- Published on Thursday, 16 August 2012 13:08
Women in Libya have their work cut out for them. A quick survey of the pre-revolution status of women in Libya reveals an abysmal state of affairs. According to the 2009 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Libya ranks 91st out of 102 countries for gender equality. In post-Gaddafi Libya, women have seen much of the same, if not worse.
Currently, there is only one woman on the National Transitional Council. Despite vocal protests from many women’s groups, only 10% of seats in the parliament have been allocated to women in the current general election. Across Libya, the percentage of female candidates remains marginal.
Notwithstanding the discouraging figures, activists such as Azza Kamel Maghur, an attorney and democracy and human rights advocate, believe that Libyan women must seize this opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of Libya to ensure that their interests are addressed.
“You cannot really ask people in charge of democratization to do a lot for women because…the whole thing is very tremendous. Women have to work for themselves. My concern is that no one is taking care of women’s issues because the whole situation is bigger than women’s issues,” says Maghur.
Awareness of the democratization process
Democracy is new to everyone in Libya, yet women are not as keen on getting educated about and involved in democratic processes, such as electoral systems, as they were in the revolution. Maghur encourages both men and women to study electoral systems to grasp the complex road to democracy.
“When it comes to election laws, women need to be aware of the electoral system. They need to know that there are electoral systems that are against women. Like the ‘first-past-the-post’ system, it is against women. You have to go against the system. You don’t wait until the system is established and then you come and blame the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn’t work that way. You impede this system from being established before it is established. Women need to work…it is not only coming out and screaming or coming out and complaining. It is a science, political science,” argues Maghur.
The top-to-bottom approach of advocating for women’s representation and participation in the political system is one that many feminists and women’s rights groups adopt. It seeks change at the legal and institutional levels in hopes of these changes getting adopted in other areas of society. But are these efforts enough to ensure women’s participation in the political and legal structures? Is the inclusion of women in parliaments and political parties sufficiently ensuring that women’s rights, interests, and voices are being taken into account and heard?
Feminism vs. Feminized Politics
Zahra Langhi, a Libyan academic, activist, and member of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, believes the participation of women in the political sphere is not necessarily enough. “It is not enough to say, ‘Okay, we need women in parliament because we are equal citizens.’ This argument is not sufficient. You have to [argue] why bringing the female element into politics is very important,” says Langhi.
Women do not necessarily look out for other women. Consider Azza Al-Jarf, a Freedom and Justice Party MP in Egypt’s parliament, who has called on laws to restrict women’s rights to divorce, opposed sexual harassment laws, and called for the ban on female circumcision in Egypt to be lifted.
Women in parliament going against women’s issues are not distinct to Egypt. In Tunisia, 20% of the members of the assembly are women, the highest representation of women in a legislative body of any Arab state. Yet, it is observed that female representatives often side with the political positions of their parties, regardless of how that position may affect the status of women.
“I do not feel that all women represent that female element,” said Langhi. “What we need is a feminization of politics, rather than bringing in more numbers of women into parliament.”
In pre-revolution Egypt, feminists were largely interested in legislative change. In view of that fact, women’s rights activists quickly fell out of favor with revolutionaries, as they were seen to have been allies of Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, a champion of women’s rights.
“This tells you something about how people perceive them. They did not have strong ties or grassroots. The discourse was somehow alienated from the real, indigenous culture.” points out Langhi.
Some western Muslim feminists have encouraged reforming patriarchal social structures through an Islamic framework. However, feminists who are based in the Middle East such as Nawal El-Saadawi and Mona El-Tahawy, are so radical and provocative in their rhetoric against patriarchy, they risk alienating themselves from Middle Eastern men and women alike.
A recent Gallup Poll surveying 1,000 people from a variety of Middle Eastern countries found that Arab women were as likely as their male counterparts to favor Shari’ah or Islamic law as a source of new legislation. In fact, in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood once dominated parliament, women and men expressed similar support for Islamist parties and movements.
“Gender is not the only element. Gender intersects with other aspects such as class, color, ethnicities, age and other things. It is not just a matter of gender and that’s it,” argues Langhi.
While Libya’s historical experience with women’s liberation groups has been different from Egypt’s experience with feminism, Langhi worries that women’s groups are moving in the direction of interest groups rather than participating in a more comprehensive rebuilding of Libya.
Feminized Peace-builders: A radically different approach
Langhi cites the essential role women play in rebuilding nations torn by conflict, a sentiment that was inspired by Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution emphasizes and affirms the role women play in preventing and resolving conflicts, encouraging peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, and humanitarian responses in post-conflict reconstruction. The resolution stresses the importance of the equal participation and full involvement of women in all efforts toward the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.
“I want to link this worldview with women and peace and the role they will play in a post-conflict society…where there is harmony, peace and this equilibrium…it is not only the balance in numbers, it must be a balance in discourse.”
Langhi’s brand of feminine discourse honors ideals such as collaboration instead of competition and inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness—ideals that a war-torn Libya desperately requires in order to achieve peace.
“It’s not about having more women,” Langhi said. “I would say we need to feminize politics. We need to understand what is peace.”
During elections, a feminine perspective would emphasize inclusion rather than exclusion. Instead of looking at who was not allowed to participate (such as elements of the previous regime or soldiers), more consideration was given to encompassing all segments of society like dual-citizens, different ethnic and political groups.
“Women talk about women’s things,” argued Langhi. “They should be focusing on human rights, and women’s rights are a part of those rights.”
Though it is widely accepted that Libyan women should organize for their interests and get involved at the nascent stage of the democratic process, the driving discourse for organizing and participating ought to be feminized. It is not enough for women to participate in decision-making. Rather, the entire approach to nation building should honor feminine perspectives on peace, inclusion, and collaboration. Not just for the sake of women, but for the sake of Libya’s peace and stability. At its most fundamental level, feminized discourse is a discourse of compassion—compassion for others and society as a whole.By Hagar Atia, Aslan Media Contributor