concepts:
The concepts of justice, equality, economic empowerment and gender are multi-faceted. Across the world, people have different and culturally-specific definitions of these terms. In Libya, we, as women’s rights activists, should recognise the complexity and ambiguous nature of these terms when discussing the needs and desires of women. The social outcomes and experiences of women are produced by multiple intersecting forces like ethnicity, wealth, education, social status, migration status, marital status, age and care responsibilities. Libyan women are far from being a monolithic entity as each woman is enmeshed in productive power relations that simultaneously enable and disable her. To put it bluntly, the socioeconomic experiences of a Libyan woman from Misrata, Tripoli or Benghazi since 2011 are different to a Libyan woman from Tawerga.
If we succeed in thinking in what social scientists term, an intersectional manner, we can better understand why we are in our current position, and how we can move forward. We can point out the social, economic, political and cultural issues that seek to divide and prevent much needed discussion of women’s issues. Additionally, our awareness and appreciation of the differences among women can help to foster a spirit of inclusivity in the movements, avoiding elitism and reinventions of patriarchy.
Women’s greater access to resources impacts the collective:
But to show society that women’s issues must be discussed and are significant, we must show how the implementation of gender-sensitive policies, especially in macro-economics and development economics can support the advancement of collective society.
The Jusoor Center for Research and Development aims to promote human development by bridging gender inequality gaps to build sustainable development for women in Libya. The reasons for adopting such a stance are supported by a wealth of economic development literature. For instance, in Household decisions, Gender and Development, Agnes R. Quisumbing presents evidence to show that increasing women’s control of resources or decision-making power has favorable effects on several important outcomes, such as education, child nutrition, and a woman’s own well-being. This means that if women are given greater control of resources, they tend to spend more of it on the nourishment, education and well-being of their children.
According to a report published by UNICEF ‘150,000 children in Libya will require quality education’. And as previously mentioned, the decline in oil exports has caused inflation and shortages of liquidity in banks. While society faces these economic hardships, it seems that lobbying for women’s greater access to resources could help to ease the impact of these economic problems on the next generation. This is because, based on vast empirical and anthropological research, giving women greater control over resources and decision-making power tends to create more equitable outcomes across genders through their investments in their children, or in other words the leaders of tomorrow.
Understanding Economic Empowerment:
In “Core issues affecting Women’s Lives in Libya”, a Libyan girl called Khadeja argued that ‘opportunities are limited for women more so due to limitations in travel.’ Khadeja appears to be suggesting that the scarcity in access to transport prevents women from accessing certain job opportunities in Libya. This further emphasises how development is important to changing the position of women and the opportunities available to them in society.
But when we think about promoting economic empowerment initiatives, we need to understand what it signifies in the Libyan context. We must be aware of the ways in which empowerment initiatives have historically been exploited by international organisations to enforce their idea of an “empowered” woman. Colonial systems did this in the Maghreb, for example in neighbouring Algeria where women were told to unveil for their supposed empowerment and emancipation. This painful historic legacy has caused confusion over what empowerment signifies and how it can be achieved in postcolonial countries.
To combat this legacy, we need to think of different ways of measuring the empowerment of Libyan women, which are specific to the history, culture and socioeconomic context of the country. The work of the development economist Dr Naila Kabeer provides an interesting way of measuring women’s empowerment. In “Resources, Agency, Achievements”, she argues that empowerment should be measured as a process of beneficial change in a woman’s life. Her ability to exercise choice is dependent on three inter-related dimensions; her access to resources enabling her to make a well-informed decision, her agency and the outcomes of the decision on her well-being.
In Kabeer’s definition, she demonstrates that for a policy or choice to empower a woman, the outcomes of it must affect her positively. Her theory of measuring empowerment emphasises how it is a gradual process and is not triggered suddenly through the implementation of one gender-sensitive policy. Through Kabeer’s equation, we can see how important access to resources (educational, social and economic) for women is in equipping them with the ability to make the right decisions for themselves, their families and therefore collective society.
Centres for research and development, like Jusoor, are promoting this form of critical thinking through the Al-Mufaqira Journal, which hopes to be an educational resource that spreads understanding and an exchange of ideas over ways to empower Libyan women in all their diversity. Forming a network of ideas about women’s empowerment can help us to better understand the roots of oppressive forces and how to overcome obstacles to our empowerment. It is fundamental to engage in these kinds of exchanges to undermine opposition rhetoric that women’s rights activists are inauthentic. Furthermore, exchanges through platforms such as the Al-Mufaqira Journal can provide a strong voice for Libyan women to counter the imposition of neocolonial interpretations of the empowered woman.
In the article, I have discussed several reasons why we must continue to highlight women’s issues even during a time of political and military conflict. I have shown that lobbying for women’s access to greater resources and decision-making roles is a strong investment in the next generation, which in the long-run will benefit the collective society. This is because gender and economic development research has shown that women tend to spend more on the education and nourishment of their children. At a time where children are suffering more than ever, equipping Libyan women with access to more resources is an investment that could prevent the country from losing out on the talents of tomorrow’s leaders.
I have equally shown that empowerment is not achieved over night, but is rather a gradual process. Naila Kabeer’s theory demonstrates that empowerment cannot be imposed on women, but rather comes from their access to resources, agency and choice. Therefore, it is only by spreading access to resources that women of different socioeconomic backgrounds can make decisions for their well-being. Constructive exchanges between women can help to foster greater understanding over our desires and needs, encourage greater inclusivity and fundamentally prevent neocolonial images of an empowered woman being imposed on us.
The journey is long and arduous, but we must not give up. We are not subalterns and by speaking out, critically thinking, we are acting and deciding our direction despite the challenges that confront us.
Written by Ms Youssef who is currently working with the Jusoor Center for Research and Development to develop initiatives promoting greater understanding of women’s issues in Libya. She enjoys writing a lot and is a regular contributor to the Al-Mufaqira Journal. She also has her own blog which can be accessed here https://assma93.wordpress.com/author/assma93/.
 Guma el-Gamaty, “Can reviving Libya’s economy clear the political impasse?”, The New Arab, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/11/4/can-reviving-libyas-economy-clear-the-political-impasse.
 Amna Abdullatif, “Core issues affecting Women’s Lives in Libya”.
 Agnes R. Quisumbing, Household decisions, Gender and Development, p.31.
 Amna Abdullatif, “Core issues affecting Women’s Lives in Libya”.
 Naila Kabeer, “Resources, Agency, Achievement: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment,” Development and Change, Vol.30 (3), 1999, 1.