Libyan women played an influential role in the country’s popular protests that led to the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in October 2011.   

Nine years later, as Libya’s warring parties discuss a road map to end a civil war and hold elections, female activists say the role of women is being ignored.  

Hajer Sharief, a co-founder of Together We Build It, an organization promoting peace and security in Libya, said that Libyan women were expecting the U.N.-led peace talks in November to consider gender balance among negotiators.   

“We have a negotiation over a whole country on behalf of a whole nation, and the political process should reflect the demographics and the society. Any group that will negotiate on behalf of the society and will make decisions for it must reflect the components of the society it represents,” Sharief told VOA.  

Libya’s National Commission for Human Rights holds a meeting with women activists in the city of Derna in eastern Libya, on peacebuilding progress in the city. (Photo credit: Zahia Faraj-Ali)

She said that women in Libya since the 2011 unrest have been vulnerable to violence, while the political divisions in the country failed to establish a formal mechanism to allow women and young people to partake in the decision-making. Despite the barriers, she said, women have been assuming their positions in the peace-making efforts through advocating and participating in meetings whenever they learn about them.  

Since the 2011 unrest, Libya has been divided into the Tripoli administration in the east of the country, known as the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), and the Tobruk administration in the west of the country, supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar. Both sides have been fighting since April 2019 when Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, launched an offensive to seize the capital, Tripoli, from Turkey-backed GNA.

Representatives of the two sides took a major step toward peace when they met November 9 at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in neighboring Tunisia and signed a cease-fire agreement. The 18-month process agreement aims to reunite institutions and hold a general election at the end.  

Reshaping power  

The LPDF negotiators consisted of 75 Libyans, with 17 women members. After the first in-person session of talks, the female participants called for greater involvement of women in leadership positions and executive authority to eliminate gender-based discrimination.  

FILE – Participants attend the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, Tunisia, Nov. 9, 2020.

“The formation of the government must be based on efficiency, merit, a fair representation of political and geographical diversity, the participation of cultural components, and a true representation of youth, which should not be less than 20% in leadership positions,” the women said in a statement.   

Women activists say a fair inclusion of different groups across society ensures the concerns of everyone are addressed toward a more democratic Libya. More active involvement of women, they say, will help the country take a major step in reshaping its institutions.    

“The most important thing is the definition of power in Libya,” said Sharief of Together We Build It, adding that Libyans have different visions of how their country should be in the future. Those visions, she said, are further complicated by the involvement of foreign powers that seek to maintain their influence, often at the expense of social reforms such as women’s rights.   

Attacking vocal women  

Before the civil war, Libyan women did not have legal protection, as certain provisions in law regarding marriage, child custody and divorce discriminated against women.   

The Arab Spring raised aspirations for change as women activists took a leading role in popular protests. The hope dwindled quickly after the uprising, however, as Libya’s new leaders began publicly supporting polygamy, domestic violence against women increased, and a string of assassinations and kidnapping for ransom targeted female activists.   

“If the ongoing conflict creates security vacuums in the rest of the country that Salafi jihadist militants can exploit, the impact on women’s rights and security in those locales could be devastating,” warned a report published by the Atlantic Council in 2019. The Salafi is a movement of Sunni Islam that emphasizes a return to the principles of the founders of Islam as the only correct understanding of the religion, but they usually are associated with extreme practices.

Libya’s National Commission for Human Rights meets with a group of displaced women in the city of Tawargha, to raise awareness about the importance of women’s participation in the political process. (Photo credit: Zahia Faraj-Ali)

According to the National Commission for Human Rights-Libya (NCHR), women activists are increasingly under pressure because of a series of kidnappings, enforced disappearances and assassination attempts by militants.

NCHR’s head of women affairs, Zahia Faraj-Ali, told VOA the level of violence against female activists likely will increase in the coming months as they continue to raise their voices in pursuit of further participation in the executive authority.

“I faced a hate campaign in my work, and got harassing and death threats,” Faraj-Ali said, adding that “no woman is safe today. It’s a lawless state, and any woman could be gunned down or kidnapped any moment and no one will be held accountable.”

Last month, an outspoken female lawyer, Hanan Al-Barassi, was shot dead in Benghazi by masked gunmen after she threatened to expose abuses and corruption by an armed group on a Facebook livestream. Al-Barassi has previously accused Haftar’s relatives of abuse of power and corruption.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the assassination, but some activists blame armed groups in Benghazi.

Al-Barassi’s death is one of several high-profile attacks, including the 2019 kidnapping of lawmaker Seham Sergewa and the 2014 assassination of human rights lawyer Salwa Bughaighis.

Faraj-Ali said that the masculine culture, the absence of laws that protect women and the spread of arms are the biggest challenges Libyan women face. She charged that the first step to improving the situation for women is through their engagement in Libya’s peace-building process.

“The importance of having women in leadership roles is that women would collaborate to create a safe network and spaces for their peers, especially when we are still struggling to implement U.N. Resolutions 1325 and 2467,” she said.   

In 2000, the U.N. adopted Resolution 1325, emphasizing the important role of women in conflict resolution, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. In 2019, the U.N. adopted Resolution 2467 to strengthen justice and accountability, and calling for a survivor-centered approach in the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence.