Recent Libyan history has not been kind to women. The past decade of conflict and revolution has glorified male soldiers while turning women into forgotten victims. Men have done most of the fighting in Libya and women have borne the brunt of the consequences, making up the majority of those displaced. They are targeted and intimidated by the militias that control many areas of the country. Additionally, endemic instability has increased gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Despite these significant obstacles, Libyan women continue to excel through perseverance and hard work. This shouldn’t’t be surprising. An examination of Libyan history shows that at every crisis and turning point – from the Italian occupation of Libya, to the 1969 Libyan coup d’état (also known as the September 1 Revolution) and Ghaddafi’s dictatorial regime – women have risen to the challenge. During the first Libyan Civil War, women smuggled weapons, cooked meals for front-line soldiers and sold jewelry to pay for heavy weapons. It seems unlikely that Gaddafi would have been defeated without the strength and support of Libyan women.
After the Civil War, Libyan women continued to establish associations, spearhead volunteer work, and politically participate
After the Civil War, Libyan women continued to establish associations, spearhead volunteer work, and politically participate as both voters and candidates. This is the bread-and-butter groundwork of nation-building and what Libya desperately needs to succeed in the future. Such labor is not risk-free. Human rights defender Salwa Buqaiqhis and politician Fariha al-Berkawi paid with their lives for their patriotic efforts to improve Libya.
Their heroism – and that of Libyan women more broadly – stands in stark contrast to the many male actors in our history of conflicts. As ordinary Libyan women got on with the work of reconstruction, men such as General Haftar were busy setting themselves up as rogue warlords.
Yet despite this sacrifice, what role do women have in the current political system and peace process? The Libyan National Peace Conference included participation from over 7,000 Libyans. Only a quarter of them were women. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum that chose the current unity government has 75 members. Only 17 are women. Peace negotiations are often just men talking to men. And these are usually the very same men who benefit from and contribute to continued conflict. Research shows that peace processes with female participation lead to greater success and stability. Women’s involvement in the Libyan process is essential to rebuilding the political and social infrastructure of the country.
We must turn to history to remind ourselves of the decisive impact that Libyan women have made in the past and can make in the future. Salwa Buqaiqhis and Fariha Al-Berkawi followed a proud tradition of Libyan women pioneers since the start of the Libyan nation-state building. After independence from Italy in 1947, with the establishment of a united Libya in 1951, King Idris al-Senussi issued a constitution focusing on the preservation of rights and freedoms.
Successive governments under the monarchical system ensured women citizenship, equal opportunities, and political rights. The most important mandate from that era was Article 11 of the Constitution, which enshrined a number of these rights without discrimination. Women were able to assume leadership positions in the country. Inspirational figures, such as Khadija al-Jahmi and Hamida al-Anezi, took advantage of this liberty to advance human rights in Libya.
Women were able to assume leadership positions in the country.
How can we return to this forgotten golden era of Libyan history? It is in light of our past that we must consider the constitutional future of our country. Instead of trusting in an unproven constitutional arrangement created by a flawed and male-dominated peace process, an obvious answer is staring us in the face – a return to the pre-Gaddafi, 1951 Libya constitution.
This constitution – remarkably progressive for its time – was never annulled. When it was suspended by the order of Gaddafi after his coup, women’s rights, human rights, and good governance went with it. With some alterations and improvements to reflect the changes that Libyan society has experienced in the last decades, a restoration of this constitution would solve many of the problems standing between Libya and progress.
A restoration of a pre-Gaddafi constitution would exclude the factional leaders of the last civil wars, restore women and minority rights to the heart of Libyan politics, and allow for a new vision of national unity to begin to be formed under a nominal monarch. In addition, it is the only legitimate constitution that currently exists – without it, the planned December elections will have no moral or legal basis, and renewed open conflict is an inevitability. Like always, it would be the women of Libya who would suffer most if war were to resume.
The United Nations stipulates rightly that Libyan women must have a system that allows them to thrive. This system already exists in the form of the 1951 Libyan constitution. Instead of trying to devise a system from scratch, with the input of warlords and corrupt leaders, we should look to the past to form a comprehensive vision for our future.