LONDON (TrustLaw) – “I am confident that the next Libyan president will be a woman – I just think she is a few years away,” Libyan lawyer Elham Saudi told TrustLaw in an interview.
Saudi is the Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya - an organisation with offices in London and Libya that was set up in the immediate aftermath of the revolution to promote human rights and help the establishment of the rule of law in the newly liberated country.
Women played a key role in the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi just over a year ago, taking part in mass demonstrations against the government, cooking food and smuggling arms to rebels at the front, nursing the wounded.
They voted in large numbers in the country’s first free election in decades in July, in which more than 600 female candidates ran for the General National Assembly (GNC) – Libya’s parliament.
A new electoral law providing for the mandatory alternation of male and female candidates on party lists granted women equal participation - at least on paper - and Saudi said that the female/male proportion in parliament following the elections was “pretty decent.”
However, as Libya struggles to shape up as a democratic state – the second interim government since September, which has two female members, has just been approved by the GNC – women’s presence both at polling stations and on party lists did not lead to their effective representation in all political institutions.
“What we have seen – which is very disturbing – is that the prime ministers that we have had have not selected (women) for prominent roles in government,” Saudi said.
“The job of our government (is) to ensure that women are included in prominent positions, not in token places and not in gimmicky places – and also to ensure that women are enabled to work.”
But, she said, most parliamentary meetings take place at midnight in areas that are not safe for women to go to, which she described as “a very simple logistical way to obstruct women.”
CULTURE VERSUS THE LAW
Women hold a fragile place in Libya’s resolutely patriarchal society, and “what is vital is creating a culture where tradition and culture…are consistent with how things are on paper,” Saudi said.
“(We need to) educate our politicians, our lawmakers and the population that this is a good thing.”
Women, too, need more education, she said, because they can in effect discriminate against themselves.
Because of the conservative nature of Libyan society, women tend to occupy positions that society expects them to, such as teachers, doctors and nurses. Few women are at senior levels in business, and very few in politics, Saudi said.
“Women won’t apply for (these) jobs…because they feel they are unsuitable.”
This is why education is key to “getting the young generation of women to see that there is no discrepancy between being an active woman politically, socially and a woman in the traditional sense, (and) that the two are compatible,” she argued.
“Since the liberation ... women are almost waiting to be included or invited to the party (when), actually, they need to host it.”
WOMEN AND GADDAFI
Some have said that under former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan women had greater access to education and a better legal status than in other countries in North Africa. His famed appearances abroad flanked by female bodyguards may have projected an image of women as pillars of his rule.
In reality, only a small elite actually benefited from Gaddafi’s policies, Saudi said.
“If you were a woman of a certain group…of a certain allegiance, then your rights were protected and endorsed. If you weren’t, they weren’t.”
“I think there is a mistake in thinking that Gaddafi did a lot for women... I think he just liked them.”
For a woman, seeking a political role under the colonel meant ruining her career and reputation, Saudi said. Some of the most competent and capable women were not active politically because they feared being associated with Gaddafi’s personal guards – dubbed “The Amazonian Guards”.
And the idea of politics as a “dirty job” and a “man’s job” is still common, Saudi believes.
Despite this and the big challenges her country faces – in both society and politics - Saudi is optimistic.
“I think, if you spend enough time with Libyan women (you will see) we tend to get what we want eventually.”
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on the women of the Arab Spring