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Lip service to women's rights: Libya's government and the female facade


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Politics Women’s Rights

Sunday 10 September 202305:08 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

عن نساء السلطة في ليبيا

In March 2021, when news broke about the appointment of five female ministers by Dbeibah, I initially welcomed the news. Women holding significant positions of power and having representation in Libya is a rare occurrence, even though the number of appointed female ministers was less than what was stipulated in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum agreement.

However, this moment of optimism was short-lived, and a closer examination, while considering the setbacks we've witnessed in women's rights over the past two years, a disconcerting reality emerges: what seemed like a progressive, feminist step taken on the surface appears to be a calculated strategic move by the government to continue its discriminatory practices against women.

Libya's Minister of State for Women's Affairs, Intisar Abboud, whose duty is to champion women's rights, recently endorsed travel restrictions imposed on women traveling without a male guardian.

Representation doesn't necessarily mean liberation

We might view these female appointments through an optimistic lens as a progressive step, although this isn't necessarily the case. When authoritarian governments appoint women, they don't necessarily liberate women as a whole; they merely incorporate a select few into the ruling class. It's naive to assume that a politician will serve the interests of a group simply because they belong to or follow him. Politicians often prioritize their personal interests over the needs of the groups they are meant to represent, especially in non-democratic systems where accountability is rare.

Among the appointed female ministers, Najla al-Mangoush stood out as the Minister of Foreign Affairs – the sole woman entrusted with a sovereign role, while the rest of the female ministers assumed positions in ministries such as the Ministry of Culture and Women and others.

In August 2023, her involvement in a scandal concerning secret meetings with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, ignited widespread outrage among Libyans. This controversy unfolded just weeks after her diplomatic visit to another authoritarian state, Iran, during which she donned a headscarf, a departure from her usual attire. Notably, a year prior, she threatened legal action against an international organization for exposing human rights violations committed by the Libyan government, accusing them of spreading falsehoods.

Mabroukah Toughi, serving as the Minister of Culture, has also failed to advance women's rights. She has been previously arrested on corruption charges, then in May 2022, she withdrew the ministry's congratulations to the novel "Bread on Uncle Milad's Table" for receiving an international award due to its exploration of gender-related issues. In July 2023, Mabroukah made the controversial decision to appoint members of the internal security apparatus and stability support forces to monitor books and printing presses, despite these individuals facing accusations of committing crimes against humanity by Amnesty International.

As for Libya's Minister of State for Women's Affairs, Intisar Abboud, whose duty is to champion women's rights, she has recently lent her support to travel restrictions imposed on women traveling without a male guardian, deeming it a significant step to mitigate "recent abuses."

Libya's government has adopted a feminist facade primarily to enhance its international reputation. By portraying itself as a nation that upholds human rights, the government aims to secure diplomatic and economic backing from the international community.

But why?

Libya's government has adopted a feminist facade primarily to enhance its international reputation. By portraying itself as a nation that upholds human rights, the government aims to secure diplomatic and economic backing from the international community. This clarifies why Prime Minister Dbeibah assigned only one sovereign position to a woman, the position of Foreign Minister.

Human rights considerations play a pivotal role in shaping the foreign policies of the international community. Thus, showcasing a semblance of progress can yield advantages like increased foreign aid and the bolstering of diplomatic ties. For instance, the government's renovation and reopening of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Tripoli serve as a way to strengthen its rapport with Italian and Maltese authorities. Meanwhile, internally, the state conveniently turns a blind eye to the arrests carried out by security forces, detaining civilians on charges of converting to Christianity.

Should Libya openly embrace its discriminatory practices, the repercussions could be substantial, including international condemnation, unfavorable media coverage, and potential economic sanctions. An example in this context is Uganda, which faced a loss of foreign aid from Norway, Denmark, and the United States after enacting discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ individuals. It is noteworthy that Libya has received over $900 million in aid from the United States since 2011.

This facade not only carries advantages on the international stage but also has ramifications domestically. The illusion of progress in women's rights might mislead Libyans into believing that the conditions for women are genuinely improving, potentially leading to complacency and a diminished motivation to form feminist movements. Additionally, it might embolden opponents of feminism, who frequently use the presence of women in positions of authority as evidence of women enjoying their rights.

It can be argued that the Libyan state is monopolizing – or at least actively working to monopolize – the feminist movement. This is evident in its establishment of various government bodies and units aimed at women's empowerment, although these initiatives have made limited progress. As a result, the state has positioned itself as the public face of the feminist movement, enabling it to exert control over the movement's demands, organization, and leadership. One of these government bodies is the National Council for Libyan Women, which recently held discussions with Lotfi al-Harari, the head of the Internal Security Agency, an individual condemned by Amnesty International for human rights violations. During their meeting, council representatives discussed travel restrictions on women and expressed their appreciation to the Internal Security Agency for its efforts.

