For a moment, between 2012 and 2014, it looked as if Libya was heading for a brighter future. Rida Al Tubuly, professor in pharmacology at Tripoli University and an activist for gender equality supported by Cordaid, remembers it as a time of hope. “Real elections were held, for the first time in four decades. Everybody was eager to vote. We took to the streets. Even the oldest of ladies went out and proudly showed their ink stained fingers.”
Today, things couldn’t be more desperate and dangerous. Especially for women. “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can prove fatal, at any moment of the day”, Rida explains. “The trouble is that you can never know what place or time is wrong.” Within a year, four of Rida’s fellow female activists were killed.
There’s simply no telling where a gun will end up or who will shoot it at whom.
Total ban on arms trade with Libya
“We have no national army, no efficient judiciary, no unified police force, no reliable institution whatsoever to protect citizens. With no rule of law armed militias increase in number year after year. It’s easy money for young men. As the economy continues to collapse, more boys and men are pushed to take up arms. Arms that are readily supplied and illicitly poured into Libya by foreign countries. Most of these countries ratified the UN Arms Trade Treaty, yet their guns destroy our lives. This is one of our main messages to international decision makers: impose a strict ban on the arms trade with all the armed groups in Libya. There’s simply no telling where a gun will end up or who will shoot it at whom.”
Conservative minds want girls’ knowledge not to exceed basic reading and writing. This was unthinkable 10 years ago.
“Some militias are obscurely linked to Libya’s successive governments. But more and more militias have no political agenda at all. They are criminal gangs, operating on their own. This labyrinth of armed groups means that violence has become completely unpredictable and unorganized. And therefore, even more dangerous. In this chaos, one thing is certain: men are fighting to control the country’s resources, with foreign guns.”
War narrows down women’s freedom even further
War comes with many forms of brutality. Many of them affect women more than men. Rida: “The war has drastically narrowed down women’s freedom of movement. For decades Libyan girls and women were allowed to go to school and move around freely. Today, militarization and insecurity make it very dangerous for a woman to drive around on her own.”
Increasingly, on social media, we are the target of revolting slander and hate talk.
It’s not only militarization and insecurity that restrict women’s and girls’ movement. “War has amplified the culture that wants women to marry early, stay inside, be just a wife and breed children”, Rida continues. “Parents want to protect their children, which is natural. But in Libya many parents think that early marriage will provide some form of protection from the outside world. It is the kind of thinking that is also promoted by the extremist factions that rose to power in the civil war. Education for girls, which was promoted in the past decades, is declining. That is very much under pressure now. Conservative minds want girls’ knowledge not to exceed basic reading and writing, women not to drive or travel on their own. This was unthinkable 10 years ago.”
“On top of that, the war has pushed many women to the brink of survival. It robbed them of their dreams and aspirations, of their faith in the future. Many of them had joined our struggle for gender equality after the 2011 revolution. The civil war changed all that. Now, often the main breadwinners, they need all their energy and resources to keep their children alive. This too makes it hard for civil society in Libya, which is led by women, to keep the flame of change burning.”
War inside the war
Rida Al Tubuly is one of the co-founders of Together We Build It, an organization that promotes the involvement of women in peacebuilding processes and fights gender inequality and exclusion in Libya. Increasingly, she and her fellow activists, are dealing with a war inside the war. “For example, at one point, there was a decree released in the Eastern Region, that accused female staff members of NGOs, who had connections abroad, of being spies for foreign countries. Increasingly, on social media, we are the target of revolting slander and hate talk.”
The most common answer is ‘This is not the right time for women’s rights, we have a war going on’. Or ‘Women are not qualified enough’.
For years, women from Together we Build It tried to assist and push authorities to work out and adopt a national action plan for women’s involvement in peace and security processes and the prevention of gender based violence, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325. “As there is no unified government, this proved a bridge too far”, says Rida. “To pave the way, we created a civil society network of female and male activists to advocate for the implementation of UNSCR 1325.”
‘This is not the right time’… Say what?
Promoting full inclusion of women in the rebuilding of Libya, comes with a lot of headwind. “The most common answer men come with”, says Rida, “is that ‘this is not the right time for women’s rights, we have a war going on.’ Or that ‘women are not qualified enough’. Which are bluntly ridiculous answers, that only prove our point that exclusion of women enhances conflict. For seven years men have been creating chaos, destruction and disintegration and proved to be unqualified to solve the mess they make.”
We have stamina, because our struggle is our life.
“Women can’t wait for the war to stop, and then start claiming our rights. We have to do it now, whatever the risks. Women have fundamental rights to participate in all aspects of state-building. Not only gender equality, all political affairs, the economy, reconciliation, peace-building, sustainable peace. There are more than enough capable women who are experts in all these fields.”
Painful irony: UN support is lacking on the ground
“This is what we fight for, with little resources and little space to operate. But we have stamina, because our struggle is our life. And organisations like Cordaid help us to speak out internationally and to keep on raising gender issues within the clutches of conflict.”
According to its own resolutions, the UN cannot accept this. But they do.
After seven years of brutal conflict, the road to peace in Libya seems blurrier than ever. Rida’s priorities for change seem to cast some badly needed light. “Look at women as a wealth of the nation, essential in peace-building. Reform and establish a security sector that includes women, that protects citizens instead of attacking them, and abides by international law. Give women the freedom to express themselves. And ban all illicit arms trade.”
“In our struggle, we need civil society activists and decision makers all over the world to help us pressure leaders in Libya, governments abroad, as well as the UN. Because unfortunately, on the ground, inside the conflict, we don’t see much support coming from the UN. Which is a painful irony, as the legal framework we are promoting and defending with our lives, comes from the heart of the UN. In most of the UN facilitated peacebuilding or mediation meetings, women are a minute minority. According to its own resolutions, the UN cannot accept this. But they do.”
“We acknowledge that UN is dealing with the complexity of the situation in Libya. But Libyan women should and can be a bigger ally of the United Nations and the international community. We can help to better understand the Libyan context. We can liaise between grassroots realities women are dealing with and the international community.”
Tasting freedom, showing strength
As a five-year-old, Rida wasn’t allowed to follow her brothers and play outside. “I didn’t know anything about gender discrimination. But I physically felt the injustice”, she recalls. As a teenager she knew this was about more than playing outside. It was about the structural lack of freedom. In the mind, in the house, in the street, everywhere. She was an oddity at college, driving the kind of big white Peugeot, which was mostly driven by male cab drivers. “Society, which has a male mentality, barely accepted that”, she says. “But to me it was bliss. It meant freedom and reflected strength.”
As a student, Rida tasted freedom and showed strength. Since then, she never stopped fighting exclusion and the many devastating forms it takes. Including war.