“Close your laptop, you are under arrest,” a Libyan man in army fatigues barked. “Don’t move.”
I stared wide-eyed at the dozen Libyan militiamen who stormed into the main conference center in Benghazi to shut down a seminar on women’s participation in the constitution-writing process. The soldiers, identified later by participants as members of a brigade under the Interior Ministry, wanted to arrest one attendee whose alleged association with a Jewish Libyan activist made her suspect. In their heavy-handed process, they disbanded the entire conference on August 9, 2012. This unfortunate incident is illustrative of how Libya’s security environment undermines female activists’ ability to operate. Gender-specific barriers caused by Libya’s political insecurity are major obstacles to female activism in Libya today, and the Libyan state must be strengthened to combat them.
Nadia Gaouda, who was later detained and questioned because she had been in the conference center that day, fully recognizes these challenges: “I think we should work very hard to establish our state before these brigades become too powerful and out of control.” Her sentiment is echoed across Libya. There is a strong general atmosphere of physical insecurity in Libya today, resulting from the absence of a powerful, state controlled police or army, the prevalence of loose weapons, and a slew of unaccountable brigades. The Libyan state has not attained a monopoly on the use of force, as demonstrated by the Minister of Interior’s admission that he is unable to confront Islamists who destroyed a UNESCO-protected Sufi mosque in Tripoli in late August. The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, exemplifies the lack of safety in the country.
In this unstable context, the majority of the fifteen female activists I interviewed in Libya cite the lack of security as hindering their ability to function fully and effectively–from the freedom to tackle sensitive issues to basic questions of mobility. These are fundamental but often-unexamined obstacles to women’s activism. One significant ramification is that insecurity limits women’s freedom of movement, which is already restricted by cultural customs. Family-imposed curfews are the norm for women of all ages to prevent them from being out alone after dark. Travel to other cities tends to require a male relative chaperone, which increases the challenges of collaboration among women activists in urban and rural areas.
Omnia Tayari identifies insecurity as the major factor preventing women’s empowerment: “The lack of security in Libya now is preventing women from conducting many activities freely without needing to have ‘guards’ by their side.” Sara Mazik, founder of Women4Libya, affirms, “It does restrict your work, to rely on men.” Requiring activists to depend on the benevolence of male accompaniment is especially problematic for those promoting women’s rights. Their efforts may be sidelined if gender is not a priority issue to activists’ male relatives.
It is important to note that some do not believe the security situation has hindered their ability to participate in politics. Zahra’ Langhi, co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, notes women’s high voter turnout (forty-six percent of voters in the July national election were female) despite fear of election violence. Individuals may change their tactics, such as by holding meetings in the afternoon instead of the evening, but their overall strategy is not diverted.
To place Libya’s current instability in perspective, today’s feeling of unease is an exponential improvement from the level of fear under Gaddafi’s repressive regime. There was no civil society before 2011, and women were especially discouraged from the public sphere. As Amena Raghei wrote, “women who took on public roles during Qaddafi’s time were considered women of ill repute, literally tarnished by Qaddafi’s hands.” This perception has changed with the revolution, as Israa Murabit, Vice President of Voice of Libyan Women, explains: “Before, women traveling alone was wrong no matter what… Now, if you are working to further yourself, and your family is OK with it, then no one would see an issue.”
Undoubtedly, there is greater space for political activity today than in 2010. However, the ability to participate in this space is restricted because the security environment is volatile, and this instability affects women differently than it affects men. Additionally, the actors creating insecurity have undue agenda-setting power to determine which subjects are taboos. Attending a conference on women’s rights should not result in detention if a loosely controlled brigade disapproves of one participant. I worry about the chilling effect of such incidents.
The discourse on challenges to political activism cannot be distinct from the actual context in which those integral to advancing rights–Libyan women and men–are able to operate. Security cannot be sidelined as a peripheral dimension of women’s participation in civil society and politics. Rather, it should be the key backdrop for any conversation about women’s rights activism in post-conflict societies. We must recognize gender-specific risks for female activists under Libya’s current insecurity and the importance of protection strategies to address them.