Despite experiencing significant political and social instability in recent years, Libya is a country in which women are continuing to achieve above-average rates of higher education when compared to countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
However, even when acquiring what is necessary to “make it”, Libyan women still struggle to attain the same levels of employment, pay and access to senior positions as their male counterparts.
Above all else, one thing is clear: Libyan women are highly educated. The majority of college graduates in the country are women, with 77 percent pursuing higher education courses, compared to 63 percent of men, according to a September 2013 report by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).
However, the problems seem to arise after graduation, with only 43 percent of women gaining official employment.
“The issue is not education, it’s that following on from education, we have this drastic decrease where a lot of women are not entering the formal workforce,” said Alaa Murabit from her home in Zawiyah, a city in northwest Libya.
Murabit is the founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, a non-profit organisation that works to improve political participation and economic empowerment for women.
Murabit, a doctor, says there are a few reasons for this decrease, one of which is that many women choose to work from home in order to accommodate their families’ needs.
“Most women will choose jobs that allow for them to have a family life – they will start at-home businesses. Those who start these businesses, where they are making sweets or have a sewing business, that’s not seen as part of the formal economy; they are not officially part of the Libyan work force. And it’s a large group of women who choose to work that way,” explains Murabit.
According to recent figures, only 20 percent of women in Libya take part in civic or political activity of any kind.
Of Libya’s working women, 73 percent choose careers in education or medicine. Hikmat Kmishi is the coordinator of Women for Democratic Transformation (WDT), a Tripoli-based network that encourages prospective female politicians. She affirmed that women tend to work in two main sectors.
“Most women become doctors or teachers. We certainly don’t have many female politicians,” explains Kmishi, who holds cultural factors responsible for this trend.
A lot of times when customers have issues, they will say 'I want to talk to the manager,' but they don't realise I am the manager, and it's usually satisfying for me to tell them that.
“Women are not traditionally in the public sphere, and while they are given jobs, rarely are they put in decision-making positions. It’s the mindset, people still think women can’t do a lot.”
Kmishi is one of many women who think that cultural practices are negatively affecting the female workforce, and it’s a factor that arises for Libyan women in various sectors.
Assia Amry works for Aramex, a global logistics and transportation provider. She is the manager of their Tripoli branch. She grew up in the US but moved to Libya in June 2012 with her father, who had been part of an anti-Gaddafi dissident movement.
“My team are all men,” says Amry. “At first I think they were amused at the idea of being led by a woman, but [they] eventually accepted it … and it’s great.”
Amry explained that while there are some women in managerial positions in Libya, senior roles are overwhelmingly awarded to men. As a result, female employees can at times be overlooked. “The biggest challenge is with customers,” she said.
“A lot of times when customers have issues, they will say ‘I want to talk to the manager,’ but they don’t realise I am the manager, and it’s usually satisfying for me to tell them that.”
The number of women working in Libya’s private sector is low at nine percent, but not necessarily because women are actively being discouraged to enter the work force, according to Amry.
“It’s not because in Libyan culture, women are taught not to achieve, or work; I just think Libya, in all aspects, is evolving… Libyan women are go-getters, they are looking for opportunities.”
Beyond pre-existing social factors, Libya’s ongoing political turmoil has restricted freedom of movement for women across the country and in turn, discouraged women from entering politics.
Noor El Huda Gleasa, 23, is a communications manager for Creative International Associates, an NGO that facilitates voter education and promotes civic engagement.
She works across 16 different cities in Libya. “If a woman wants to work in politics or in a job that’s in the spotlight, the security issues they face are much more severe than men,” Gleasa told Al Jazeera. “It puts women in an incredibly difficult position.”
Similarly, Hanan Salah, the Libya Researcher for Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the ongoing conflict and lack of security across the country is the main issue affecting Libyan women’s ability to work.
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“There have been several instances this past year where, due to the complete lack of law and order in parts of Libya, various militias and individuals are taking matters into their own hands by trying to prohibit women from travelling on their own without a male companion,” Salah told Al Jazeera.
“Some militias have been harassing women on university campuses. We have examples of women who have been forced to stop their studies because of the impunity that these militias and individuals are benefiting from.”
In short, the instability that has spread across Libya means that women’s basic physical access to employment has been affected and this impacts the careers they pursue.
“The reason a lot of women choose to be teachers isn’t because they all had a particularly strong desire to be teachers, but it’s because schools are everywhere and are easily accessible,” Murabit said.
“For women who don’t have a husband or brother who will drive them everywhere, it’s very difficult for them to have a corporate job downtown, because they would need transportation and Libyan public transportation is very poor.”
Murabit said this issue could easily be solved if the Libyan government invested in safe public transportation for women as well as establishing more locally based occupations.
“There is a heavy reliance on what is a local and safe job, and these are primarily as educators, which is great for our future generations – but Libya now has an influx of teachers and not many women working in other fields.”
Women in Libya are now looking ahead to a new constitution that is currently being drafted by the parliament in Tripoli and is scheduled to be issued in December.
While women’s rights groups are pushing for a quota system to ensure they have a significant presence in the new parliament, the country’s younger generation is determined to secure their place in Libya’s future.
“I really hope the new constitution is up to our standards,” said Gleasa. “And if it’s not, well, I know Libyan women won’t stay quiet about it for long.”