Sahar Mediha Al-Naas – Sexual Violence and the Women’s Exclusion: The New Libyan Gendered State


Sahar Mediha Al-Naas

العربية | Français

Women in Libya today face many challenges that hinder their political and civil participation and representation.  Neopatriarchy, war and conflict provide the ground for gender-based violence and sexualised violence that prolong in post-conflict aftermath (Al-Ali, 2014; Jurasz, 2013). Six years since the uprising and the current situation indicates that Libya is heading towards state de-formation (Rolf Schwarz, 2004).   Libyan women’s rights are on the edge of collapse.  The institutional ties between the state and religion, strengthened by the instability and violence since the 2011, and demonstrated in the Liberation speech by Mustafa Abdul Jalil , are having a devastating impact on women. Such impact is reflected in the systematic relapse of women’s rights under religious guise. Moreover, neopatriarchy reinforces and maintains patriarchal values that put women in a subordinate position, thus creates systems of oppression through religious and kinship institutional ties. In such system women, their bodies and sexual conducts are often held as the markers of the state’s religious and cultural identity. Such structure existed in the pre-Gaddafi period and was preserved and strengthened by Gaddafi for political purposes.

In this paper, I explore the correlation between various aspects of state structure that characterise a Neopatriarchal state and its institutional ties with religion, and kinship, the position of Libyan women, their political and civic participation and representation, and the rapid collapse of their rights since 2011. I argue that the neopatriarchal state’s appropriation of religion, kinship and patriarchy, play a significant role in the regression of Libyan women’s rights. My focus will be on the institutional ties between the state and religion and the impact of these on women’s rights, in the context of conflict and a neopatriarchal state; I will discuss sexual violence as a weapon of war, the link between the militarisation of masculinity and Neopatriarchal structure that provided a foundation for gender based violence through the subjectification of women and the reinforcement of gender hierarchy.  I will shed light on the Libyan women’s participation in the uprising against Gaddafi in 2011 and the link between the exclusion of women and the nature of the uprising as an armed struggle over power and resources in a Neopatriarchal context.  I will explore how Libyan women – through civil and political participation and representation – can construct a feminist discourse, push a feminist agenda onto the political table, and overcome the “security priority” obstacle.



Neopatriarchy is the modern form of patriarchy in which modernisation is limited to some bureaucratic aspects of the state. Neopatriarchal society, as Sharabi  described: “the hybrid, traditional and semi-rational structures and consciousness”. Sharabi identifies two types of neopatriarchal societies: conservative and progressive. Both share central psychological feature that is the dominance of the father figure(patriarch) whether the father of the nation or the family, and whose relations with the nation or the child is vertical. A hierarchal relation of power “mediated through force consensus and coercion.”    (Sharabi, 1988)

Neo-patriarchy and Modernity

A crucial factor in the formation of Modernity is an autonomous transformative capitalism and industrialization, in Marx’s revolutionary term, that leads to the eraser of class division, and creates horizontal social relations that is the foundation of democracy. In the MENA region, Capitalism was neither autonomous nor revolutionary to form Modernity. Moreover, the absence of real industrialization and independent Capitalism , and the subordinate asymmetrical relation between the west as the dominate colonial power and the colonised region characterised the formation of the Neopatriarchal states in post-colonial era, which Sharabi described as: “the marriage of imperialism and patriarchy” .

Neopatriarchal States in MENA:

Sharabi argued that the formation of Neopatriarchal states in MENA region was shaped by the encounter with the western Modernity early 20th century . Western Modernity was founded on the obliteration of the old system of tradition and Patriarchy in Europe, brought about by industrialization and Capitalism. Autonomous Capitalism, in Marx’s analysis of the emergence of the bourgeois as a revolutionary factor, constructed new horizontal social relations  that marked the formation of the European Modernity. The new modern society is governed by secular scientific mood of thought that replaced the religious spiritual allegorical governing structure characteristic of pre-modern Feudalist Europe. Some scholars argue that Modernity is uniquely European phenomena. Such notion is founded on dichotomous essentialist discourse that divides the world to the “Civilised” Europe and “Uncivilised” other . In such discourse, crucial historical, geopolitical, and socioeconomic factors are obscured.

Neopatriarchy in Libya

The Neopatriarchal state derives its legitimacy from the possession of power (Sharabi, 1988), whether the power was ceased or given. In the case of the MENA, Neopatriarchal state’s power and survival relies heavily on external and internal actors.

External Factors:

In post-colonial MENA, and during the Cold War period, the survival of varies states relied on their ties with the two superpowers and shaped by the competition between them : for example, but not limited to, Egypt (during Jamal Abdel Nasser rule), Algeria, Syria, Former South Yemen, and Libya had close ties with the former Soviet Union that provided them with technological, military and political support and assistance. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Morocco, Egypt(post-Nasser), and other Gulf rentier states had/have ties with U.S. and Western European countries that provided them with economic aid (in the case of the non-rentier states), military, technological and political support. Thus, none of the MENA states could be described as strong modern state for their dependency on the superpowers for survival, therefore, the essential stages and elements in state formation were absent in the case of MENA. Van Creveld (1999) argues that in Western Europe state formation was shaped by warfare and the preparation of war that played a central and essential role .  Moreover, several scholars argued that the process of preparing for war involves the effective extraction of resources through sufficient bureaucratic, administrative and institutional mechanism needed for state-building, thus political rights and the rights of representation in government became integral to citizenship that included taxes payers from different social classes and not limited only to the monarch or the ruling elites. In such context, the notion of nationalism and citizenship formed and shaped the identity and strength of the state, in which the individual is a citizen, with rights and duties, and not a subject with constraining duties and without rights, as in the case of the MENA states.

