By Marianne Dhenin
Hanan al-Barassi was on a busy shopping street in Benghazi on the afternoon of Nov. 10, 2020 when a group of masked men leapt from an unmarked van with darkened windows, shot, and killed her. The assassination of the prominent human rights activist and lawyer was soon international news. United Nations officials and foreign envoys expressed shock and condemned the killing.
But for outspoken Libyan women and human rights defenders, harassment, intimidation, and violence have become routine. Despite the dangers, they continue to foster a network of politically-minded community organizers and civil society organizations committed to charting a path toward greater women’s participation in public life, politics, and their nation’s ongoing peace process.
The Libyan Conflict
Nongovernmental organizations proliferated in Libya after 2011 when a civil uprising brought an end to the forty-plus year rule of Muammar Gaddafi, ushering in a more participatory environment. Together We Build It was one of the many women-led organizations founded shortly after the uprising. “We have almost ten-years [of] experience now in the field of human rights, women’s rights, and the Women, Peace, and Security agenda,” explains Dr. Rida al-Tubuly, who co-founded the organization with fellow Libyan human rights advocate Hajer Sharief and two other young people.
From 2011 to 2014, Together We Build It focused on empowering women to run for office. When Libya held its first parliamentary elections in over four decades in July 2012, thirty-three women were elected to the 200-member General National Congress. Then, in 2014, thirty women were elected to the newly-formed 200-member Libyan House of Representatives.
“It has been up and down,” says al-Tubuly, “But if we stop [our work], we will have no women. We have to work hard every time.”
The work of organizations like al-Tubuly’s and the political climate have become even more difficult since 2014 when Libya plunged into a multi-sided civil war as contested elections dissolved into clashes. The two major parties involved in the ongoing armed conflict are the UN-backed Government of National Accord, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the opposition forces of the Libyan National Army, led by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar. The Government of National Accord maintains control of much of western Libya, including its capital in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Haftar’s forces control the east, headquartered in the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi. Other warring militias vie for control over southern Libya and its borders with Niger and Chad.
International initiatives to resolve the Libyan conflict have failed to take root, not least because the international actors involved have stakes of their own in the ongoing power struggle. The Government of National Accord receives significant military aid from Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Haftar gets military support from Russia, France, the United Arab Emirates, neighboring Egypt, and other key Arab countries. Russia, Turkey, and the UAE have all been widely criticized for employing mercenaries, mostly from Sudan and Syria, on their respective sides of the conflict.
“Since 2014, ordinary people were set aside,” says al-Tubuly, “Ordinary people have nothing to say or do with what’s going on [in Libya] right now.”
But the conflict takes its toll on everyone. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people are internally displaced in Libya, and an estimated 1.3 million need humanitarian assistance. There are also an estimated 636,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. Some are held in government-operated detention centers or unofficial prisons managed by armed groups, where conditions are grim. The European Union has condemned conditions in the detention centers, but member states like Italy and Malta continue to force boats of migrants away from their shores and back to Libya.
The human cost of the conflict has intensified since April 2019 when Haftar launched an assault on Tripoli, just ten days before the Libyan National Conference for organizing presidential and parliamentary elections was scheduled to take place in the western city of Ghadames. The conference was delayed more than a year before being relaunched as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, held in Tunisia last November.
A recent report from Human Rights Watch found that Libyan civilians have been subject to shelling and suffered injuries from explosive devices near the front lines of the advance on Tripoli. Near the western city of Tarhuna, about fifty miles from Tripoli, the Government of National Accord discovered multiple mass graves after recapturing the area from the Libyan National Army. An estimated 140,000 people have been forced to flee to relatively safe neighborhoods around Tripoli, along the coast, or into the Nafusa Mountains since the assault on Tripoli began.
The conflicts’ impact on women and children
Women and children bear the brunt of the ongoing armed conflict. During the twelve months ended May 2020, the United Nations recorded more than one hundred grave violations against women and children in Libya, including the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and health facilities, and gender-based violence at the hands of militias and armed groups.
“Our freedom of movement is also shrinking,” says Hala Bugaighis, co-founder and director of Jusoor Research Center for Studies and Development, an organization working to break down barriers to women’s involvement in business and public life. “[Women] used to stay until after sunset in cafes or restaurants, and so on. Now it’s not the case. We used to be able to go around the city as much as we want, but now we always need company, and preferably, if you’re going to a place far from where you live, you need a male or someone older to protect you,” she says.
The ongoing conflict has been dotted with ceasefires, peace proposals, and peace talks facilitated by the United Nations. Together We Build It, and other organizations like it,now focus on ensuring Libyan women are involved in the peace process by raising awareness, conducting training with local women leaders and human rights defenders, and participating in research and advocacy at the local, national, and international levels. The organization has already been called on to brief the United Nations Security Council twice in its ten-year history.
While al-Tubuly works closely with several international organizations, she remains critical of their actions in Libya. “Unfortunately, when you talk about [the United Nations Support Mission in Libya] itself and the United Nations, they don’t comply with their own mandate,” she says, referring to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. Adopted in Oct. 2000, Resolution 1325 emphasizes the critical role of women in preventing and resolving conflicts and the importance of the “equal participation and full involvement” of women in efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. “But they accept no women or a limited number of women [at conferences and negotiations],” al-Tubuly explains, “This is against the mandate of the United Nations.”
The actual number of Libyan women present at peace talks has been small. According to a written statement from researcher Francesca Caruso of the Mediterranean Women Mediator’s Network, based on data from the University of Edinburgh’s Peace Agreements Database, of the forty official agreements and statements that have been signed since 2011 as part of the Libyan peace process, women were present in the negotiations leading to only three of the 40 agreements, and the desire to involve women in the Libyan transition was mentioned only four times.
