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Libya: Key players in the revolution, women’s exclusion from rebuilding & reconciliation must end PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/irishtimes-logo.gif Dublin ~ Saturday, September 24, 2011
Exclusion of women in new Libya must end

By images/stories/FarahAbushwesha.jpg FARAH ABUSHWESHA

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.

images/stories/FarahAbushwesha.jpgFarah Abushwesha is an Irish–Libyan writer and film-maker and spokeswoman for the Women4Libya campaign.

Twitter: @farahabushwesha
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images/stories/Guardian_logo.gifLondon ~ Saturday 17 September 2011, page 33
Libyan women: it's our revolution too
Women played a crucial role in overthrowing Gaddafi and yet the National Transitional Council has only one female in post

Chris Stephen and Irina Kalashnikova in Misrata, David Smith in Tripoli
 
images/stories/LibyanFemRevolutionary.jpg A Libyan revolutionary woman. (Francois Mori/AP)

They smuggled bullets in handbags, tended wounded fighters, cooked meals for frontline units, sold their jewellery to buy combat jeeps and sewed the flags that fly in liberated cities. But with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi almost complete, many Libyan women are asking whether it's their revolution too.

This week Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the governing National Transitional Council, announced before cheering crowds in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square that "women will be ambassadors, women will be ministers".

To which the question from many women is – when?

The 43-member National Transition Council has one woman in post – the minister for women. Even this is a backward step: in May, with the war at its height, the NTC executive had two female members. There is no women's toilet at the NTC headquarters.

There seems little appetite among the NTC executive, drawn overwhelmingly from the socially conservative city of Benghazi, for this to change.

Yet the strain of war, in which men were needed at the front, saw taboos fall as women were needed for essential work. In hospitals, female nursing students who in the past were not allowed even on the wards worked alongside male colleagues to cope with the influx of casualties.

Women formed support groups for broken families in a country with no social services, and mass-produced battlefield meals for a rebel army that otherwise had no means of feeding itself. They also took to the streets, joining the daily protests and celebrations in city squares.

These volunteers hardly saw themselves fighting for feminism, but have morphed into political groups that seem destined to produce Libya's first generation of female activists.

At a recent gathering in Tripoli of the Coalition of February 17 – a reference to the date of the first uprising – around a third of the delegates were women. They gave speeches insisting that "we, as women, aspire to the same thing as our fellow men … women's role should not be limited to social or charity issues. It should be political as well."

The voices included a women's charity, Byte Mawada, which has run guns, helped refugees, set up field hospitals and collected money from Libyan women in Britain and France. Aisha Gadoor, 44, a psychologist who hid bullets in her handbag, said: "We bought arms from Gaddafi's security and army. An AK47 cost 4,000 dinars (£2,068), but we got a discount to 3,000 dinars. The ammo cost one dinar."

Gadoor, who has political ambitions, believes there is no turning back now. "Women's lives will be better because of the role we played. We will not allow ourselves to be sidelined. It's our revolution as well."

This optimism was echoed by Free Women of Misrata, which cooks meals for front line units. Manal, one of its members, said: "Gaddafi not only killed our people, he killed our dreams. We have more respect now. In the past men would not accept us. They thought we were weak creatures."

Manal, 29, declined to give her second name, fearing retribution against her brother trapped in Sirte. "In the past we were not expected to do such things. Now we want to demonstrate that we can do things men can do. We want to break old ideas about women."

Misrata's Shaheed Women, an organisation of the mothers, sisters and wives of dead soldiers, sold their gold jewellery in July to buy two military jeeps, complete with heavy weapons, for frontline units.

Shaheed Women organiser Naima Obeid said the coming together of women from previously isolated lives has been the female equivalent of the Facebook revolution that allowed Libya's men to co-ordinate their uprising: "Women come out of the houses, they meet each other, they talk to each other, they feel they are not alone."

At Misrata's art college female students have started a newspaper and political groups dedicated to encouraging women who get degrees to consider a career, rather than early marriage.

Women have a strong foundation, according to veteran activist Naeem Gheriany. "Women have made remarkable progress in recent years compared with men," he said. "Many men dropped out of school, whereas women stuck with it and went to university. We'll see the benefit over time."

But Hana al-Galal, education minister in an earlier NTC cabinet until she lost her job to a male colleague, warned: "We have very educated women, but for a long time they had a low profile, never wanted to be noticed.

"We are not as strong as we should be. We have to stop having this negativity inside us."