State formation in post-colonial MENA, as many scholars argue, is shaped by Rentierism. Rentierism has a profound effect on the state’s “foreign policies, human rights policy or aspects of political succession” . It creates a hierarchal citizenship, in which, wealth and political power are centralised and accessed exclusively by the ruling elites, thus marginalising and disfranchising the mass. This authoritarian political structure dominated the political scene in the post-colonial MENA. In Libya, as an example of rentier authoritarian Neopatriarchal state, Gaddafi’s foreign relations with the former Soviet Union, . U.S. and West European countries, such as Italy, Germany and France not only provided him with the military aid, but played a crucial role in the Oil referment, production, transportation and trade. Thus, enabling him to accumulate capital that was crucial to his survival in power for four decades while ruling Libya with an iron fist. Gaddafi used the oil revenue, not to build Libya’s infrastructure or state institutions such as education, health, and welfare, but to create state security institutions with the sole task of protecting his regime and ensuring his survival in power. The appalling human rights record and policy during Gaddafi’s rule, notwithstanding known to the international community, were largely ignored. Gaddafi’s relations with Oil companies were the key to his power; Gaddafi demanded big bonus, tough contract terms, and majority share of the revenues, and threatened to shut off production if the oil companies refused. Many of the big oil fields were run by smaller companies, to ensure power is fragmented when negotiating contract terms and to break the stranglehold of the oil major companies . Libya became the first developing country to secure a majority share of the revenues from its own oil production. To restore the severed relation with U.S., Gaddafi used his position of power to pressure the American oil companies to influence U.S. policies.

After the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, Libyan power holders are unable to secure total control over the oil revenue. It became one of the major factors that shaped the conflict in Libya.

Internal Factors:

 Religion, Tradition, kinship and Tribalism are internal factors on which the Neopatriarchal state rely for survival, or face as challenges.  Sharabi’s definition of Neopatriarchy encompasses several forms of political regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. For example: Libya (until 2011), Algeria, Iraq (until 2003), Syria, and former South Yemen are authoritarian-socialist; Iran, Sudan are radical- Islamist; Saudi Arabia, Morocco are Patriarchal-conservative; Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey are authoritarian-privatizing . All these states share the overarching cultural and religious influence on the Personal-Code that is deeply entrenched in patriarchal values. And many share the deep influence of kinship and triable culture in social life. Moreover, women’s rights are often compromised and used as a bargaining chip by the Neopatriarchal state to consolidate its power; women’s bodies and conduct are subjected to state Surveillance and scrutiny to maintain social order . The power Gaddafi possessed as the head of the state, dominated both the private and public spheres through his manipulation and total control of triable, kinship and religious institutions. Under his rule, oil revenue was monopolised to accommodate the political interest of his regime. Moreover, in the absence of sufficient public services and reasonable salary rate, Libyans, disfranchised and impoverished turned to the primary social structure of tribe, kinship, religion and family for survival and security. However, Gaddafi manipulated the tribble and religious institutions and structures to maintain his power, by empowering specific tribes and disempowering others to guarantee allegiance through his reward and punishment strategy. Moreover, after declaring Shari’a as the only constitution and after introducing Hudud law in 1972, Gaddafi’s dynamic with the religious establishment witnessed a big shift after the 1976 Zawar declaration in which Gaddafi stripped the religious clergy of their immunity and power and launched a campaign against them . Nevertheless, the Libyan family code, remained heavily influenced by Shari’a law, as an aspect of the institutional ties between the state and religion. The introduction of Hudud Shari’a based law in 1970  marked the beginning of the radical-Islamist form of Neopatriarchy . Gaddafi utilised religious conservative discourse to serve his claim as the “Imam of the Muslims” , a position of ultimate power.

Neo-patriarchy and the State’s Identity

Neopatriarchal state and structure, inherited from Gaddafi’s regime, characterised the post-Gaddafi Libya. The rise of political Islam coupled with the deeply entrenched patriarchal values limits Libyan women’s political and civil participation and representation. The Neopatriarchal state and structure in Libya, during and post-Gaddafi, appropriation of religious, triable and cultural discourses to maintain power created a dynamic in which any progress or regress in women’s position in legislations is decided by its political impact on the power holder in Neopatriarchal states. Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the Head of the Interim Council (2011-2012) made a controversial statement on 23 October 2011, in relation to lifting all legal restrictions on polygamy.  His statement came as an indication of the institutional ties between the state and religion, characteristic of neopatriarchal state,  that would impact on women’s rights in Libya in the post-Gaddafi era.   As in other situations, both, discursive and physical control over women’s bodies are crucial in the struggle over power (Al-Ali and Pratt 2009: 93). In effect, the disciplining of women and their bodies are instrumentalized by both, state and none state actors to assert the new Islamic identity of the Libyan state and to display their Islamic credentials for political legitimacy in the New Libya. Women’s bodies and conducts are used as markers of the new Libya from the old Libya .

