Equal rights is the law in Libya for women

But social pressures can cause difficulty for Libyan women.

October 25, 2010

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(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

When Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi travels around the world, he usually has a cadre of female bodyguards.

But that’s not the only visible presence that women have in Libya.

A little known fact is that Qaddafi opened up society to women when he took power 41 years ago. Women have equal protection under the law and are represented in many fields.

ambi: Arabic Koranic recitation

This is a women’s Koranic recitation competition in the heart of Tripoli, the desert capital city.

Hundreds of women are vying to win. They are judged on pronunciation and presence.

ambi: buzzer

That bell indicates a mistake.

A 29-year-old woman, who went to college for chemistry, is in the competition. Her name is Amina and she’s a sheika, or female religious official.

ambi: Amina Arabic

Amina says her family, men included, encouraged her to participate.

ambi: competition

The lyrical recitations from her competitors are beautiful, yet unique. Typically, the voices of Muslim men are heard in the call of prayer or reciting scriptures from the Koran.

But this is Libya. A place that often challenges pre-conceived impressions about Arab women.

ambi: Old City Tripoli

Oil-rich Libya borders the Mediterranean Sea on the north, and Egypt is to the east. Much of Tripoli’s leisure activity lies in the Old City, teeming with stores and coffee shops.  

Women with children shop the old cobble streets. Younger women meet up with friends for espressos at the trendy cafes.

In Libya, women can vote, drive, work, hold political and judicial office and travel unaccompanied by men. They own their own businesses.

To understand the culture, go back to 1969 when Col. Qaddafi executed his revolution and took over Libya. After his bloodless coup d'état against King Idris, Qaddafi unilaterally decided to grant -- and enforce -- women’s rights.

Qaddafi’s daughter Aisha is a Paris-trained lawyer who runs a visible nonprofit in Libya. She works on women’s issues. In fact, she sponsored the Koranic recitation competition.

In the 1970s, Qaddafi wrote his government manifesto – The Green Book. There’s a section on women.

GREEN BOOK: Women, like men, are human beings. This is an incontestable truth. Therefore as humans, it is fact that women are equal to men and to discriminate between them is a glaring inexcusable injustice. Like men, women eat and drink, love and hate.

ambi fade Green Book continues: They can equally think, learn and comprehend, and they equally need shelter, clothing and means of transportation, and just like men, they feel the bite of hunger and thirst, and they also live and die.

The passages continue continues for pages.

Qaddafi has shed his terrorist image of past decades. And even his critics acknowledge his fairness toward women.

That’s the quandary of Qaddafi.

ambi: of GPC

To get a better understanding of how this socialist, dictatorship government works, I visit the General People’s Committee building…the equivalent of a Congress.

I’m ushered to the special Libyan unity room. A looming portrait of Qaddafi hangs omnipotently.

My interview is with Zahra Mansor, the women’s minister in Tripoli. She says her position in high leadership shows that other Libyan women can succeed. Mansor has a Ph.D in legal affairs.

She speaks on behalf of Col. Qaddafi’s philosophy.

ambi: Mansor in Arabic

VOICEOVER: The way the colonel looks at women, he doesn’t look at them as sexual objects but as humans. As humans that should exude light because God created women and God created them equally with them. So there’s that importance stressed on women. Also, the West looks at women in a different light perhaps. They see women as pieces of furniture that can be changed.

During my visit to Libya, I was often told by working women that they have equal rights. Repeated requests for statistics for women in the workforce yielded no response.

But I want a sense of gender roles in Libya, and I ask Mansor if there are rights men have that women don’t have.

ambi: Mansor in Arabic

VOICEOVER: That question is problematic because we are very different than Western society. Our rights, the way we define our rights is different. We are an Islamic society, we’re an Arab society and our culture is different from yours. Men have responsibilities and role to play that women don’t have and vice versa. So we don’t look at it in the same way. But we make sure that in work setting, in a public setting, women have their rights and they do have different responsibilities and roles in society than men. So we don’t look at it in a Western context and we don’t agree with the Western context.

What that means is that women don’t work in jobs that require extreme physical strength. They have the right to raise their children. Motherhood is revered and women get ample maternity leave.

Equal doesn’t have to be the same.

And there is some tension in what the law says and what society expects.

The government doesn’t enforce social behavior. But the wrath of family can be a threat when it comes to conduct such as extramarital sex.

Heba Morayef researches Libya for Human Rights Watch. She’s based in Cairo. On one hand Human Rights Watch applauds Libya for being ahead of many Arab countries in terms of formal gender equality. But there’s another side, too.

MORAYEF: It’s a contradiction at the theoretical level but it’s one that only women but many other issues. So you have a revolution that brought with it a number of guarantees that have not brought equality and have not brought the human rights they promised. Because in many, many areas of Libyan life, informal power dynamics, i.e. tribal or important familial connections is still what is more important.

Morayef criticizes Libya for putting women in “social rehabilitation” facilities if they have shown moral failings. The government defends those homes as safe havens that protect women from their families.

ambi: baby cooing

Ghada Buru is spending time with her one-month-old nephew. She’s a successful lawyer for an oil company.

Thirty-year-old Buru is ready to get married but dating in public is frowned upon by men and women.

ambi: Arabic

VOICEOVER:  Overall in the Arab world that controls women is its reputation factor. It’s the fact that everyone is watching you. Or the fact that if you do something or you want to go somewhere you can be talked about. But Libyan women are better off than women in Saudi Arabia but at the same time maybe not better off than women in Lebanon. There’s give and take situation.

But Buru is firm in saying she wouldn’t do anything to hurt or compromises her family’s name.

She doesn’t blame the government for the dating limitations. Buru says people are still stuck in the mentality of her grandparents’ era.

But as Libya continues to open up to the rest of the world, Buru hopes the minds open as well.

Check out the blog Natalie Moore wrote while in Libya: http://blogs.vocalo.org/blog/worldview/life-in-libya