The state's monopolization of the feminist movement, combined with its campaign to suppress civil society, indicates that there is little, if any, substantial feminist movement in Libya. Instead, it remains in its primitive stage, comprising fragmented individuals and a handful of organizations that often refrain from using the term "feminism" for security reasons. Among those contributing to the suppression of civil society is Entisar Al-Kulaib, the head of the Commission of Civil Society in Tripoli. She consistently advocates for stricter regulations and restrictions on civil society organizations, branding some as unethical. On one occasion, Entisar Al-Kulaib called for heightened social media surveillance, even suggesting the prohibition of YouTube and TikTok.

The state's monopolization of the feminist movement, combined with its campaign to suppress civil society, indicates that there is little, if any, substantial feminist movement in Libya.

Women and quotas

Women are often represented through quotas. For example, the House of Representatives designates 16% of its seats for women. However, this meager quota has not resulted in substantial progress in the enactment of legislation that promotes and safeguards women's rights. In July 2022, during the Eid al-Adha holiday week alone, six women were killed by male relatives in various cities. Following these tragic events, the Parliamentary Committee for Women and Child Affairs pledged to expedite the drafting of a law to combat violence against women. Regrettably, this commitment remains unfulfilled.

In reality, a draft law to combat violence against women has been in existence since 2021, authored by experts, judges, and activists. Yet, it has not been adopted by the House of Representatives to this day, possibly due to its greater interest in passing laws against sorcery and witchcraft. The parliament's lack of enthusiasm for legislating laws that bolster women's rights, coupled with weak constitutional safeguards, signifies minimal progress made on women's rights on the legislative side.

The role of women in the background

Several months ago, while watching a broadcast commemorating Libyan Women's National Day, I couldn't help but notice a conspicuous detail – the front rows were overwhelmingly occupied by men. This starkly reflects how women are represented in Libyan politics.

In reality, even with the limited representation of women in governmental bodies, their roles are often relegated to the shadows and background, with minimal meaningful engagement. And so women's representation, especially within sovereign or influential entities, remains a rarity. For example, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly formed in 2014, has only six women out of a total of sixty members. Equally concerning, in March 2023, the 6+6 Committee, an instrumental component of the current political landscape formed by the High Council of State and the House of Representatives, did not feature a single woman.

This patriarchal mindset – that women should not be at the forefront and must remain in the background – permeates even through government policies that claim to empower women, such as the Marriage Fund and the Wife Allowance program, etc.. Instead of fostering sustainable empowerment aimed at integrating women into society as active, independent contributors through enhanced educational and employment opportunities, these policies fall short.

A broader and more intricate landscape

The prevailing political and administrative fragmentation characterizing Libya's quasi-state leads to a lack of consensus on various critical matters. For instance, while the judiciary has appointed 1,413 female judges, legislative and executive bodies continue to enact measures that relegate women to a secondary status. This paradox means that women can ascend to positions of authority as judges, rendering judgments upon fellow citizens, while simultaneously being denied legal guardianship over their own children and experiencing restricted travel rights without a male guardian.

These overarching issues fundamentally encapsulate the existential questions presently confronting Libya: Is it an essentially secular or Islamic state? Is it a democracy or a dictatorship? Does it lean toward centralization or federalization? And so on.

A positive outlook

Despite the shortcomings and controversies surrounding women occupying positions of authority in Libya, their mere presence may offer a glimmer of hope. In a society where women face marginalization and staggering unemployment rates, the emergence of influential women – both good and bad – can serve as examples of what women can achieve. Young girls witnessing women in leadership roles might kindle aspirations within them to pursue leadership positions of their own, solidifying the notion that women can indeed be leaders in Libyan society.

We should neither idolize nor demonize women in positions of power. We shouldn't have high expectations of them solely because they are women

It's also important to acknowledge that not all women in the government are villains; some of them have genuinely noble intentions and may make progress in women's rights, even if it's modest, which is understandable given the constraints they face in the Libyan political environment.

However, we should neither idolize nor demonize women in positions of power. We shouldn't have high expectations of them solely because they are women, and they should be held accountable, just like any other politicians.

As human rights advocates, we continue to grapple with a plethora of pressing questions: To what extent should we look towards women in government or collaborate and ally with them? To what degree should we hold women in positions of power responsible for the repressive actions of the government? Lastly, can Libyan women truly be liberated through internal reforms and working with the "enemy," or does it necessitate a more radical approach and an extensive restructuring of the existing systems?

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