Neo-patriarchy and Political Power in Libya

The intimate relationship between religion and the state has been evident in Libyan history since the Sanussi monarchy (1949-1969)  (Martin, 1986; Sammut, 1994; Takeyh, 2000). Islamic identity constituted the political legitimacy of all political actors and shaped the political culture in the North African state (Brown, 1973; Pargeter, 2012;), before and after the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi.  The Neopatriarchal state derives its legitimacy from the possession of power (Sharabi, 1988), thus, cultural, triable, religious, or traditional discourses can be manipulated to accommodate the political interest of the ruling force. In such context, the ordinary individual is a subject not a citizen, excluded from the political arena and decision making. Consequently, for survival, seeks security from primary social structures: family, tribe, religious sect. Moreover, among Neopatriarchal states’ characteristic aspects is the reinforcement of patriarchal values and social structures through the crippling legal system shaped by tribal, kinship and religious discourse of male supremacy. Thus, women’s bodies and conduct are subjected to state Surveillance   and scrutiny under religious and cultural guise, as the bearer of the family, community, or society’s honour. In Libya, Gaddafi, as the head of the Neopatriarchal state, possessed the ultimate power and dominated both the private and public spheres through his manipulation and total control of triable, kinship, religious institutions and natural resources. Moreover, the open-door policies (Sammut, 1994; Takeyh, 2000; Ashour, 2011) adopted by Gaddafi for survival, under international pressure after ten years of sanctions and isolation, provided a good opportunity for the spread of conservative Islamic revival discourse in Libya. Gaddafi Allowed the return of political Islam dissidents from exile and released their prisoners as a strategic move to maintain his power after the 2008 agreement between Saif Al-Islam and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), in which, LIFG denounced violence and armed Jihad in return of freedom from prosecution .  Such conservative discourse became firmly grounded in mosques since the 2008 agreement, focusing on the reconstruction of social morals and norms. Like the mosque movement in Egypt, the Islamic revival discourse aimed to replace mainstream moderate Islam with a conservative form of Islam heavily reliant upon Islamic orthodox teaching as a frame of reference. (Mahmood, 2005; Ahmed, 2011; El-Kholy, 2002). Such discourse placed women in a very subordinate position in society and reinforced patriarchal values.

Women and Neo-patriarchy

Neo-patriarchal state reinforces and maintains patriarchal values and gender hierarchy through its institutional ties with religion, kinship and customary law (Charrad, 2001) .  Notwithstanding, many women in MENA have access to education and employment, traditional gender roles and expressions put women in a subordinate position. Moreover, the institutional ties between neo-patriarchal state and religion determent women’s position and rights.  In Muslim majority countries, the impact of institutional ties between the state and religion on women’s rights are measured by the political legitimacy of religion. In other words the more the state encourages religious teaching to be integrated in constitutions and legislations the less rights women have. Such dynamic is manifested in sharia based family code .  Moreover, Sharia as a concept is vague and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways; the use of Sharia as the only source of legislation in family code gives the state unlimited power to control women, their bodies and their sexuality under a religious guise (Hosseini, 1996; 2006; 2009; Hamzic & Hosseini, 2010). Kinship and gender relation shape sharia law, as Charrad explains:

“The most explicit aspect of Islamic family law concerns gender relations. Islamic family law places women in a subordinate status by giving power over women to men as husbands and as male kin. 

The guardianship system, still implemented in some Muslim majority countries, gives the male guardian the right and the power to control women’s right of movement, sexual and reproductive rights, and any major choices in their lives.

Under Gaddafi’s rule women’s access to education and employment, were unlimited, however, in the realm of family law and Personal Status women could not exercise many of their rights, even after reform introduced in article 10 of the 1984 law, under which a male guardian has no authority to refuse the marriage of a 20-year-old woman, or article 21 of the Green Charter (Refworld, 2011)  in which forced marriage is prohibited, marriage can be lawfully conducted by the male guardian in the absent of the bride. With respect to entry into and dissolution of marriage women don’t enjoy the same rights as men, especially economic rights and equal rights and obligations. As citizens, women lack fundamental rights such as the right to pass their nationality to their children and the right to remarry without losing the custody of her children. Both, the guardianship law and prohibiting women from passing their nationality to their children, demonstrate how Gaddafi reinforced patriarchal values, such as male authority and patrilineality.  Notwithstanding, male guardianship was restricted by the age and consent, it leaves a big gap for manipulation and exposes women and girls to various forms of violations. Women were not protected from gender-based violence and did not enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts. Libyan women’s political participation and representation did not exceed 2% (al-Obeidi, 2007) and for Gaddafi’s purposes was influenced by women’s proximity to the regime thus carried social stigma.

