Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: Women were at the forefront of the Arab Spring - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

Women constitute half of the world’s population. No event is complete without their participation, let alone events the size of the Arab Spring revolutions, which were led by oppressed peoples hoping to achieve their dream of freedom for their countries.

We know that women make up the most oppressed group in these countries. They were singled out by forces which, on the surface, claimed to be patriotic. The ultimate fault lies with those who gave these forces power. Their weapons are the children and hearts of women—who as mothers, wives, lovers, and daughters dreamed of a future devoid of the injustices which plagued the generations before them. They became two teams pitted against each other. In the end, women turned into martyred mothers, sisters, and wives. A new identity added to the list of her oppressions, both apparent and unapparent. New pain tacked on to a lifetime of loss.

In Libya, with the outbreak of the revolution against Gaddafi in 2011, Libyan women continued to make attempts to get their voices heard, exhibited during the electoral process for Libya’s first elected parliament post-Gaddafi, the General National Congress (GNC). Women’s low contribution to party work was a preliminary indicator of the existence of political currents not favoring their participation. The raison d’etre of these currents is to hinder the political future of women in the country and, more broadly speaking, stifle a civilian-led Libya. Political and social forces must therefore continue the fight to reduce the dominance of extremist and chauvinist political currents, in order to protect the participation of women in politics in particular and democracy itself in general. They must defend the principles on which the revolution in Libya was founded.

Based on the turnout for the GNC elections, it is fair to say that significant participation by women in the GNC elections in 2012 was a positive sign for both Libyan women and Libya as a whole. Women are expected to participate actively and reap the benefits of that participation in the upcoming national and local elections set to take place across the country. Female participation in the electoral process is the fail-safe which will prevent Libya from slipping into political and religious extremism, which often targets women and cripples their participation in constructive development.

However, it must also be noted that there have been indications that female participation is failing to make ground, in spite of the efforts made by feminists, a category of political players in Libya whose participation we are eagerly anticipating. We look forward to seeing their contribution to the activities that will ultimately lead to the formation of decision-making institutions. Winning a significant number of seats in the GNC, along with other positive signs, would vindicate the awareness-raising campaigns regarding these issues, especially those carried out in big cities both before and during the campaign.

Despite these developments, there are also several negative indicators that could hinder the participation of women in the political arena in Libya.

First, the position voiced by the chairman of the Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, during the “Liberation Speech” in Benghazi on August 23, 2011, during which he articulated the necessity of abolishing restrictions on polygamy. The restrictions were based on a law issued by the former regime requiring the consent of the first wife before a man could marry another. A subsequent decision issued by the Supreme Court abolished this law without clarifying the issue.

This was followed by an incident during which Abdel-Jalil embarrassed a female broadcaster during the ceremony for the transition of power to the GNC, and ordered her to leave the ceremony just for being cynical. This was based on a complaint raised by one of the elected members of the GNC, who was to take power shortly after.

There is also the issue of an official statement by a member of the GNC in Zawiya on satellite television that, “The reason for the National Congress’s poor performance is the presence of women.” He then criticized their behavior and their appearance, without any repercussions from the GNC. However, female GNC members issued a statment, which essentially read, “Why the publicity? Why did our colleague not follow our advice?”

The GNC then required the minister of health—a well-educated, well-traveled, patriotic woman and physician who holds dual citizenship from Libya and a Western country—to don a headscarf before entering GNC headquarters when she was called upon to attend one of the sessions.

The selection process for members of a committee to prepare the Constituent Assembly Election Law was also troubling. According to GNC meetings, a rule was put into place requiring the presence of one woman in each geographical area according to region (Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Fezzan), an unfortunate decision that reveals an acute lack of understanding. Such committees rely on technical ability, experience and specialization because they have a specific mission: the preparation of the election law for the constitutional drafting body.

These incidents in and of themselves may cause reluctance on the part of many activists to participate in any form of political action. Given the prediction regarding future female political participation in Libya and weak data documenting female political participants as a unique subgroup, in addition to the scope of the impact of their participation in public life and as decision-makers, significant research in this field is required. In-depth and comprehensive studies are needed to investigate Libyan women’s various roles and activities in political life in order to tally women’s gains and losses in the Arab Spring revolutions. Without this, we cannot answer the question with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No.’

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.

Dr. Om El-Ezz El-Farissi

Dr. Om El-Ezz El-Farissi

Dr. Om El-Ezz El-Farissi is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Political Science Department at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Benghazi in Libya

More Posts