In February 2011, protests broke out across the country, calling for an end to Muammar Al Qaddafi's 42 year rule. Women participated massively in the conflict that ensued culminating in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.
The transitional authorities (National Transitional Council) have thus far failed to take measures to ensure the representation of women in political bodies: the draft constitutional charter adopted in August 2011 contains no provision prohibiting discrimination against women; the 28-member cabinet appointed by the NTC in November 2011 includes only 2 women; and the electoral law adopted in January 2012 does not contain a quota or other measures to ensure the representation of women in the new parliament.
Women's participation in the uprising
On 15 February 2011, mothers, sisters and widows of men who died in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, gathered in front of the Court of Justice in Benghazi to protest against the arrest of their lawyer. They denounced the failure of the authorities to investigate the deaths and more broadly the corruption of the Qaddafi regime. The demonstration met with violent police repression. In the days that followed, massive protests erupted in several Libyan cities, including Tripoli, calling for the end to Muammar Al-Qaddafi's 42 year rule.
During the conflict that ensued, women participated actively in efforts to overthrow the regime. Women were involved in communicating information from one town to another, smuggling weapons, organising relief and supporting the injured and families. Some women took up arms and fought alongside men.
Time-line of key events
2011 15 Feb: Mothers, sisters, and widows of men killed in 1996 in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, gather in front of the Court of Justice in Benghazi to protest against the arrest of their lawyer. 17 Feb: A “Day of anger” ends in clashes between protesters and security forces who fire live ammunition. Protests continue in the following days and are met with violent repression. 26 Feb: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1970, imposing sanctions on Libya and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). 27 Feb: Opposition leaders, including Moustapha Abdeljalil, former Minister of Justice, establish the National Transitional Council (NTC), with one woman among its 14 members. 17 Mar: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1973 authorizing states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians”, mandating member states and NATO to intervene in Libya. 25 Mar: Iman Al-Obaidi, a lawyer from Benghazi, tells journalists that she was raped by security forces. She is arrested by security police, forced into a car and accused of defamation against the Qaddafi government. She is held in detention for several days. 27 Jun: The ICC issues an arrest warrant against Qaddafi, his son, Seif al-Islam, and the head of the intelligence service, Abdoullah al-Sanousi, for crimes against humanity. 1 Sept: 10,000 women gather in Martyr’s Square, Tripoli, to celebrate the end of Qaddafi's regime. 20 Oct: Qaddafi is captured in Sirte and killed. 23 Oct: The NTC president, Moustapha Abdeljalil announces the liberation of the country and states that all laws that contradict Islamic law will be null and void. 22 Nov: The NTC appoints a 28-member cabinet that includes only 2 women. 26 Nov: Women rally in Tripoli in a silent march to demand support from the government for victims of rape. 2012 28 Jan: Adoption of a new electoral law by the NTC, which contains no quota for the representation of women.
Violence targeting women
There have been widespread reports of rape committed by armed men during the conflict. It remains extremely difficult to document these crimes, in particular as a result of the stigmatisation of victims and the risks they encounter by speaking out.
The fear of rape caused many women to flee the country during the conflict. In July 2011, FIDH and the Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) interviewed 50 Libyan women who had sought temporary refuge in Tunisia. All those interviewed said that it was not war that had caused them to flee but the fear of being raped by Qaddafi’s forces.
They reported that victims of rape risk being killed by male family members to “wash away” family dishonour. They had also witnessed cases of husbands of rape victims committing suicide. According to several accounts, some men were ready to kill their wives or daughters before leaving to fight to avoid the risk of them being raped. In one case a young girl was killed by her brother when Qaddafi's forces arrived.