Women’s Political Representation in Post-Gaddafi Libya

In the first parliamentarian election in Libya in 2012, women gained over 16% of all seats in the General National Congress (GNC). This was unprecedented in the Libyan history. However, women’s political representation was shaped by the struggle over power between rival groups, thus antagonistic political claimant presented a challenge to women in the GNC. The GNC was divided between two political forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and their alias of independent members, many of whom are former members of LIFG, on one hand, on the other the Coalition of the National Forces party(CNF) .  Intimidation and threats were used by male members to silence women in the GNC .

Women’s substantive political representation is representing women’s interests and needs (Celis and Childs, 2011, p. 3). Moreover, women’s issues were not discussed or debated in the GNC or in the sub-committees; within the GNC there are 15 sub-committees; each sub-committee deals with a legislative area and all are allocated to different government ministries. However, there is no sub-committee for women; a women’s file is allocated to the Human Rights Sub-Committee. This Sub-Committee had 8 women out of its 15 members. None of the key issues concerning women were dealt with or suggested by any of the 8 women for discussion; key issues such as: domestic violence, sexual violence against women and girls, discriminatory family law, the abduction of women activists or the economic disadvantage of women, were neither discussed nor raised for debate. The Sub-Committee had dealt with other files such as compensation for the wounded from the revolutionary fighters, families of martyrs and torture cases in prisons of armed groups. Most women members of the GNC I interviewed, when asked about the absence of women’s interest in the Human Rights Sub-Committee’s agenda, blamed civil society for failing to communicate women’s issues and needs to them. On the other hand, women’s groups and organizations complain of the limited access they had to the GNC and state that their suggestion to have observer seats at the GNC was refused.

One hundred percent of women members of the Muslim Brotherhood party shared the same beliefs regarding women’s position in the gender power relation in the Libyan GNC. Moreover, in countries governed by political Islam parties, women with a sense of feminism are excluded from the political arena.  For example, female members of Egyptian Parliament during Murcy’s rule were those of the Muslim Brotherhood party and were known for their anti-feminist and misogynistic statements, such as Aza Al-Garf’s statement against gender equality and CEDAW (Mahatit Masr, 2012; Al Balad News, 2012)  .

The 21 female NFC members of the Libyan GNC whom I interviewed between 2012 and 2013 demonstrate some diversity. From standing totally against gender equality and praising the Sudanese and Somali example of refusing CEDAW to the extreme contrast of full support for all UN conventions on human and women’s rights, these were all opinions and principles held by female members of the same political party. Thus, demonstrate nuances of independent and personal political views rather than uniformed their party’s ideology.

In issues related to gender equality and women, the MB female members in the GNC rigidly followed party policy, thus their political representation was shaped by their party affiliation. However, the NCF female members did not display a uniformed discourse concerning women’s issues; their stands on the same issues were different and in contradiction in some cases.

Overall women’s performance in the GNC was admirable, bearing in mind the challenges they faced; women in the GNC had more courage to challenge controversial issues such as the prison torture, the conflict between armed militias that resulted in the killing of civilians, and the vote for the Isolation Act .  It is worth mentioning the fact that the only member of the Libyan GNC who refused the 45 Libyan Dinar housing allowance was Fariha Albrqawi, a female member for Derna.

The Gendered Constitution

In addition to the ongoing conflict in their society, women in Libya face constitutional and institutional discriminations.  On 24th  December 2014, the 63rd anniversary of Libya’s independence, the CDA published the first draft of the new constitution. The draft reflected both the neopatriarchal (Sharabi, 1988) nature of the state and the poor representation of women in the CDA; issues such as citizenship, violence and equality were either overlooked, marginalised or completely ignored in the draft. Article 8 (1&2) states that Sharia is the only source of legislation and the state is obliged to enact legislations that prevent the dissemination of doctrines contrary to Islam (cdalibya, 2014), bearing in mind that many conservative forces in Libya see the UN conventions to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women as against Islam.  Article 32 outlines that the state is responsible for supporting and sponsoring motherhood and childhood, ensuring the reconciliation between women’s family and work duties; in other words, ensuring women’s work responsibilities do not overstep their family and motherly responsibilities (ibid.). as Deniz Kaniyoti‘s argued: ‘women’s participation in the public sphere has been limited by the boundaries of culturally acceptable feminine conduct and that a pressure has been exerted on women to articulate their gender interests within the terms set by nationalist discourse’ (1996: 6). In the case of Libyan women, the terms are set by the Neopatriarchal state and shaped by religious discourse. However, in the last draft published on 16 April 2017, article 32 was removed; furthermore, article 50 states that:” The State is obligated and committed to supporting and sponsoring women, enacting laws to protect them, raise their status in society, and eliminate negative culture and social norms that detract from their dignity, prohibit discrimination against them, guarantee their right to representation in elections and provide opportunities for them in all fields. Crisis to support their acquired rights”.

