Libyan women have trailblazed numerous efforts towards gender equality in the Arab world, yet there is still a long way to go. After abolishing the federal system and replacing it with a single united state, Libya’s Constitution stipulated that women – the long-marginalized half of society – take an active role in their country’s political process. Thus, in 1963 women were granted the right to vote and run for office. However, as history has shown, the declaration of rights in constitutions and their actual implementation are two different matters. And while it was expected that the obstacles to exercising this right would come from Libya’s traditional social system, fate brought about an unanticipated obstacle of another kind.
The military coup of September 1, 1969, which overthrew the constitutional order and all the democratic institutions of the state, would wreak havoc on women’s rights in the country. The military, under the leadership of Muammar Gadaffi, began to control everything, placing the rights of all Libyans, men and women, in jeopardy. For example, the rights and autonomy of women in matters related to divorce, child custody, and sexual violence were constantly violated and restricted. Moreover, Gaddafi limited the financial independence of women, diminishing efforts towards equal pay and employment opportunities. This situation continued for 42 long years, with citizens waiting for the day that the reign of the murderous regime would come to an end.
Despite the democratic backsliding, Libya was actually one of the earliest Arab countries to grant women political and social rights.
Despite this process of democratic backsliding, Libya was actually one of the earliest Arab countries to grant women political and social rights. As for other early adopters of women’s rights in the Arab world, Djibouti granted women the right to run for office in 1946, though it took another 40 years for women to be able to exercise this right. Lebanon was similarly progressive, as one of the first countries to grant women the right to contend for office and vote in 1952. Syria granted women this right in 1973, Sudan constitutionalized women’s rights in 1964, and Egyptian women entered parliament for the first time in 1957.
Other countries took significantly longer to make such progress, with Article 31 of the Yemeni Constitution only in 1994 stating that women are equal to men—though no real societal changes have occurred to date. In Morocco, it would take until 1993 for this equal status of genders to be recognized. As for the Gulf, women won the right to vote in Oman in 1994, Bahrain in 2002, Kuwait in 2005, and the United Arab Emirates in as recently as 2006.
The status of Arab women has gone through different changes from one country to another, irrespective of constitutional texts, as it is often society itself which hinders the rights of women to exercise some of their most basic freedoms. In Libya, society’s role in thwarting women’s progress has been evident for some time. On the ground, circumstances including limited access to education and the prevalence of regime propaganda meant that political awareness was limited among Libyans regardless of their gender, leading to narrow-mindedness and ignorance, all preventing the development and improvement of society. Political advancement does not thrive in an environment of stagnation; instead, it requires encouragement and openness to fully develop.
In Libya, society’s role in thwarting women’s progress has been evident for some time.
Although Libyan women obtained the right to run and vote through the widely supported Independence Constitution, the following 42 years of military rule yielded no progress in the realm of equality. Many instead called for women, “not to be afraid as long as Gaddafi headed the government.” The Gaddafi regime did not believe in the democratic process, and effectively worked to erode such institutions. As a result, all Libyans – men, and women alike – were deprived of their right to run for office, vote, and engage in any form of political work. The abrogation of the constitution led to this catastrophe and the creation of a political vacuum whose impact can still be felt to this day.
Nevertheless, the Independence Constitution, and its upholder, the House of Senoussi, guaranteed the right of women to run for elections in conjunction with the unification of the Libyan state. And despite criticisms levied towards the monarchy, this is an achievement that cannot be denied. Yet, the lack of staunch supporters for the issue of female political involvement has meant that women are still limited in their abilities to exercise these rights. This is true even in post-Arab Spring Libya. Indeed, the February 2011 revolution – which ousted Gaddafi – was a missed opportunity to implement the Independence Constitution and pave the way for Libyan women to practice all their stipulated liberties. This would have made significant strides towards gender equality and political progress.
The February 2011 revolution was a missed opportunity to pave the way for Libyan women to practice all their stipulated liberties.
The solution proposed today by the international community has been to assign a 30 percent quota for women’s participation in all levels of the government. And although creating a quota could be viewed as discriminatory, this is a positive form of discrimination that is required by the state of women’s political marginalization in Libya today. Therefore, such stipulations in the United Nations-led resolutions are necessary and have been used elsewhere in the past to ensure the rights of less fortunate or marginalized groups.
Ultimately, Libya must return to the principles outlined in the Independence Constitution, while actively making efforts to encourage the participation and representation of women in local politics. This is essential to bring the country closer to being the equitable society so many have dreamed of.