The case of Iman Al‑Obeidi, a lawyer from Benghazi, who told journalists gathered in a hotel in Tripoli in March 2011 that she had been gang-raped by Qaddafi’s troops, is a dramatic illustration of the stigmatisation of victims of rape. Iman was immediately arrested by security forces, forced into a car and detained in an unknown location for 3 days. Government representatives publicly accused her of being drunk, a prostitute or mentally ill and threatened her with defamation proceedings. Souad Wahabi, activist and long-standing opponent to the Qaddafi regime, met with the FIDH/ ATFD delegation in July 2011. She had documented 54 cases of rape, committed by Qaddafi's forces. Some of the victims were pregnant as a result. All the victims she had interviewed said that they were raped by several men. Souad had also documented several cases of men who had been raped.
There is no accountability for these crimes and little support for victims of sexual violence. According to the NGO, Voice of Libyan Women, a lot of evidence, including mobile phone footage, was destroyed by men in order to protect the women victims from stigmatisation. In January 2012, lawyers and human rights organisations in Libya told FIDH that they had become increasingly reticent to document crimes of sexual violence for fear of reprisals on victims. Victims are too frightened to lodge complaints. It is very difficult to provide support or rehabilitation services to victims of rape because of their fear of being identified.
In November 2011, Libyan women participated in a silent march in Tripoli to demand more support from the new government for victims of rape during the conflict. Their mouths covered with tape, the protesters marched to the office of the Prime Minister, Abdurrahim El-Kib. Organizers handed him a letter calling for tougher sentences for those who commit rape as well as logistical and financial support for NGOs who provide assistance to victims. No such measures have so far been taken.
Women's participation in the political transition
“We are aware that the road will be long, but since we have contributed to the revolution, we hope that Libyan women will take all their place in the reconstruction of our country”. Libyan woman, Interview FIDH/ ATFD, Djerba, Tunisia, July 2011
Since the 1960s, Libyan women have had the right to vote and participate in political life. There are no formal restrictions preventing women from occupying decision-making posts. Indeed, the Charter of Rights and Duties of Women in Arab Libyan Society, adopted in 1997, guarantees women the right to participate in the country’s political institutions.
During Qaddafi's time in power, women gained increased access to education and employment and today the majority of university graduates are women. Yet the political system remained largely dominated by men. Qaddafi's regime adopted contradictory positions concerning the status of women, sometimes seeking to pacify the Islamic political opposition and the most conservative forces, at the expense of women’s rights, especially in the area of the family.
Deep-rooted patriarchal traditions, tribal cultures and conservative social norms continue to prevent women from participating in public and political life. Efforts to improve the situation of women in Libya have also been severely hampered by the fact that independent associations were prohibited under Qaddafi. Membership of a non‑-authorised group or organisation is punishable with the death penalty (Law No.71 of 1972).
Many women who participated in the overthrow of Qaddafi are now determined to play their full part in the political transition. In recent months, women have been joining together to form associations and mobilising to demand that women are represented in the new political bodies. However, the first measures adopted by the National Transitional Council (NTC) fail to promote women's participation.
Representation in government
Under the Qaddafi regime: During the whole period of Qaddafi's rule, only 4 women occupied ministerial posts, in the ministries of culture, media, social affairs and women. At the time of the fall of the regime, there was only one woman at the head of a ministry: the Ministry of women, family and childhood.
After Qaddafi: When the NTC was established in February 2011, there was only one woman member, Dr. Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali, in charge of Legal Affairs and Women.
In November 2011, the NTC announced a new cabinet, including 2 women out of 28 posts: Fatima Hamroush, Minister of Health and Mabrouka Sherif, Minister of Social Affairs.
In November 2012, the new Prime Minister of Libya, Ali Zeidan, appointed his new cabinet which included 2 women out of 27 posts: Kamila Khamis Al Mazini, Minister of Social Affairs, and Ikram Abdulsalam Imam, Minister of Tourism.
Representation in parliament
Under the Qaddafi regime: In indirect parliamentary elections held in March 2009, 36 women obtained seats in the General People’s Congress, out of a total 468 members, representing 7.7%.