Freedom of Movement

Article 14 of the interim constitutional declaration for the year 2011: “The State shall guarantee freedom of opinion and freedom of the individual and collective expression, freedom of scientific research, freedom of communication, freedom of the press, the media, printing and publishing, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and that is not contrary to the law.” Libyan women’s freedom of movement was challenged in February 2017 when the military governor of Albaida, a little town in the north east of Libya, General Abdul Razek al-Nadori, issued an Act prohibiting women under 60 from traveling without male guardian (muhram). The use of religious term such as (Muhram) gives the act religious legitimacy and power. When General al-Nadori was asked, in an interview on Libya TV, about the reason of issuing the act, he stated that it’s a national security matter, and claimed that many young Libyan women receive invitations from international organisations to attend conferences and workshops and can be recruited by international agencies as spies. General al-Nadori was later forced to postpone the implementation of the act due to wide campaign against it.  This illustrates how women’s rights are weakened by institutional ties between religion and the state and how the state appropriation of religion serves as a political tool to control women.

Gendered War

“Mustering troops is all about the mobilization of men into aggressive expressions of hypermasculinity – they are ‘pumped up’ and as it were to facilitate their most murderous and pornographic capabilities.”  (Mama, 2014)

Wars and the militarisation of masculinity reinforce the patriarchal and traditional gender roles and identities and the subjectification of women.  Moreover, during the 17 February 2011 Revolution, despite Libyan women’s crucial and full participation in the revolution, rape as a weapon of war was feminised through the focus on women victims of rape, consequently, they were portraited as weak and vulnerable victims of sexual violence and in need of ‘masculinist protection’ (Young, 2003) by the militant Libyan male. The militarised masculine aggression, characteristic of the Libyan revolution, created and reinforced the bipolarisation of gender identities: the masculine, strong, aggressive male protectors against the feminine, weak, female victim. The gendering of subjectivity and the dehumanisation of the female victim, often shapes gender relations in post-conflict period (Mama, 2014). Gender hierarchy was further reinforced through the rise of a conservative religious discourse and its institutional ties to the neopatriarchal state. Mustafa Abdul-Jalil’s controversial statement in 2011, and the travel ban issued by the military governor in February 2017, both reflected the gendered conception of a state in which women are systematically appropriated, objectified and excluded from the public space. Such subjectification of Libyan women has its roots in the Neopatriarchal structure of the Libyan state and its institutional ties with the religious discourse throughout Libya’s post-colonial history.

Sexual Violence and the Women’s Exclusion: The New Libyan Gendered State

The six months of fighting in 2011 in Libya to overthrow one of the most brutal dictators in the region was marked by sexual violence. The systematic sexual violence, allegedly perpetrated by Gaddafi’s forces during the 2011 fighting, was politically instrumentalised to force the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. Evidence of systematic mass sexual violence was scarce, nonetheless, the deployment of rape as means of war by Gaddafi was brought to the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by Luis Moreno-Ocampo the Chief Prosecutor, in June 2011, when he declared that there was evidence that Gaddafi had ordered his soldiers to rape women. On 27th June 2011, a warrant of arrest against Gaddafi was issued by the ICC.  This played a significant role in bringing Gaddafi’s regime to an end, as it forced his isolation and encouraged Libyan tribes and towns to switch allegiance.  Moreno-Ocampo, in a report presented to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in November 2011, stated that “in Libya, rape is considered to be one of the most serious crimes, affecting not just the victim, but also the family and the community, and can trigger retaliation and honour-based violence” (Wueger,2012).  However, the full extent of sexual violence during the conflict remains unknown, and the mystery surrounding facts and myths of rape cases in Libya has been almost impossible to solve, due to the ongoing armed conflict, the lack of security and the culture of shame associated with rape in Libya; fear has deterred many women and men from reporting such crimes or accessing the help and support they desperately need.

Nonetheless, some cases of rape committed by Gaddafi’s forces were documented and video recordings of rape, used by Gaddafi’s forces to spread fear among communities and tribes, were found by anti Gaddafi rebel .  However, sexual violence and the exclusion of Libyan women did not seize an end after the overthrow of Gaddafi, in the contrary, revenge attacks against towns deemed to have supported Gaddafi, such as Tawirgha, Bin Waleed, and Almshashia, have resulted in the arbitrary arrest of hundreds or even thousands of people, most of whom are still in detention centres across the country.  The highest concentration of conflict-related detainees of around 2700, including women, is in some seven facilities in Misrata with no government control, where torture, rape and death allegedly occur. (HRW, 2014)

In Post-Gaddafi Libya, violence against women increased and took different forms; in addition to losing their very few rights they gained under Gaddafi’s rule, Libyan women today do not enjoy the same constitutional and citizenship rights as men. Moreover, Libyan women politicians and activists face a systematic campaign of fear, assassinations and forced displacement to silence them. Many factors played different roles in the exclusion of women, such as the rise of the conservative religious discourse, the spread of armed militias and the straggle over power and resources between different centres of power that created a chaos and instability by which the Libyan uprising has been marked. Such instability impacted on women, particularly women activists and politicians. Consequently, Libyan Women’s lives, safety, dignity, freedom and many other constitutional and human rights are being compromised and pushed into the margin because of the “stability priority” discourse.

