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A war inside the war: Pivotal peace-building Libyan women fight gender gap and violence

Since the early popular rallies in Benghazi on 15 February 2011, women played a crucial role in the revolution that toppled Libyan long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Whether by helping organise and joining daily demonstrations, providing medical aid to those wounded, smuggling ammunitions, selling their jewellery to fund rebel fighters or cooking meals for frontline units, they supported and led the uprising. It was their revolution too.

“Something many forget is the Libyan revolution was started by women,” Hajer Sharief, a human rights advocate and co-founder of Together We Build It (TWBI), a local organisation promoting peace and security in Libya, told The New Arab.

She added that Libyan women have crucially contributed to the society in all aspects of life, including social, economic and peace-related dimensions.

But after Gaddafi’s overthrow, women’s essential contribution to the Libyan Spring did not translate into a greater role in public life or a break with social prejudice about women’s political participation.

Although women-led civil society groups emerged and began advocating for meaningful inclusion in the country’s nascent political transition, opportunities to participate in politics remained scarce.

The 43-member National Transition Council (NTC) established in the revolution’s aftermath had two female members. In October 2012, the newly designated prime minister appointed two women – both selected for junior posts as ministers of tourism and social affairs – out of 33 elected to the 200-member General National Congress (GNC) during the July 2012 parliamentary election – Libya’s first free election since 1965.

In the years that followed the end of the 2011 uprising, women’s organisations claimed new space for political participation and mobilised against gender-based violence and discrimination.

Activists urged the government to promote female participation through running for office and voting, and stood up to demand protection of women’s rights and advancement in gender equality. These calls were also made to counter suggestions made by some male political and religious leaders to pass laws that embody more conservative interpretations of Islamic law, including on polygamy.

While the 2012 election challenged society’s stereotypical view of women’s marginal role in Libyan politics, women were still faced with major social and cultural impediments to their full participation in the transitional phase such as intensified public scrutiny, ongoing resistance, and the perception that women are incapable of assuming positions of leadership and decision making.

In Libya’s deeply traditional, male-dominated society, male figures and tribal leaders are influenced by the societal conviction that there is no place for women in politics.

As political turmoil and armed conflict escalated starting from 2013, the chaos and lawlessness took away from women’s gains.

Since the spring of 2014, as masculinised forms of power and a very narrow focus on military affairs prevailed, Libyan women have borne the brunt of the violence amid protracted political polarization and fighting in conjunction with the growing influence of militias and armed gangs.

In recent years, women who dare to speak out have increasingly suffered violence in public life at the hands of militias and armed groups, from smear campaigns and online abuse to threats, physical assault, gender-based and sexual violence, forced disappearances and assassinations.

“We’ve seen systematic political violence against women politicians and human rights defenders,” Zahra Langhi, a Libyan peace activist and gender specialist, said to The New Arab.

“We have this paradox: women were on the frontline back in 2011, agents of peace and security, but now they are victims of the same revolution they ignited.”

Cases of violence against Libyan vocal and politically active women in the public sphere abound.

In June 2014, Salwa Bughaghis, a renowned lawyer and human rights activist, was shot dead in her home in Benghazi after voting in the country’s parliamentary elections. Less than a month later, Fariha Barkawi, a former member of parliament for the GNC, was killed in Derna. She was openly critical of Islamist extremists.

Entisar El Hassari, another prominent rights activist, was gunned down in Tripoli in February 2015. She was co-founder of the Tanweer Movement, an apolitical group dedicated to promoting peace, education, music and art.

Another parliamentarian, Sabah al-Hajj, was beaten in her apartment in Tobruk in February 2016. MP and rights activist Siham Sergewa was abducted from her Benghazi residence in July 2019,and her fate is still unknown. Before her kidnapping, she openly criticised the offensive on Tripoli launched by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar in April 2019.

Last November, Hanan al-Barassi, a well-known lawyer and women’s rights activist, was assassinated in her car in broad daylightin Benghazi’s city centre shortly after she posted alive stream on her Facebook page exposing corruption and abuse of power of armed groups close to Haftar.

Despite the frightening pattern of violence against women across the country, Libyan authorities have repeatedly failed to investigate or prosecute perpetrators, reinforcing the climate of impunity for such crimes, and forcing many women to retreat from public life and flee the country.

That said, even if the public space they carved out for themselves since the Arab Spring has been rapidly shrinking, Libyan women play a vital role as peace-builders making a valuable contribution to the pursuit of sustainable peace and justice.

They have long played a key role in negotiating or mediating conflicts within families, clans and local communities, however their legacy is often not acknowledged by official institutions and peace processes.

Tribal sheikhas, respected elder women, are traditional female mediators who would by custom mediate between the parties to a conflict from home, and not take part in public meetings.

“These women mediators are doing a lot more for peace locally than women operating at the national level,” argued Langhi, who heads Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP), a pressure movement advocating for women’s socio-political empowerment and peace-building.

“Their efforts need to be highlighted and their voices amplified.”

Other women have been active on a national level, either through assuming their positions in peace-making efforts, encouraging equal participation of women in political processes and peace initiatives, modifying laws or pushing for discussion of issues related to justice and accountability.

Despite Libyan women have long been at the forefront, they remain marginalised, under-represented and excluded from high-level peace talks, particularly at decision-making levels.

Last year, LWPP video-documented a number of stories of women mediators in Libya through its campaign “Wasitat Al Salam.”

In November of last year, in the latest UN-led effort to resolve the Libya crisis, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis, counted only 17 women members among its 75 Libyan negotiators.

Following the first in-person round of talks, the female participants released astatement calling for real representation of women of “no less than 30 percent” in leadership positions in the executive authority. This demand was also reiterated in the UN roadmap.

Last week, PM designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was forced to backtrack on his fiasco statements on the presence and role of women in the incoming government after social media backlash. He then named Lamia Bosidera as minister of foreign affairs in his cabinet, an important achievement being the first time in Libyan history a woman gets nominated for such position.

Meanwhile, women activists are waiting for the interim premier to recommit to the 30 percent quote required for women’s representation of top portfolios in the next 35-member unity cabinet.

But for LWPP’s director, who’s also an LPDF member, it is about “gendering” the process, transforming the gendered power relations and inequalities, more than just inclusion or representation. This approach underscores the importance of the current peace negotiations.

“At the LPDF, as women, we have created a critical mass and turned the table changing the power dynamics”, the feminist activist stated with pride, “we have succeeded in making noise and disrupting the dominant narrative in the political elite.

“What’s on the table and how to tackle it is also important, and we should have a say in it,” she added firmly alluding to key issues like people’s rights, fighting corruption, transparency, justice and accountability that need discussion by women too.

In Sharief’s view, the positive steps in favour of women should not be taken for granted while the “threat of being excluded” from decision-making processes convened by national and international actors remains an existing challenge.

“When you see women included at the LPDF today, we have to remember it wasn’t an easy win nor something given to us. It’s the result of years of battle fought by Libyan women,” the TWBI’s founding member stressed.

“For the past ten years, women in Libya have proved to be strong, qualified and experienced to lead and contribute to building peace and security in their country,” she said, adding that it is thanks to women’s activism that they have successfully pushed back “a practice” by Libyan and international actors to sideline them from high-level peace negotiations and decision-making processes.

Libya needs to benefit from women’s stamina, their capability of bridging the gap and driving peace, to get out of the present deadlock and spur the political process to succeed.

Recognising that the full involvement of women can play an instrumental part in the ongoing peace process, and securing a greater role for them, will significantly contribute to transitioning Libya toward a peaceful and democratic future.

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