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Opinion: Women in Libya are in a state of denial regarding women’s rights in Libya

The first thing women’s rights activists in Libya mention about women’s rights in Libya now, is that having 33 women in the parliament is somehow a measure of the “positive steps” towards women rights in Libya and should be judged as a big success. But is that assessment truly indicative of reality?

Here are some facts about women’s rights in Libya under the previous regime:

In theory, women and men are equal according to the Constitutional Declaration published in 1969; as well as in Qaddafi’s Green Book which was considered to be Libya’s Constitution back then, stating that “Women and men are equal, and to differentiate between women and men is a flagrant injustice and it is not justified.”  However, the text also emphasises the biological differences between men and women and then states that “it’s impossible for woman and men to be equal.”

But this did not stop Libyan women from demanding their rights under an authoritarian regime, and in 1996 a charter was published regarding the Rights and Duties of women in Libyan society, which stated clearly that women are equal to men and have the right to financial independence, along with women’s duty to protect and defend their country as well as their right to be in leadership positions.

The Penal Code and the Criminal Code are applied equally on women and men. However, Article No. 375 of the Penal code minimises the punishment for a man who kills a female family member in an honour crime; whilst if a man sexually abuses a female family member , the punishment will not exceed two years in jail. Worse, most of these horrific crimes are not reported to the police due to the familial pressure of custom and tradition, (this law is still applicable). In addition, there are no laws to protect women from domestic violence or street harassment.

Although Libya signed in 1989 the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) agreement, it did not approve Article No. 2.

This stated that the states parties of the CEDAW agreement shall embody the principle of the equality of men and women in their national constitutions and adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women.

It also stated the need to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men in Article No 16, points B and C. Point B states that women have the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent. Point C asserts that women have the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution; justifying their rejection on the basis that these articles are against Islamic Sharia.

However, not one of the CEDAW Articles has been implemented in Libyan law up to this date, and it is interesting to note that Libya has delivered two reports to CEDAW in 1991 and 2008 regarding women’s rights in Libya and to answer CEDAW committee questions in regards to women’s rights in Libya – which is available on line at www.ohchr.org .

For example, orphaned women in Libya are living as if they are in a jail. Hakki Organisation (“My Right”) visited their building in Tripoli on the International Women’s Day on 8 March 2012. They faced security problems and needed to get permission to visit and eventually only got to meet the director at the orphanage, Ms. Zainab H.

She said, “I cannot let you see the girls and their rooms, I will be in big trouble if I do.”  We discovered after that she had to resign after she was conveniently accused of being pro-Qaddafi.  As far as we know, nothing has changed in this orphanage to date.

Divorce in Libya is a big issue.  Although Libyan law made it easier for women to get divorced, the law has several limitations. For example, if a woman fails to give a “reasonable reason” for asking for a divorce, she not only has to give up her financial rights, but also she must give up the custody of her own children, sometimes having to pay the man financial reimbursement for the “damage” of divorcing him.

In case the woman does succeed in giving a “reasonable reason,” she can keep her children and the ex-husband is held responsible for their financial needs. However, most men avoid this responsibility after telling the judge they are not capable of paying the amount although it doesn’t usually exceed LD 80 per month.

However, if the woman decides to get married again, the ex-husband has the right to take her children away. It is for these reasons many women would rather suffer for the sake of their children than get a divorce and add to their hardship. There is also pressure from the woman’s family which often prevents her from getting divorced.

The Hakki Organisation, of which I am a founding member, has interviewed one woman who got divorced. She had to give up her children and had to pay LD 1,000 to her ex-husband just so that he would agree to divorce her, after he destroyed her reputation in a conservative society.

It is important to mention that when she stood in front of the judge and told him “My husband beats me and rapes me every day, I don’t want to live with him anymore,” the judge said to her “Huuuuush lower your voice, how can you say your husband rapes you, he is your husband?!”  Rape by marriage, is not recognised as a rape crime in Libyan law.

It is also worth mentioning that the legal age of marriage in Libya is 20 years old for women although she can get married before that if the court gives her permission. This law was set to prevent the early marriage of women due to family pressure.  There is a concern by some women’s rights activist that this law could be changed in the new Libya after justifying that it is not according to Islamic Sharia Law.

Under current Libyan law, women and men are free to travel within or outside the country. Women do not need any kind of permission to travel outside the country. This is another worrying point that women’s rights activists, including myself, are afraid could be changed. This is especially so after the remarks that were made by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former NTC head, during Libyan Liberation Day. In that famous speach he stated that “all laws shall be reviewed and any law against Islamic Shari’a shall be a question of discussion.”

Rape is a very complicated crime, and Libyan law forces the rapist to marry the victim, in order to save her “honour.”  Most women end up getting married to their rapist, at least for couple of months, in order to justify her loss of virginity with a divorce paper. Virginity itself is a big issue in an Islamic culture.

In the beginning of the 1990s, women in Libya were allowed to participate in the judiciary, and it has become possible for a woman to be a judge and the attorney general.  This may change if Libya applies the full extent of sharia law.

In 2003, women were allowed for the first time to be part of the traffic police, as well as join the military and there were female-only military and police colleges, which have been occupied since the liberation by militias, and we don’t know what has happened to the students who were studying there.

So in summary, up to this date there has been no change to Libyan laws concerning women, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be speaking up about it. We are worried that the rights of Libyan women, after fighting for the gains we have made, will be changed under the name of sharia Law.

To say that women’s rights are better now just because we have 33 women in the GNC does not really mean women are enjoying their rights.  If it wasn’t for the election law which required that women had to be on the party lists, we would only have one women in the parliament by now –  Amina Mahmoud Takhtakh who ran as an individual candidate and won because people voted for her.

She represents Bani Walid however, and it is important to note that this Congresswoman is unable to attend the GNC meetings as she is in hiding from the militias, after speaking out against the attack on Bani Walid which took place last September.

After all of this, I can say women’s rights activists are seriously living in a state of denial about women rights in Libya, if they think anything so far has really been “gained.”  There is a very long way to go before women are truly equal to and free from men in Libya.

Magdulien Z. Abaida lives in the UK and is a human rights activist and a founding member of the Hakki Organisation.

The opinion expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect that of the Libya Herald.

Article by Magdulien Abaida, Libya Herald.

This article was originally published here.

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