Rape as a Weapon of War in 2011 War

In patriarchal s societies, women are the bearers and markers of the authentic cultural, religious and collective identity of the nation or community (Kandiyoti, 1991a; 1991b; 1992; 1998)   and the reproducers of the nation (Yuval Davis, 1997).  Their bodies and reproductive rights are controlled and appropriated by the community and the state, and perceived as communal property.  Their sexuality and sexual conduct becomes the marker of the communal honour.  In such discourse, raped women are labelled as damaged goods, need to be either eliminated or ‘fixed’.  In December 2011, I met a young Libyan woman who was arrested by Gaddafi’s police and detained for weeks before she was freed by the rebels in August 2011 after the liberation of Tripoli from Gaddafi’s forces. She told me that she was not raped, but because she appeared on TV talking about her experience in Gaddafi’s prison, where she was tortured, people assumed that she was raped and consequently labelled her as one. She adds that she was bombarded by phone calls from civil society organisations with the intention to convince her to marry any of the amputated ‘brothers’ to restore her honour and the honour of her family. She described how they stalked her and used intimidation and threats to force her to agree to the marriage.  She claims that they put intense pressure on raped single girls to agree to such marriage and they use threats in many cases.  They say they want to protect women, particularly raped ones, from becoming immoral after losing their virginities.

Many cases of rape reported during the 6 months of war and stories of Viagra bill been found with Gaddafi’s militias, spread on a global scale.  Shame and stigma deterred many men, women and girls from reporting rape.  Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of apparent gang rape and sexual assault of men and women by Gaddafi forces during the conflict, including detainees in custody.  All these cases show the extreme brutality of rape when used as a weapon of war. (HRW, 2011)

The threat of rape has been used to spread fear to prevent towns from joining the revolution and to force them to switch allegiance.  Until today, not one case of rape has been brought to court in Libya since 2011.  Moreover, On 2 May, the National Transitional Council (NTC) adopted Law 38 of 2012  in which, article four exempts the rebels of 17 February 2011 revolution of any criminal or legal responsibility for their crimes during or after the war.  However, the Observatory on Gender in Crisis, a Libyan NGO, lobbied to make rape during conflict a war crime in Libya.  The bill was drafted and presented to the GNC in November 2013 by the minister of Justice, but was never ratified. I interviewed Souad Whaida, the director of the Observatory on Gender in Crisis, who explained how the bill puts rape as a weapon of war aimed at society as a whole, not only women.  She believes that feminising rape in conflict further victimises women and downplay crucial facts about rape as a weapon of war; the irreversible damage and distraction it conflicts on, not only the victims and their families, but their communities and societies makes it the cheapest and more effective weapon of war. The use of cell phone cameras to film rape crimes committed by Gaddafi’s forces was not only for the visual reminder of such triumph, but to emasculate the enemy though assertion  power over their “properties”, by identifying rape victims publicly to humiliate their families, towns and communities. Women, girls and boys are perceived as properties of the defeated that can be acquired by the defeater (Jurasz, 2011: 134).

The Impact of Conflict on Women in Libya

The condition of women in many conflict affected societies – such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria and Libya – shows just how women can lose many, if not all, of their constitutional and social rights during and/or after conflict at the hands of both old and new rulers (Al-Ali, 2005; Al-Ali&  Pratt, 2007; Hale, 2000).  Conflict and war, coupled with the rise of political Islam in the so called “Arab Spring” countries, further encouraged the prevalence and prolonging of sexualised and gender based violence to post-conflict periods. In addition to rape, sex-trafficking and forced-prostitution, the constitutionalisation or attempts to constitutionalise gender based violence against women and girls under religious guise, are characteristics of the conflict and post-conflict periods in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. They are the less visible forms of sexualised and gender based abuse and violence. The constitutionalisation of marital rape, child marriage and denying women their sexual and reproductive rights, the confinement of women to the private sphere, the restriction of their movement, the mandatory dress code, and the diminishing of women’s, economic and political rights, these are all different forms of the gender based violence women and girls face under the militarised and theocratic rule.

The case of Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Mujahidin and their American allies demonstrates how violence against women can take many forms, including constitutional gender discrimination, as Kandiyoti describes:

“The damage inflicted by Taliban decrees was extensive; whereas previously 70 per cent of teachers, almost half of civil servants and 40 per cent of doctors had been women, they were altogether banned from paid employment, including trade, and prohibited from leaving their homes without a mahram (an immediate male relative). For war widows who had become the sole breadwinners of their families, this meant levels of destitution that reduced many to begging or prostitution.” (Kandiyoti, 2005).

Armed conflicts and wars not only create a suitable climate for the continuation of sexual violence in transitional periods, but also encourage and create different forms of sexualised and gender based violence against women and girls.

The militarisation of the Libyan revolution was an indication of increase violence against women and men during and after the six months of the uprising. Sexual harassment in the streets, universities and workplace was/is accompanied by a widespread advocatory campaign for an Islamic dress-code mandate; publications and leaflets of images of what is claimed to be the Islamic dress for women have been disseminated in public offices, universities, hospitals and on the Internet.  Moreover, since the Islamic State (IS; ISIS; ISIL) declared its existence in Libya, the campaign of violence against women, and particularly women activists, has intensified.

