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“No going back” for Libyan women whatever elections bring


Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

When over one million women enrolled to vote in Saturday’s historic elections in Libya, politicians were forced to at least tailor their election campaigns to win their support.

High levels of voter registration among women and the success of activist Najud al-Kikhia in the council elections in Benghazi in May are said to have contributed to a growing awareness among parties that they need to field women candidates to win seats in the new General National Council.

But how much change does this represent in attitudes towards women? Alaa Murabit of Voice of Libyan Women, which campaigns for women in politics, was sceptical.

She acknowledged men had been paying attention to women voters in recent weeks and had “suddenly become pro-women”, but she didn’t know how much of the interest was “honest”.

Women played an active role in the opposition to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and in the uprising that began in February last year. But as with all the countries caught up in the Arab Spring, it is difficult to gauge women’s position by elections alone.

The presence of women candidates doesn’t automatically mean that their policies will be progressive, as WVoN patron Nawal El Saadawi pointed out recently in relation to Egypt’s presidential elections (see WVoN story).

In the political jostling that has taken place since the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, men have appeared less enthusiastic about women playing a role in the new phase of rebuilding the country.

There are no women on the election commission, only one woman on the 102-strong national transitional council and two women ministers.

The weekend’s national elections, the first in nearly 50 years, will determine the make-up of the 200-member General National Council which will form the interim government and draft a new constitution for Libya.

After plans for a quota for female candidates were rejected and a “zipper list” system adopted requiring women to be listed as every other candidate to ensure their representation, 625 women stood in the elections. Of those, 540 out of a total of 1,206 were party candidates.

The fact that only 85 stood as independent candidates – only 3.5 per cent of the 2,501 total – has fuelled concerns that women are not standing in their own right and may be put up by male relatives.

It’s also been reported that the faces of female candidates on dozens of posters have been slashed or spray-painted out.

All this suggests that – as in the majority of countries around the world – women have some work to do before they gain equal representation.

But a generation of women who participated in the revolution say there is no going back.

Mervat Mhani, who spearheaded a campaign of civil disobedience against Gaddafi in Tripoli told Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum:

“We’re involved whether men like it or not.  We don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. The men say we don’t have the experience to go into politics, but they don’t have the experience either! We’ve all been living under dictatorship.”

Commentators have argued that a key issue for women will be ensuring that they influence the writing of a new constitution.

Another will be changing the judicial code to ensure justice for women and girls who have been subjected to violence, including sexual violence.

Women in Libya who are raped can be prosecuted for adultery or coerced by judges to marry their rapist in order to restore “family honour”.

This will have consequences for those women who were raped by Gaddafi’s troops during the uprising, including Libyan law student Iman al-Obeidi who first brought the possibility of the use of rape as a tool of war to international attention when she told foreign journalists that she had been held for two days and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers (see WVoN stories).

Apart from testimonies of medical staff and confessions of soldiers, it has been difficult to establish if systematic and wide-scale rape took place as few women are prepared to talk openly about their experiences.

This has prompted some journalists to suggest that the claims were part of the campaign to gather support for NATO intervention in the conflict.

But as the case of al-Obeidi shows, the stigma of rape and the pressure women come under to keep silent about the crime is immense. Changes to the law that allow women who are raped access to justice will be an important barometer of change in the country.

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