At the recent Libyan Political Dialogue Forum held in Tunis from Nov. 7 to 15, there were 17 women among the 75 participants. “We are happy to have 17 women, but at the end of the day, we are not happy because it’s 17 women out of 75 persons,” says al-Tubuly.
Structural Barriers Impede Women’s Inclusion
The Libyan women who spoke to Toward Freedom for this story concur that both Libyan politicians and the international community in Libya have failed to address many of the structural issues that prevent women’s equal and full involvement in political life and the peace process. If security concerns and economic and social barriers to accessing political dialogues and public life are not addressed, many Libyan women will continue to be excluded, and years of work on women’s empowerment and capacity-building in Libya “will all go in vain,” says Bugaighis. “I think this is a missing piece of the puzzle in the international intervention,” she says.
Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan researcher who studies online spaces and communication under conflict, agrees with Bugaighis. “We’ve been capacity building for nine years,” she says, “It hasn’t helped. We’ve spent so much money on thinking and network building. The same projects get recycled again and again, but we never reach the root of the problem.” Impunity is endemic. Libyan politicians, foreign governments, and international organizations avoid addressing the issue, beyond condemning attacks when they occur.
Security is of utmost concern for Libyan women keen to become involved in politics. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recorded scores of attacks against women human rights defenders since the civil uprisings precipitated Libya’s slide into chaos in 2011.
Several prominent women have also been abducted or assassinated since the 2014 civil war broke out. The murder of al-Barassi in Benghazi last November was only the latest installment in a string of such attacks, which began with the assassination of renowned activist and human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis, cousin to Hala Bugaighis, in June 2014.
“Our lives don’t matter,” says Asma Khalifa, a Libyan women’s rights and peace activist and co-founder of the Tamazight Women’s Movement and the Khalifa Ihler Institute. “The people in power in Libya say that they value women, but, to be honest, no matter how many women get assassinated or attacked, there is no one speaking about it or doing anything about it. Going into politics is extremely risky.”
Violence against women in Libya often begins online. “[When] we asked women why they don’t want to participate in politics, why they don’t want to take part or even go and vote, most of them [said] that they really fear cyber violence and being slandered in social media,” explains Bugaighis. “They feel if someone puts a picture online and starts a hate speech campaign against them, it dishonors them and their family. This is hindering many women from entering public life,” she says.
Al-Barassi was known for being vocal about political issues on Facebook. Her assassination came just one day after she shared comments on the platform criticizing one of Commander Haftar’s sons. According to Bugaighis, there are no reporting mechanisms in Libya for women to report online harassment or threats. “I think we need new legislation [to establish a reporting mechanism],” she says, “and I strongly think that the social media platforms have a responsibility as well.”
There is also the issue of which women can become involved in politics under the current system. With existing security concerns, many women politicians necessarily come from privileged backgrounds that afford them some measure of protection. Because of their political affiliations or social status, “Those who are in government are able to at least have someone look for them if they go missing or are kidnapped,” explains Khalifa, “and that’s not the case for most women.” Concerns over personal security impede the equal involvement of women in political life in Libya and also their full involvement, meaning their ability to feel comfortable and confident engaging in political dialogue once they have won a seat at the table.
With most Libyan peace talks now occurring in neighboring Tunisia, women must also be able to afford and undertake international travel, and those who are mothers must take time away from their children. Neither is easy for most Libyan women. Those who speak English are more likely to have success networking with international organizations. “There is a whole system of gatekeeping and privilege alongside the financial aspect,” says Ramali, “[which] means that you get quite an elitist representation. Grassroots organizers get cut out.”
This exclusion is compounded for multiply-marginalized groups, like indigenous women, explains Khalifa, who is herself an Amazigh woman. The Amazigh or Berbers are the largest indigenous group in Libya, comprising about 10% of the population. “Indigenous women have even less chances of joining the government,” Khalifa says, “and the moment you start talking about Amazigh rights or indigenous peoples rights in general, you don’t go far. Basically, you don’t form alliances, you don’t get invited, you don’t do much.”
The Amazigh community has boycotted Libyan elections in the post-Gaddafi era, including national elections for a Constitutional Drafting Committee in 2014. Two seats on the 60-member committee that had been allotted to Amazigh representatives went unfilled. Tuareg and Tebu representatives, belonging to Libya’s second and third largest indigenous groups, initially joined the boycott but later took their seats. They continued to voice concern over the makeup of the committee throughout the drafting process. Only six seats on the committee were allotted to women.
The Path Forward
Some of the structural barriers to women’s inclusion in the Libyan peace process have lessened as nations and organizations have shifted their activities online during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A recent series of four consultations hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya in October via online videoconference were some of the most inclusive yet, says Ramali. “Because they [the Libyan representatives] didn’t have to travel anywhere to attend these meetings, a lot of women that would have never been able to attend [under ordinary circumstances] were able to give their opinions. So you get a wide, diverse range of women.” Altogether, 120 women took part in the discussions.
“Women from the diaspora, women who were in exile, women who couldn’t talk freely managed to talk,” says Bugaighis, who is hopeful that the recommendations produced at the meetings will guide and help establish a sense of responsibility among women in greater positions of power. “Now, they are not women who are representing their own political interest. They are women representing these voices. They can be held accountable.”
The security issue is more complicated. Ultimately, Libyan women will not be safe to freely and fully participate in public or political life as long as there are no effective reporting mechanisms in place to report harassment and threats, perpetrators enjoy indemnity for their actions, and groups on both sides of the ongoing conflict continue to garner military aid from foreign governments. “I don’t see the Libyan system being fixable, without the ending of impunity,” says Khalifa.
Marianne Dhenin is based in Cairo and covers social justice, politics, and the Middle East. Her stories have appeared in City Monitor, Teen Vogue, and Yes! Magazine.