On the 25th  June 2014 Salwa Bugaighis was assassinated in her home in Banghazi after she had participated in Libya’s general election; at the time Banghazi was a stronghold of Jihadist militants groups, Ansar Alsharia (an offshoot of Alqaida who pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014), claims responsibility for the killing campaign targeting the army, judges and activists. It is worth noting  that Salwa participated in many demonstrations against the armed militias and extremism in Banghazi and particularly, Ansar Alsharia.

On 18 July, Fariha Elbairkawi, a former member of the General National Congress was assassinated in her car in her home town Derna. Derna since 2011 became a strong hold of Ansar Alsharia.

S E, a third year medical student , was gunned down on 20th November 2014 in the Hay Alandalous area in Tripoli; eye witnesses said she was chased by a black car before five bullets were fired at her while driving. One bullet hit her head and consequently she lost control of her car and drove in to a wall. The same day, another woman was gunned down in the same area in Tripoli; both young women were driving their cars at the time of the shooting and had no head cover. These incidences came days after Ansar Alsharia, in Derna and Tripoli, pledged their allegiance to Islamic State (IS; ISIS; ISIL) Caliphate Albaghdadi; one cannot see such incident as  a coincidence when calls to prohibit women from driving in Derna were issued by Islamists since they declared Derna as an Islamic state back in May 2014, as activists from Darna confirmed .

The targeting of women and the campaign of terror launched by extremist to silence them has confined them to their homes and deprive them from basic human rights. This has been further encouraged by the situation in Tripoli today where the city became under the control of militias and their affiliates from the expired and dismantled GNC and their illegitimate government since July 2014. Such situation can be described as catastrophic with the outbreak of fighting, spread of killings and the brutal repression of human rights defenders and women.  Many activist, especially women, fled to neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, where they face the unknown with no resources.


Gaddafi’s appropriation of religion and patriarchy deprived women from enjoying full and equal citizenship, and limited their participation and representation in the public sphere, thus created system of oppression Libyan women today are battling against its legacy. Four decades of systematic objectification of women during Gaddafi’s rule, whether as “emancipated” militarised sex objects, or broken victims of social patriarchal stigma and imprisoned in rehabilitation house elbate elegetimaa’i   with no rights and dignity, such systematic subjectification has its profound impact on women’s status today in post-Gaddafi Libya. To dismantle such system, women need to deconstruct Neo-patriarchy and its roots that are deeply entrenched in patriarchal values.

In February 2011, Libyan women risen against Gaddafi’s dictatorship hopping for a transformation that will bring the democracy and prosperity they long aspired. The sought of transformation that will end repression, poverty and inequality. What came after the over through of Gaddafi was far from what they aspired. In addition to violence and conflict, they witnessed the systematic relapse of their rights under religious guise. Today they face the same system of oppression if not worst.

Libyan women’s bodies and conducts became the marker of the new religious identity of the state. The appropriation of religion and kinship by the new forces for political gains compromised women’s rights. Conflict and war pushed women’s interest and right to the margin as less important than stability. Women activists today face exile or assassination. However, since 2011 Libyan women entered the public space and formed civil society groups in unprecedented number.  Throughout the uprising many women’s groups began to emerge in the form of charities. Their objectives were limited to relief work aimed at raising money for Libyan refugees in Tunisia and the fighters on the frontline.  However, after liberation in October 2011, these groups started to take shape and both their interests and identities began to form and crystallize.

During the four decades of Gaddafi’s rule, Libyan women did not enjoy any of their fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, the freedom to demonstrate, freedom of assembly, political parties and associations, or any of the elements that encompass civil society. This was due to the absence of the constitutional reference, in which the civil rights of the individual are defined and protected; Gaddafi demolished the old Libyan constitution after he seized power in 1969. Thus an autonomous civil society did not exist during Gaddafi’s rule and is still not unreservedly autonomous after the 2011 uprising.

