Sofija Ftes completed a Masters research project at the University of Cambridge examining the position(s) of Libyan women post-2011. Ms Ftes contacted Jusoor Centre for Studies and Development to provide a summary of her qualitative research findings. She interviewed Libyan women from diverse professional backgrounds to ask about the impact of the 2011 revolution on their lives.
The age of interviewees fell between the range of 20 to 60 years old. Twenty-three working women and four working men were interviewed as part of the study. Eighteen women were chosen because they had been working before and after the revolution in a variety of different professional sectors. These include healthcare, education, engineering, law, business, human rights, banking, management and media. Other respondents, though, had only started working after the revolution because the uprising created new opportunities for them. Six female interviewees had been or still are working for international organizations. Moreover, five of them are founders or co-founders of different non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Most respondents were involved in the revolution to some extent and could compare Gaddafi’s regime to the aftermath of the revolution which is the focus of the research.
The Arab Spring changed the lives of many, leaving a major impact on the female population. Although men and women were considered equal under law under Gaddafi’s regime, gender inequality was and still is an important issue in Libya’s male-dominated society. The Libyan revolution had both positive and negative effects on women’s lives – especially on their professional careers and opportunities, their political, economic, and social involvement, as well as their freedom and safety.
Before the revolution, Libyan women were underrepresented in the social, political and economic sectors. Post-revolution, Libya created new opportunities for some women by enabling them to enter the job market and progress within the professional environment. The uprising brought international organizations into the country that acknowledged and pursued human rights practices. Women also started volunteering to assist children who lost their parents during the 2011 revolution, widows whose husbands died during the revolution, and rebels who were injured during the conflict. Examples include a social activist Issra Abushaala who started volunteering for Save the Children organization, as well as Rawia Kharruba who worked as a translator/interpreter for the United Nations. Hana Abuzaid volunteered as an interpreter for different NGOs, which led her to her new job in a government Media office. Women also played a major role in the revolution by running different NGOs which focused on areas such as women’s rights, youth development, child protection, environmental protection and refugee assistance. A law student Hajer Sharief co-founded the Together We Build It organization that works on women and youth peace and security. Zahra Langhi founded The Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP) to ensure that women remained a vital part of post-Gaddafi Libya, reinforcing inclusive transitions such as women’s rights, youth leadership, advancement and security as related to women’s political and economic participation, constitutional reform and education. Shahrazad Magrabi founded an organization called Libyan Women Forum(LWF) in order to empower women to participate in the future development of the country. The Voice of Libyan Women(VLW), founded by Alaa Murabit was initially focused on the political and economic empowerment of women. Additionally, Women in Libyan Leadership (WILL) Facebook group was created in 2013 to reinforce Libyan women’s role in socio-economic development allowing women in Libya to discuss and initiate projects related to women empowerment.
Civil society was close to non-existent under the Gaddafi regime. There was no free press, no real trade union and no political opposition because the country’s political and legal framework banned any form of civil society activity. During the Gaddafi era, which was an authoritarian regime, there were no independent women’s organizations. Anyone permitted to work on behalf of women’s rights had to do so within the framework of the state. As a result, women’s groups were closely linked to the state and were permitted to cooperate only with international women’s organizations that had been sanctioned by the government. The revolution raised awareness of the existence of women’s rights organizations, and now it is during post-revolution Libya that these institutions are creating new opportunities for women. Omnia Tayari used the opportunity and co-founded the Environmental Friends of Libya organization with the mission to protect the environment. Shortly afterwards, she established an IT training company called Mazadah. Tayari emphasized that she probably would not have started these movements if the revolution did not take place. During interviews conducted with Libyan women for the purposes of the research, many of them claimed that new organizations established in the country, created gender equality awareness through campaigning and lobbying with hopes to change Libyan people’s mentalities. Among the interviewees, women did agree that with the establishment of these organizations, more women became interested in the political, social and economic matters of the state. As a result, the political and social involvement of Libyan women greatly increased.
Furthermore, many women claimed that the revolution encouraged them to open their own businesses such as law firms, catering companies, startups, and online retail entities. For instance, a corporate lawyer, Hala Bugaighis opened her own law firm. Additionally, Nessrin Gaddah saw the revolution as an opportunity to initiate an online advertising group called Tripoli, Where Can I Find ? Although the uprising created hope for many, it also had negative effects on some careers. As some interviewees remarked, some work spaces were attacked and closed. Also, multinational corporations left the country and as a result, staff became redundant. Certain careers that required frequent travel effectively forced many women to quit their jobs, mainly because of the lack of free movement and safety in the country. Furthermore, opportunities for travel and training abroad were prioritized and offered to Libyan men. Hajer Elkot, a female doctor working at the Ministry of Health, claimed that although medical training abroad was offered to both men and women, many women were reluctant to accept the opportunity for security reasons, as well as fear of judgement by the society. Isra Abdussalam, an office manager and follow up director working at Alshada pharmaceutical company claimed that the revolution had a negative impact on her organization. The prices of pharmaceutical drugs have drastically increased, and the goods are not delivered in a timely manner, which makes it difficult to successfully sell the products. Sawsan Hanish, an ex-director of family development department at the Ministry of Social Affairs claimed that the turmoil greatly increased the amount of work for the social ministry in terms of state assistance, however the institution lacks the resources and trained staff to handle these issues.
