Exclusion of women in new Libya must end


WORLDVIEW:LIBYAN WOMEN may not have been visible on the streets with guns, but they played an equally important role, displaying courage and strength that has been invaluable to the success of the country’s revolution. So why are women being excluded from decisions and official appointments in the new Libya?

Libyan women triggered this revolution on February 15th, when the mothers, sisters and widows of prisoners killed in the 1996 Abu Salim massacre took to the streets in Benghazi to protest outside the courthouse after their lawyer was arrested.

At home and abroad, Libyan women have protested, smuggled arms, founded civil society groups, raised awareness and delivered humanitarian aid, and continue to do so, taking a central role alongside men in Libya’s revolution – and it has united us.

Yet only one woman is listed as a member of the National Transitional Council, Dr Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali (legal affairs and women). Libyan women were not included as equal partners in last week’s Friends of Libya Paris Conference. There were unconfirmed reports this week that three women – a lawyer, an academic and an activist – have been proposed to the Tripoli NTC council and rejected.

Common excuses for this exclusion, both inside and outside Libya, is that we women must wait until the situation is more secure and that appointments should be made on merit, or that there aren’t enough qualified women to step up.

Libyan women are among the mostly highly educated and professionally highly qualified in the Arab world, and have been working in the public domain in Libya for decades. A double standard seems to be operating with respect to the “appointment on merit” argument: Libyan men with no experience are being appointed to posts. There is naturally a learning curve as Libya rebuilds its institutions, but opportunities should be inclusive of all – across the genders, regions and ethnic groups.

It is time for women to be encouraged to step forward, given their place around decision- making tables and access to the conversations about Libya’s future in accordance with United Nations Security Council mandate 1325, which emphasises the important role women play in peacebuilding.

Women4Libya is a campaign run by Libyan Women’s Society, part of the Libyan Civil Society NGO. It is calling for aid to be ringfenced to support women’s rights; financial aid for civil society and grassroots initiatives set up by women, for women; and negotiations and meetings on the future of Libya to include all tribes and regional representatives, which should include sufficient numbers of women. It has launched an online petition for greater participation of Libyan women in government http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/women4libya

Freedom of thought and expression has not been available to all Libyans for nearly 42 years and it is important that Libyan women who want to be part of the dialogue can participate equally in shaping a better Libya. Such representation should not be tokenistic, nor should it compel women to participate who would prefer to remain in the background working in equally important roles of nurturing families and helping to rebuild local communities. But the choice should be there.

Much is made in the international press of how Gadafy promoted women in unorthodox or sadistic ways – for example, his use of female bodyguards and assassins. The stories are only beginning to emerge of the abusive reality of life for many of these women. Gadafy understood how to use the power of women and how to manipulate society.

Last week saw the arrest of Huda “the executioner” Ben Amer, who at a public Gadafy- staged execution in 1984 grabbed one of the condemned hanging men. She was seen on TV pulling him down until he died. My Irish mother still speaks of her horror at watching that disgusting act. Huda was subsequently made mayor of Benghazi and terrorised the community for many years. We need to move away from this skewed view of empowerment of women; Gadafy does not represent Libyan society.

In the new Libya, there are new heroines. We have seen the iconic images of Iman al-Obeidi, who spoke out about the sexual violence inflicted on so many who have otherwise suffered in silence; the elderly lady praising rebels at a lay-by and giving them her blessing; and Malak, the five-year-old amputee from Misurata – to name a few.

The age of dictatorship is over, 51 per cent the population cannot be ignored or marginalised. We must start as we mean to go on and get women “round the table”, involved as equal partners alongside men. This issue needs to be resolved now to make sure post-conflict Libya starts off on a strong foundation – one that is inclusive and respects the skills and input of all citizens.

Women must be part of the conversation in the new Libya. To do otherwise is not to honour the legacy of the brave Libyan men and women who gave their lives for human rights in the spirit of the country’s revolution.

Farah Abushwesha is an Irish–Libyan writer and film-maker and spokeswoman for the Women4Libya campaign.

Twitter: @farahabushwesha