Since the 2012 election and in spite of the 33 women in the GNC, women in Libya have lost much of what they gained under Gaddafi’s rule. Polygamy now is free of all the restrictions previously placed upon it, Libyan women are prohibited from marring non-Libyan men, the public sphere has become very hostile to women and the very few services for victims of gender-based violence have disappeared altogether. Women’s interests and needs have not been represented in the GNC and policy initiatives concerning family law and violence against women have not been debated or brought to the GNC’s attention by female members. Thus, the political representation of the GNC female members can be described as descriptive but not substantive representation. The factors by which such representation is shaped are related heavily to political Islam and the Islamization of Libyan society since the spread of the Islamic revival in the region in the last two decades of the last century. Ideologically, most women interviewed share the same religious beliefs regardless of their party affiliation. Furthermore, the majority of women in the GNC are in favour of complementarity (takamul) and not total equality (muswat) between men and women, mainly because of their particular understanding of Islam. They firmly believe that total equality is not Islamic and are thus reluctant to accept UN conventions such as CEDAW. This, however, has come about as a result of the fierce campaign against gender equality and the UN conventions initiated by political Islam forces since the 2012 election. None of the women members of the GNC lack agency, however the general attitude towards feminism and gender equality is shaped by the political Islam discourse. The emphasis on gender complementarity (takamul) in lieu of total gender equality (muswat) is central to political Islam’s gender discourse. Thus, women’s political representation is limited by Islamic orthodoxy as a frame of reference. This frame of reference has been reinforced through the Islamization of the collective consciousness of the whole society since the late eighties, but also by force of arms and terror in post-Gaddafi era. Moreover, the political Islam forces since the overthrow of Gaddafi are benefiting from their control of the armed groups. They silence their opponents by the use of violence, especially against women. Civil society and women’s NGOs received no help or support from the NTC or both interim governments, thus the help of the international development agencies was significant to their work prior to the election. The hard work and determination of women in civil society and the international pressure to include women in the political arena resulted in the unprecedented participation of Libyan women in the 2012 GNC election. The agenda of the international funders and development agencies is not clear and more research is needed in this area; their help after the election can be perceived as distracting to the effort to unite women, by causing a rivalry and a competitive attitude among women’s NGOs when they enter bids for funds. Moreover, many of the projects funded after the election did not reflect the urgent need of Libyan women at this stage of their struggle for equality. The outcome of the partnership between Libyan NGOs and international partners varies and depends on the level of awareness of Libyan women themselves. However, a strong and autonomist women’s movement is absent in the Libyan case and the climate created by the international development agencies’ involvement in Libya is one of the obstacles preventing the formation of an autonomous women’s movement.

Party affiliation is strongly noticeable in the political representation of the female members of the MB party. The identical answers of seven female members to all of my questions indicate a strong party affiliation. On the other hand, the 27 female NFC members of the GNC whom I interviewed demonstrate some diversity. From standing totally against gender equality and praising the Sudanese and Somali example of refusing CEDAW to the extreme contrast of full support for all UN conventions on human and women’s rights, these are all opinions and principles held by female members of the same political party. However, social conservatism has a profound impact on women’s political representation and notion of equality at the legislative level. Moreover, a secular feminist approach is widely rejected and, as evidenced by my findings, would divide women when unity is of the essence; any attempt to improve women’s condition in Libya today will only be successful through one path: a new Islamic discourse, which will challenge the traditional jurisprudence fiqh and remove its sacredness to allow a contemporary and egalitarian interpretation of Islam. In the Libyan case, only Islamic feminism holds the key to defeating the gendered dominant discourse of political Islamic. Moreover, Islamic feminist discourse rejects the male dominated and misogynistic interpretation of the Qur’an and argues that true Islam is compatible with gender equality (muswat). Such discourse will have an impact on women’s political representation in post-Gaddafi Libya if combined with an autonomous women’s movement, political opportunities and political will.


Al-Ali, N., 2012. ‘Gendering the Arab Spring’, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5 (1). pp. 26-31.

Al-Ali, N. 2005. ‘Reconstructing Gender: Iraqi Women between Dictatorship, War, Sanctions and Occupation’, Third World Quarterly 26: 4: 733-752.

Al-Ali, N. and N. Pratt. 2009. What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Cdalibya, 2014,  Constitution Drafting Assembly, Available at: [Accessed 24 December 2014]

Hamzic, V. Mir-Hosseini, Z., 2010, Control and Sexuality: The Revival of Zina Law in Muslim Contexts, London: Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

HRW, 2012,  World Report: Libya, (Human Rights Watch: New York, January 2012), available at: [Accessed 20 April 2014]

HRW, 2011. Libya: Transitional Government Should Support Victims. HRW. Available at: [Accessed 20 August 2013]

Hosseini, Z., 1996. ‘Stretching the Limits: A Feminist Reading of the Shari’a in Post-Khomeini Iran’. In M. Yamani (ed.) Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. Reading: London, Ithaca Press.

Hosseini. Z., 2009, Islam and Gender: the Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, New York: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

Kandiyoti, D. ed., 1991a, Women, Islam and the State, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kandiyoti, D., 1991b, ‘Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 20: 3: 429-433.

Kandiyoti, D. ed., 1992. Introduction. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kandiyoti, D . 1988. ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, Gender and Society. Vol. 2, No. 3, September.

Kandiyoti, D., 2005. The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan. UNRISD Publication. Available at: [Accessed 20 November 2012]

Jurasz, O., 2013, Women of the Revolution: The Future of Women’s Rights in Post-Gaddafi Libya. In: Panara, C., and Wilson, G., ed. 2013. The Arab Spring: New Patterns for Democracy and International Law. Nijhoff . Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 123–144.

Report of the International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, (UN Human Rights Council: 1 June 2011), UN Doc. A/HRC/17/44, available at: (accessed 28 August 2014)

Tanasuh Foundation, 2013. Mo’atamar almara’a ila ien.Kalimat d Alsadiq Alghriani. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 March 2013]

Wueger, D. (2012). “Libya: Women Under Siege Project”, available at: [Accessed 2 September 2014]

Young, I. M. 2003. ‘The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Yuval-Davis, N. 1997. Gender and Nation. Sage, London.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here