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In liberated Libya, women struggle to raise their hand

Some women see Libya’s transition as a prime opportunity to improve their standing in society and gain political power, but societal norms still stand in the way.

Somewhere amid the rockets, mortar shells, gunfire, corpses, and wounded of Libya‘s civil war, a young Red Crescent volunteer in the city of Misrata named Hana Al Orfi decided that when it was all over, God willing, she would do the unthinkable: she, a woman, would enter politics.

“The men were on the front, but women made the food, mended the clothes, and staffed the hospitals,” Ms. Al Orfi says, describing the revolt two years ago against the regime of Muammer Qaddafi. “Without women, we wouldn’t have won.”

Mr. Qaddafi’s fall has cast Libya into a state of flux as leaders struggle to build a democracy from the ruins of dictatorship. Women such as Al Orfi have been energized by revolution and see the country’s transition as a chance to raise their status in a society that has long excluded them from positions of authority.

Debate over women’s role in a new Libya is currently focused on a proposed female quota for a committee to draft a new constitution, but that is only the latest front in a larger campaign by some women to challenge what they describe as a deep-rooted and prevailing mentality.

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“The attitude from a lot of men is, ‘we can do it for you’,” says Shahrazad Magrabi, who runs the Libyan Women’s Forum, a women’s empowerment group in Tripoli. “I’m telling them I’m not interested in anyone acting on my behalf.”

From permission to parliament

But in Libya, men have always called the shots. Each tribe had its sheikh and each family its patriarch. Italian colonizers, bent more on subjugation than development, did little to change Libyan society before being evicted in World War II. A 1969 tourism guidebook describes men in charge both within the home and outside it.

“Do not photograph women or girls, veiled or unveiled, without seeking permission through a man who may be standing nearby,” wrote the book’s author, a British expatriate named Philip Ward. “[A]nd do not be aggrieved if such permission is denied.”

The same year, Qaddafi seized power. Libyan society, isolated and heavily policed by his regime, evolved only fitfully. In February 2011 revolt broke out and escalated into a civil war. Few battle fronts, if any, raged more fiercely than that of Misrata.

Al Orfi remembers the day in March 2011 when carloads of rebel fighters streamed past beneath her window crying “God is Great!” For a moment her heart lifted.

“Then the army came with tanks, and that was that,” she says. “I was sure the end was near.”

She spent the following months taking care of the wounded as Qaddafi’s forces pummeled Misrata with tank and rocket fire. Sometimes, between skirmishes, the medical workers ventured out to look for supplies. Al Orfi taught a female neighbor to do sutures by practicing on furniture cushions. The experience led her to the conclusion that just as women were essential in war, so they would be essential in peace.

In July 2012 she was one of more than 600 female candidates standing in elections for Libya’s General National Congress (GNC), which serves as an interim parliament and is charged with overseeing the drafting of a constitution.

Changing more than law

Those elections revealed how much ground women still have to cover. Only 33 were elected to the 200-seat body. Of these, 32 only went on ballots after parties were ordered to run equal numbers of men and women. Only one of 120 seats reserved for independents went to a woman.

Meanwhile, some laws bolster male dominance, according to a May report by Human Rights Watch. Murdering or assaulting a female relative is punished less severely if motived by her alleged sexual indiscretions. Another law blurs the line between consensual – yet illegal – extramarital sex and rape, which could deter rape victims from coming forward, the report says.

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Then there are headlines like one on the June 11 front page of Libya Al Jadida (“New Libya”), a Libyan newspaper: “Female university students smoke hashish and drink alcohol.”

For Mrs. Magrabi, from the Libyan Women’s Forum, the headline reflects a tendency among some Libyans to distrust the notion of female emancipation.

“Well, they can say what they want,” she says, holding the newspaper up by a corner, then flicking it away in disgust. “I’m a first-class citizen and I’m going to have my rights.”

One way to ensure that, she says, is to guarantee women a hand in writing the constitution. She wants a female quota of at least 35 percent for the constitutional drafting committee. So does Al Orfi, who heads a cross-party women’s bloc in the GNC.

Some men agree. One is Abdelmonem Lohashy, a businessman from Benghazi and recent member of the GNC. (He resigned last month after losing a vote for GNC president.) He says a women’s quota is necessary to force change against otherwise insurmountable obstacles.

But other men are skeptical. Meftah Shetwan, a member of an advisory council to civilian leaders in Misrata, says he initially supported women in politics but has grown pessimistic based on what he describes as female timidity.

Most women in the GNC “are either absent or don’t raise their hands,” he says, also lamenting that female academics declined his invitations to join Misrata’s advisory council.

The solution, says Magrabi, is to train women to assert leadership. Her group coached female candidates for the 2012 elections and today offers workshops on democracy, human rights, and civil society.

“We are full human beings, and have dreams and ambitions that have been tucked away for a long time,” she says. “It’s now or never.”