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Libya and Tunesia: Elections a Double-Edged Sword for Women


Women´s activist Nadine Nasrat. Foto: Faten Babaa/IPS

By Mel Frykberg*

Tripoli, Aug, 2012 – Following the Libyan revolution, in which women played a crucial part, and the participation of large numbers of Libyan women in the July 2012 elections, Libyan women are now hoping to work towards a partnership and full equality with their male counterparts.

“Libyan women were instrumental in the country choosing a liberal and progressive government in the recent elections as many of them voted for the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA) of Mahmoud Jibril,” said Nadine Nasrat, from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assisstance (IDEA).

“They also played a crucial role during the revolution but much of this was overlooked by the media. During the war women smuggled weapons and ammunition in their clothing. They provided logistical, medical and intelligence support to the men,” added Nasrat who is also the chairperson of the Tripoli branch of the Committee to Support Women’s Participation in Decision Making.

“They cooked for and fed many of the rebels who would otherwise have gone hungry as the fighting raged. They also took care of the homes and children.”

However, despite these baby steps towards political emancipation and societal acknowledgement, many undertand the road ahead will be filled with obstacles due to historical, cultural and religious constraints in Libya’s conservative and patriarchal society.

The elections proved to be a double-edged sword. Over 500 female candidates (almost half of the candidates who stood for election) ran in the July elections. While this was a historic milestone for Libyans and women in particular, the backlash was instantaneous.

Ibtisan Staita, a member of the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA), from Dernah won a seat on the National Council. However, in a case of mistaken identity, her cousin who resembles Staita was assassinated by suspected Islamists who oppose the participation of women in politics.

Najad Al Khaikha, a candidate from Benghazi, who won more seats than any other male candidate in the city will not lead the local council due to male opposition. In a further sign of male resistance to female participation during the election campaign posters of female candidates were torn off walls and flyers with female candidates were ripped up.

These are just some of the issues Nasrat’s committee is up against. Her committee has several hundred members throughout Libya who have been working with international NGOs to promote the rights of women.

Furthermore, the committee, whose membership comprises a number of female politicians from several political parties, intends to use its newly-found political leverage to increase the participation of women in Libya’s new government who in turn will lobby for legislation implelmenting change.

One of the first steps is to ensure women comprise 30 percent of the Constitutional Committee which will be responsible for drafting new legislation for the new government.

“There are many things we want to change,” says Nasrat. “One of the things we want to change is Libya’s divorce laws. When a woman gets divorced here she is the one forced to leave the house if she has no children. Why should women become homeless after a divorce?

“Another issue is women having to fight on a monthly basis for spousal support for her children after divorce. In addition to the amount being very low – another problem which has to be addressed – the women are forced to go to the courts every month and fight red tape and bureaucracy before a pittance is handed through a hole in a window,” said Nasrat.

“This is a very humiliating experience. After one court ruling the money should be paid into a woman’s bank account automatically. Following a divorce, should a woman remarry, she loses her children which then go to the grandmother. This is something else we want to fight, said Nasrat.

Abortion is illegal in Libya and sexual violence legislation still provides for a reduction in punishment for a man who is violent to a female relative following an alleged sexual transgression by her.

Rape victims are victimised twice. “As the law now stands women who are raped are forced into marrying their rapists. The man is only sent to prison for a few years if he refuses to marry his victim. This is an incrediby traumatic experience for any women to be forced into a partnership with her abuser. Rape is not seen as a major crime in Libya,” explained Nasrat.

“Many women were raped during the war but most will not come forward to report it because they are ashamed and some people believe the women brought it on themselves. These women should be encouraged to come forward as what they suffered is not morally worse than men who lost limbs during the fighting. The government has to address this,” stated Nasrat.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Social Institutions and Gender Index, Libya is also a destination and transit country for women and men trafficked from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia for purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.

“We also want laws against domestic violence introduced. At present a man can only be penalised if he beats his wife to the extent that her injuries require hospitilisation for days, the same as any other case of assault.”

Several witnesses outside the family are also required, something which is not easy for women to provide due to the stigma and shame of getting outsiders involved in affairs which are considered private.

Despite Gaddafi’s dictorial status, women’s rights were reasonably progressive under his rule in comparison with women in the Gulf and other Arabic countries.

Women have the legal right to own, manage and administer land and property in Libya. In practice, social convention dictates that men retain control and ownership of land, according to the OECD.

Women also have the legal right to access to bank loans (without their husbands’ consent) and to enter into various forms of financial contracts. In most cases, however, husbands or fathers take responsibility for any financial undertakings and commitments, and may also expect women to hand over income.

In 2010 Libyan women inherited the right to pass on their citizenship to their children which was hitherto only the right of fathers as is the case in many Arab countries. Whether this will be implemented into Libya’s new constitution is questionable.

However, under Gaddafi’s autocratic rule a lack of democratic institutions and freedom of assembly and expression in Libya limited women’s ability to lobby for change.

In neighbouring Tunisia women have historically fared far better than their sisters in neighbouring Libya. Tunisia, which is where the Arab uprising began spontaneously in December 2010 and saw the ousting of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, passed the country’s 1956 Personal Status Code enshrining women’s rights.

The code proclaimed “the principle of equality between men and women” as citizens and prohibited polygamy. It also legalised divorce and abortion – 19 years before abortion was legalised in France. The country’s female literacy rate, at 71 percent according to UN figures, is the highest in North Africa.”

Following Ben Ali’s desposition after 23 years in power, feminists demanded that secularism and gender equality be explicitly outlined in the new Constitution

But the results of the October 2011 elections for the Tunisian Constituent Assembly have raised concerns for some Libyan women.

The October 2011 poll gave the Islamist Ennahda party the majority of the seats in the Assembly and led to the inauguration of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who heads a government that some have called an “Islamist dictatorship-lite”.

In the run up to the elections Ennahda sought to allay the fears of progressivess by promising to guarantee women’s rights and freedoms.

But the party’s symbol of moderation rapidly transformed into a force of moral censure, defending “morality” and calling Tunisia’s single mothers’ status “ill-repute”. Furthermore, references to Sharia law, statements on polygamy, Islamic marriages and female circumcision have added to concerns despite the fact that womens’ rights have so far not been effected.

In addition to fears about growing Islamisation limiting the rights of Tunisian women, there remain areas where women remain second-class citizens to men.

Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men unless they convert; the same does not apply to Muslim men.

Inequalities remain evident in inheritance rights, which are governed by Sharia law. Under Sharia law, Muslim women may inherit from their father, mother, husband or children and, under certain conditions, from other family members.However, their share is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. Daughters, for example, inherit only half as much as sons.

Although domestic violence is prohibited in Tunisia, the issue is generally viewed as a private issue and the police typically refuse to intervene, often because they lack the training or resources to carry out investigations or protect victims effectively.

Additionally, according to a survey reported by Ben Salem, 38.5 percent of men questioned said they believed that a husband had the right to beat his wife in certain circumstances, according to the Gender Index.

It remains to be seen if the freedoms obtained in the Arab Spring will also benefit the female citizens of those countries who fought so hard for their liberation.

* Mel Frykberg began her journalism career reporting on unrest in black townships, including Soweto, in South Africa during the apartheid era. She later worked as a journalist in Sydney, Australia. Mel has worked as a journalist in the Middle East for over a decade. She has reported for a number of major international publications from Gaza, Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo, and Amman where she has lived. Mel also edited local magazines and newspapers in the region and is a frequent commentator on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on National Public Radio in the United States. Frykberg studied journalism in the U.K.

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