Boxed In? The Women of Libya’s Revolution

T he whole world is watching Benghazi’s National Transitional Council—also known as the “rebel” government, though they hate that term. Inevitably its performance functions as an indicator not only of Libya’s readiness for democracy but of the whole Arab world’s. The announcement on July 28th of the killing of the revolutionary military chief General Abdel Fatah Younis, for example, has focused attention on the ability of the council to control its military forces and maintain the rule of law. As more and more countries recognize its legitimacy (the UK and the US are the most recent and most important of more than thirty countries to do so), there is also more scrutiny of its makeup. Inevitably this means a scrutiny of its inclusiveness, too.

There are only two women in the forty-person body: Hania al-Gumati (minister of social welfare) and Salwa el-Degheli. The NTC grew from the group of Benghazi lawyers who called the courthouse square demonstrations, which eventually led to other, armed demonstrations against the Qaddafi regime in late February. Selwa Bugaighis, a prominent activist and an attorney in private practice, said that of Benghazi’s thirteen hundred lawyers, forty percent are women. Libyan women participate in professional roles in large numbers. Perhaps the one good aspect of Qaddafi’s regime was his mandating equal pay for equal work for men and women.

So it is perhaps understandable that prominent Libyan women I talked to in mid-April didn’t seem particularly worried about the gender disparity in the NTC. But by late May—with eastern Libya free and governed by the council longer than anyone thought possible—some of the women lawyers present from the start began to express concerns about the paucity of women invited to leadership positions. Hania
al-Gumati is the sole woman in the NTC’s new sixteen-member Executive Office (Maktab al-Tanfeethi). Though she is a philosophy professor at Benghazi’s Garyounis University, Hania has been given one of the “pink” portfolios—care of the disadvantaged. Selwa Bugaighis explained that the only woman besides Hania offered a ministry lives in the US and was unwilling to return to Libya permanently. She may have been offended that the ministry offered to her oversaw another traditionally feminine sector, education.

Selwa’s cousin Amal Bugaighis, also an attorney in private practice, is more outspoken, saying that the men “are trying to put the women back in the box.” It was more than a metaphor. Both cousins—who are in the small minority of Libyan women who don’t wear a hijab—are unhappy about the new wooden enclosure, about seven feet high, that protects an area reserved for women’s demonstrations and prayers in front of the symbolic heart of the revolution, the courthouse. Yet Selwa acknowledges that the barrier was put up in response to petitions from conservative women who thought young men were ogling them when they gathered. Another well-known Benghazi woman, Amina Megheirbi, an English instructor at Garyounis, seconded Selwa in noting that the barrier makes no sense in the context of Libya’s relative freedom from gender apartheid: “Our universities are mixed, our jobs are mixed.”

The elephant in the room here may be social class—something Libyan activists are very reluctant to discuss. Many insist that the subject is irrelevant because education is free in Libya and people of all origins are in the professions. But anyone can easily see that the hip young men activists working easily alongside young women in Benghazi’s many civil society organizations are from a different background than the excitable, restive young men hanging out in front of the courthouse.

It’s hard for Westerners to make an issue here about women’s roles in the NTC, though, because Libyans are quite aware of the West’s problems in this area. “Catherine Ashton mentioned to me that there are only two women in her delegation out of twenty-seven,” Selwa Bugaighis said, referring to the EU’s foreign policy chief, who visited Benghazi in late May with a team assessing every aspect of “Libya al Hurra,” or Free Libya, as the eastern part of the country is now known. Selwa’s brother-in-law, the American-educated businessman Mustafa Gheriani, said point-blank that Americans—with just seventeen women in the Senate—shouldn’t cast the first stone. For that matter, a couple of nights later, I realized that I was the only woman in the dining room of the five-star Tibesty Hotel where the foreign diplomatic community here stays—though every one of its more than two hundred rooms was occupied.

T here is broad political support for the revolutionary movement in Benghazi—indeed, a fervor for democracy. But the exact shape of that future democracy, if and when it fully emerges, can only be described as murky, with a mixture of pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and emerging post-revolutionary structures. There is a growing sense that the National Transitional Council, a self-appointed body, isn’t exactly the end-state governing institution people have been fighting and dying for. True to its origins in the Benghazi lawyers’ union, its is dilatory, given to studies rather than actions, and frustratingly murky in policy. Yet no one I spoke with wants to hold elections only in eastern Libya, because it would imply acceptance of a division of the country. “One Libya, Tripoli Our Capital” is a popular sign here.

Selwa explained that the NTC emerged from the Committee of the 17th of February—which counts thousands among its ranks. The committee met in early June in al-Bayda to establish its bylaws and figure out “when it will disappear.” It sounded as though the committee was just as good a candidate for a transitional legislative body as anything else. (Libya has not had a functioning Parliament for decades, and the short-lived Parliament of 1952 didn’t include any women.)

There are also threats to women’s political participation in Libya from the small but well-organized Islamist groups. Selwa and Amal gave different interpretations of a May visit by Sulaiman Abdul Qader, a Libyan Muslim Brotherhood leader who recently returned from exile in Switzerland and held a big luncheon in Benghazi. Selwa and her sister Iman—neither of whom wears a headscarf—were invited and decided to attend, sitting at the VIP table. “We were the only women without scarves,” Iman told me. The sisters thought it was important to show that Libyan women included those committed to being unveiled. Amal thought her cousins were being used as window dressing for a fictive tolerance. According to his biography online, Qader is a mechanical engineer, born in 1966, who was until recently the president of Switzerland’s Muslim community.

Revolutionary Benghazi is, confusingly, both a very Islamic and a very modern place. For instance, on a social level, you have European-looking and -talking men and women who gather in mixed groups—but absolutely no alcohol, even, from my experience, in the homes of the rich and sophisticated. There are just a handful of Libyans who admit to being agnostics or unbelievers. Everyone seems to have a soft spot for the forms of Islam. Selwa said that the imams had been very important in the revolution: “They came to us to ask us what to tell the people on Fridays.” She also spoke respectfully of Shekh Selim Al-Saykhi, a Libyan cleric exiled for many years in Manchester who is now the minister of religion of the Maktab.

There’s another factor here that cuts both ways on the women issue—the smallness of Libyan society. (Supposedly Qaddafi calls the rebellion “the Bugaighis revolution,” after the prominent Benghazi family of activists.) In this country of about six million, everyone of some small prominence knows everyone else. In many ways Benghazi is a face-to-face society, which means both that traditional patriarchal power structures persist, and that they can be subverted by force of personality. As Selwa spoke with me in the lobby of the Tibesty, a Libyan man approached her to shake her hand and tell her he thought she should be prime minister. Selwa didn’t look particularly surprised.

T he future in Libya is hard to read. But what gives me cause for optimism about the future of Libyan women is something very subjective: the way that Libyans remind me of Americans. Speaking in the broadest terms, and admittedly on the basis of just three and a half weeks in eastern Libya, I’d say I’ve never met a nationality that seemed as oddly similar to us.

Libyans share with us a proud carelessness, an impatience, a wildness and a willfulness, that I don’t find in the British or the New Zealanders or the continental Europeans. It isn’t all good; both cultures have a propensity to aggression, which in Libya manifests itself in bad, fast driving. Maybe some of it comes from being a rich country, some from a low population density, some from the similarities between Bedouin primitive democracy and Anglo-Saxon traditions. I don’t know. But I know that the impatience my Libyan women friends show when they discuss the role of women is infinitely different from, say, the attitude of even the most progressive Afghan women. This is going to be a very, very interesting country to watch.


Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Affairs blogger.

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