After Qaddafi: In January 2012, in preparation for elections planned for June, the NTC adopted a new electoral law. An initial draft set a quota of 10% for the representation of women in the Constitutional Assembly, “unless there are not enough female candidates”. NGOs, including The Voice of Libyan Women and the Libyan Rights Organization, organised demonstrations outside the Office of the Prime Minister in Tripoli, labelling this provision “scandalous” and calling for an increased quota.
However, in the text adopted on 28 January 2012, the quota was deleted entirely. The new law stipulates that 50% of the candidates put forward by political groups must be women, but in the absence of an obligation to place women candidates at the top of electoral lists, the lack of a quota may well lead to an absence of women in the Constitutional Assembly.
Update (July, 2012): On July 7th 2012, Libyans voted in the first legislative elections since the fall of Qaddafi. Women participated in the legislative elections at 39%. Out of the 80 seats allocated for party lists, women won 31 seats, however out of the 121 seats allocated for independent candidates, only one woman was elected. The General National Congress now holds 16% women. 
Representation in local assemblies
According to the official rhetoric of Qaddafi's regime, women were encouraged to participate in local assemblies (Basic People’s Congresses). However, in reality their participation was very limited, particularly in rural areas. Some women have had positions in the secretariats, but they are generally restricted to the post of secretary for social affairs.
Representation in the judiciary
Women have been able to become judges since 1981. The first woman judge was appointed in 1991, and as of 2010, there were an estimated 50 women judges. There are no women judges in the Supreme Court.
A discriminatory legal framework
Reservations to CEDAW
Libya ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1989, but with reservations to Articles 2 and 16 (c) and (d), concerning inheritance, marriage, divorce and the custody of children. The reservations which specified that these areas would be governed by Sharia law. In 1995, Libya notified the United Nations of a new general reservation, intended to replace the initial reservations, which provides that “accession cannot conflict with the laws on personal status derived from the Islamic Shariah”.
Under the Qaddafi regime: there was no constitution. There were several laws and founding declarations, including the Constitutional Proclamation of 1969, the Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People of 1977 and the Great Green Charter of Human Rights of the Jamahiriyan Era (The Great Green Charter) of 1988.
According to the Constitutional Proclamation, “All citizens are equal before the law” (art. 5), but there is no provision explicitly prohibiting discrimination against women. According to the Great Green Charter, “The members of Jamahiriyan society, whether men or women, are equal in every human respect. The distinction of rights between men and women is a flagrant injustice that nothing whatsoever can justify” (principle 21). In his Green Book (part 3, published in 1981), Qaddafi also proclaims the equality of the sexes, but goes on to state that certain functions fall to the woman as a result of biological differences, and concludes that “men and women cannot be equal”.
The Constitutional Proclamation provides that, “Islam is the religion of the State” (art. 2), while according to the Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People, “The Holy Koran is the Constitution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (art. 2).
After Qaddafi: In August 2011 the NTC adopted a Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage. The Charter provides that Islam is the State religion and that “the principal source of legislation is Islamic Sharia” (art.1).
According to the Charter, “Libyans shall be equal before the law. They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties obligations, without discrimination due to religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship or political opinions or social status.” (art. 6). This clause makes no reference to sex as a ground for discrimination. (A preceding draft, dated 3 August, mentioned “sex” among the grounds of discrimination, however this word was left out in the September version). The Charter provides that, “The State shall guarantee for women all opportunities which shall allow them to participate entirely and actively in political, economic and social spheres” (art. 6), but in the absence of a term providing “on an equal basis with men”, the provision remains ambiguous. The Charter also states that, “Human rights and basic freedoms shall be respected. The state shall endeavour to join the international and regional declarations and charters which protect such rights and freedoms” (art. 7).
The CNT has announced that elections will be held in 2012 to form a Constitutional Assembly, which will be responsible for drafting a new Constitution.
Other discriminatory laws
According to the law on “the endorsement of freedom” (Law No. 20 of 1991), “citizens of Libya, both men and women, are free and have equal rights and these rights cannot be violated”. The Charter of Women’s Rights and Duties in Arab Libyan Society of 1997 provides for equal rights for men and women in the areas of national security, marriage, divorce, custody of children, the right to work, social security and economic independence. However, these provisions are flouted by specific discriminatory laws, particularly in the area of the family.