Libya remains a deeply traditional, male-dominated society that ranks 91st out of 102 countries for gender equality, according to a 2009 index published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Gaddafi's Green Book guaranteed some rights – a man was obliged to seek a first wife's permission before marrying a second – but delivered little to their day to day lives. The new constitution, whatever it says, is likely to be trumped by hardened cultural norms.

Those norms – at least outside Libya's more liberal capital, Tripoli – are enough to prevent a woman from going to the cinema or a cafe unaccompanied, swimming in a bikini or talking to a man other than a close relative.

Hannan Aderat, 25, a young Misratan painter who runs Basmat Al Horia (Free Fingerprints), which raises money for combat amputees, said: "My oldest brother, he is 31, when he saw me talking to a tuwar [revolutionary fighter] he started shouting at me.

"He is from the old age, still too close to old men and traditional thinking. We don't have freedom now – it's still a dream."

With Islamists vying for prominent roles in the new administration, many women see little chance of a cultural shift any time soon.

"The issue of [rights for] women in Libya is like ink and paper: it's not real," Aderat added. "It will take time for men to accept women judges, not for young men but for older people like my father. There will be change, but not for me. For my children maybe. Or maybe my grandchildren."

The months leading up to elections will provide clues as to what, if anything, has changed beneath the surface euphoria.

Asked if she could imagine a female president of Libya, Aya El-Badri, a 20-year-old oil engineering student, replied: "I don't think so. Men will be president. But have you ever heard of an American woman president?"

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images/stories/Guardian_logo.gif London ~ Friday 2 September 2011
Libya will only become inclusive when women are given a say in its future

Having played a key role in Libya's revolution, women must be fully included in the rebuilding and reconciliation process
Posted by images/stories/FarahAbushwesha.jpg Farah Abushwesha

images/stories/Fem4Libya.jpg Women in Tripoli celebrate the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Women for Libya want full inclusiveness for the female population. (Francisco Leong/AFP)

At this week's conference on Libya in Paris, the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) and the international community talk about "inclusiveness" in the new country's future. It seems strange, then, that half of the population - women - seem to be excluded from the discussions on the future of their country.

It is not commonly known, but Libyan women started the revolution when the mothers, sisters and widows of prisoners killed in the 1996 Abu Salim massacre took to the streets in Benghazi on 15 February to protest outside the courthouse after their lawyer was arrested.

Since then Libyan women at home and abroad have protested, smuggled arms beneath their clothing, founded countless civil society groups, tweeted, blogged, fed, nursed, mourned, mothered, raised funds and awareness, and sent in humanitarian aid and medical staff for the cause. Women have taken a central role alongside men and it has united us.

Libyan women may not have been visible on the streets with guns, but they have played an equally important role, displaying courage and strength that has been invaluable to the success of the country's revolution. Only now are some of the harrowing stories starting to emerge. 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 Misrata – to name a few.

Libyan women will no doubt continue to play a vital part in the national reconciliation and rebuilding process, but the time has come for this role to be fully recognised, encouraging them to step forward. The Women for Libya campaign aims to mobilise and encourage Libyan women to take their rightful place and be included as equals for the purpose of shaping a better Libya. We do not want tokenistic representation.

Women for Libya is calling for the full inclusion of Libya's female population in accordance with United Nations security council mandate 1325, which emphasises the important role women play in peacebuilding. We are also calling for: aid to be ringfenced to support women's rights; financial aid to be accessible to civil society and grassroots initiatives set up by women, for women; and negotiations and meetings on the future of Libya to be inclusive of all tribes and regional representatives, which should include sufficient numbers of women.

Sara Maziq, one of Women for Libya's founders, recently said: "We are facing an enormous challenge of rebuilding Libya and to exclude women is to ignore a vast resource for transitioning from conflict to stability. We can be a powerful unifying force in the aftermath of the conflict."

Libyan women have created an intricate web of mutual co-ordination, and - whether resident in Libya or forced to live in exile - have been involved in nearly all aspects of the nation's uprising..

Women are a beneficial and vital force in Libya's future. We must be openly and transparently included in discussions and supported to participate at all levels. To neglect this is to dishonour the legacy of the brave Libyan men and women who have given their lives for basic human rights.

To exclude women is to exclude a vital force in the reconstruction of a stable, representative and democratic Libya.

Farah Abushwesha is a Libyan-Irish writer and film-maker and a member of Women for Libya. Twitter @farahabushwesha