There was an agreement among the respondents that Libyan women’s interest in politics greatly increased since the 2011 revolution. When the revolution started, women decided to take part in politics to ensure their involvement in drafting the new constitution. The elections that took place in 2012 showed that the number of Libyan women who took part, applied, got elected and voted was higher than expected. Unfortunately, the second election that took place in 2014 had a much lower turnout. A human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis who publicly encouraged women to vote was murdered, thus triggering fear amongst women who wished to participate in the political sphere. The early promise women were given about having equal political rights with men in post-revolution Libya has been replaced with a rising extremism – justified by increasingly conservative views that women must only be involved in domestic affairs. When a 10 percent women’s quota in the first draft election law was abolished by the Transitional National Council (NTC), LWPP proposed an alternative, more inclusive electoral law. They proposed a mixed electoral system that would ensure inclusive representation in the Constitutional Assembly.
The conflict is still ongoing in Libya, the country lacks a stable government and proper security. The lives of the entire population are threatened. Militias in the country pose threats to women’s safety restricting both their movement and their freedom. Interviewees claimed to know many women who stopped working since the revolution for security reasons such as fear of being kidnapped, fear of an attack by militias at the workplace itself, and their husband’s or father’s restriction imposed on them to protect them. Magrabi was threatened, and as a result, was forced to leave the country and thus relocate the LWF organization to Cairo. Women in Libya are not only afraid of militias, but are also afraid of the religious extremists that oppose women having careers. Thus, women are afraid to portray their professional success on public media since they do not want to attract attention and become the target of attacks or assassinations. This creates difficulties for women running their own businesses since it reduces publicity.
Although women’s interest and involvement in various professional sectors increased since the revolution, some women relocated to different corporate branches in other countries because of the security situation. Asma Kenshil, relocated from Libya before the conflict began and is currently residing in Canada recollected that a few of her ex-colleagues were held at gunpoint outside their places of work, resulting in some relocating to Canada, Tunisia and the United Kingdom to pursue their careers while at the same time ensuring their safety. A former English teacher, Awisha Bashir, left Libya with her family because she did not feel safe anymore. A Libyan female banker left Libya in 2014 because her offices were attacked. She emphasized that the revolution brought her career to a standstill. Since many female social activists were murdered, threatened or forced to leave Libya, some women started retreating from public exposure. However, there are women who run home businesses to keep their careers running or to simply improve their financial situations which have worsened since the revolution. There are certain Facebook pages belonging to women’s rights organizations in Libya that have not been active since 2014. Kidnappings and assassinations have triggered fear among many female social activists.
Since the conflict is still not over in Libya, it is too early to confidently state whether the Arab Spring has had more of a positive or negative effect on working women in Libya. Liberal feminist epistemology suggests that there was a common feminist identity among Libyan women during the 2011 revolution. They came together and established women’s rights organizations since they saw the uprising as an opportunity to highlight their feminist values and gain equality with men in both the public and private spheres. The liberal feminist discourse allows Libyan women to believe that there is a possibility the revolution will change people’s mentalities and break the patriarchal norms that have long existed in Libyan culture. If the mentalities of people change, this could result in breaking the patriarchal norms thus eliminating the rising extremism of the militias. This would then ensure that the overall impact of the Libyan revolution on women will most likely be positive. Until then, Libyan women are struggling against the remains of a patriarchal attitude and they have been desperately seeking assistance from the UN to help improve women’s rights in post-revolutionary Libya. Yusra Bennaji, a researcher at the natural resources governance institute, emphasized that men now encourage women to join the workforce, however it is mainly to improve the family’s financial situation. Evidently, this does not give women independence, since many of the male family members decide on the job women should take and their working hours. When asked about the hopes for the future of women’s rights, one of the WILL group admins, Hala Bugaighis, concluded:
In order for change to happen, social norms must be changed. People need to understand the true meaning of women’s empowerment, liberation, and independence. Although there is an increase in projects supporting women’s emancipation, the resistance will be present until the whole population understands the importance of women’s roles in the country’s economic and social development.