On 23 October 2011, Moustapha Abdeljalil, interim president of the NTC, after announcing the liberation of Libya, stated that Sharia law would henceforth be the principal source of law and that laws contradicting Islamic law would be null and void. He cited two examples: the law restricting polygamous marriages and the law authorising divorce.
- Family laws
Cases concerning family law are dealt with by civil tribunals (which were merged with Sharia courts after Qaddafi's arrival in power). There are also 10 special courts in Tripoli and Benghazi which only judge personal status matters.
The main law governing the family is Law No. 10 of 1984 (as modified by Law No. 9 of 1993).
Guardianship: Although a guardian cannot oblige a woman to marry against her will (art. 8), the concept of male guardianship is widely accepted.
Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 20 for men and women, but marriages of minors can be authorised by a tribunal, with the consent of the girl's guardian (art. 6). Polygamy is permitted, on condition that the first wife consents in writing and with the authorisation of a court. A woman must take care of the comfort of her husband and his “psychological and sensory repose” and must supervise and maintain the conjugal dwelling (art. 18). In return, the woman has the right to be kept financially by her husband and not to suffer mental or physical violence (art. 17).
Women can divorce under certain conditions. If her husband does not consent to divorce, the woman must base her request on one of the following grounds: the husband’s financial incapacity; his absence without justification; or his unjustified abandonment for more than 4 months (art. 40, 42 and 4). Women can also initiate a “no-fault” divorce under the Khula procedure, but must return her dowry and renounce all financial maintenance (art. 48).
According to Law no. 17 of 1986, women must obtain their husband’s permission to use contraceptives (art. 18).
Custody of children: In the case of divorce, if the tribunal considers that the woman is at fault, she loses her right to custody of the children. Women cannot travel abroad with their children without the consent of the children’s father.
Inheritance: Succession law is based on Sharia, according to which a woman inherits half the amount granted to a man.
Unlike Libyan men, women cannot automatically transfer their nationality to foreign husbands, nor to their children. A new nationality law adopted in 2010 (Law No. 20 of 2010) permits women to grant nationality to their children in certain limited circumstances, at the State’s discretion. However this law remains unenforced. Furthermore, children born of a marriage between a Libyan mother and a non-Libyan father do not enjoy the same rights to education and families do not receive certain social benefits.
- Criminal law
The Criminal Code provides for reduced sentences for “honour crimes” (a man who kills a female relative on the grounds of adultery). If the man inflicts bodily harm on his female relative, the sentence is limited to a maximum of two years and “lesser beatings” are not penalized at all (art. 375). The law provides that a woman's testimony carries the same weight as a man's, however the testimony of women cannot establish the crime of zina (extra-marital sexual relations). There is no law criminalising domestic violence.
Women who abort are liable to be sentenced to a minimum of 6 months imprisonment (art. 391-392). If the abortion takes place in order to “preserve the honour” of the man, in the case of pregnancy outside marriage, the legal penalty is reduced by half (art. 394).
Young women who contravene “moral codes” or who are “vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct.” can be detained in “social rehabilitation” centres, for an unlimited period, on the decision of a prosecutor. There is no possibility of appeal.
Final observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 6 February 2009, www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws43.htm
Pargeter, A., Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010: Libya, Freedom House, 2010, www.freedomhouse.org/report/women039s-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa/womens-rights-middle-east-and-north-africa-2010
FIDH, Preliminary note on Libya Mission, 2 February 2012, www.fidh.org/Preliminary-note-on-Libya-Mission
FIDH, Press Release, Libya: The authorities must guarantee women’s rights, 24 October 2011, (in French), www.fidh.org/Les-autorites-doivent-garantir-les
FIDH, Press Release, Libya: FIDH calls for investigation into rape allegations and release of complainant, 29 March 2011, www.fidh.org/FIDH-calls-for-investigation-into