Tripoli, Libya – Buoyed by the winds of change sweeping the region, Libyan women are eyeing a far greater role for themselves after next month’s national assembly elections.
The June 19 poll – the first since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi – will see the country electing 200 candidates to the body that will draft the country’s constitution.
Recent polls in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia have had mixed results for women, and the lessons are not lost on their Libyan counterparts.
In Egypt, parliamentary elections saw less than two per cent of the seats go to women – eight seats, compared to the 64 guaranteed to them by law. It was somewhat better in Tunisia, with 49 women getting elected. However, 42 of the 49 belong to the same party, Ennahda, so the extent to which these legislators represent the face of Tunisian women is questionable.
Halloum al-Fallah, an independent candidate hopeful from the eastern city of Benghazi, said Libyan women are taking lessons from the Arab Spring in terms of how to fight for their place in politics.
“We are learning from the mistakes in Egypt and Tunisia, but also learning from what other countries are doing well,” said Fallah.
New election rules for the 200 seats up for grabs have reserved 80 seats for parties and 120 for independents.
|Women rush to question election official Abdulla Fortia after he speaks about the rules for the polls [Al Jazeera/D. Parvaz]
The candidate list submitted by political parties must contain an equal number of men and women – 40 seats for each – meaning that women could make up at least 20 per cent of the assembly.
There are no limits as to how many women can run as independents, so what will come of the 120 seats is also uncertain.
“The problem right now is that there is no flow of information, not even about how many women have applied to be candidates. We don’t have a system of information sharing, or who is doing what, where they are. All we know is that there are positive indications that there are many female candidates,” said Farida Allaghi, a rights activist who is coaching potential female candidates on how to debate and present their campaign platforms.
“Even if women don’t win, it’s the beginning of a new journey for women’s political participation.”
Given that political parties need women on their ballots in order to be eligible for the elections, there is a possibility that parties might approach women who will simply follow the fold rather than push to elevate the status of women in Libya.
“Some political parties will put women on the ballot to get more votes or to be accepted. If I’m elected, I will have to do my bit to motivate them to contribute and to be ambitious,” said Salma Ahmed Abu-Zadah, a legal consultant to the military council and potential candidate for Free Democratic Bloc Party, adding that as long as there are women in the assembly, they will work to ensure women’s rights are included in the constitution.
“Women’s role now is different than it was before, when [Gaddafi] used women to fill seats, to use them for his image… contributing to his regime.”
The general vibe among women, many of whom found a new place in the community in the course of the revolution, is one of optimism.
Ayshe Rouemi, who hopes to be a candidate for the United for the Nation party, said that since the revolution, “when the chains and shackles were broken”, Libyan women have been confident that they will be included in the country’s power structure.
“Political parties are looking for women now and women can refuse their offers if we are not happy with their place – we can insist that they be put on the top of the ballot,” said Rouemi.
“Just the idea [of] them looking for women for fear of being rejected without us is a good sign.”
The changed circumstances have thrown open new opportunities for many.
Nourah Ali Salem El-Hebashi, from Tarhouna – 100km south of Tripoli – applied to run as an independent candidate.
“I am the only person to be nominated to be a candidate from my community – they encouraged me to run,” said Hebashi.
There are concerns, however, that a single party, possibly the Muslim Brotherhood, will execute a power-grab as in Egypt, sidelining women.
“In Libya, the only way you’re going to get rights is through religion,” said Alaa Murabit, the founder of the Voice of Libyan Women, a women’s empowerment and development NGO in Libya.
|Majda Fallah, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, said women should participate in politics [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]
Murabit’s is one of the groups helping women realise their political aspirations by organising events that include workshops with female politicians from other countries as speakers.
One of the Libyan women on the list of speakers of the group’s event earlier this week was Majda Fallah, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s shura council and head of the department of combating diabetes and obesity at the national centre for disease control.
“We want women to participate, and for her participation in a political party to be a real one and a true one, and not to just as a picture, so to speak, or someone who has no effective role,” said Fallah.
“The right understanding of Islam was absent for a while and we want to revive the right understanding of Islam – that women have the right to participate in aspects of life.”
Murabit said Fallah’s message was very important as it countered the idea that Muslim women getting involved in politics risked “all hellfire”.
Fouad Hamdan, who is coaching some of the women who have applied for candidacy on how to effectively campaign, said he believes the women have what it takes to win.
“All of these women up there, they can do… and just for your information all of them [the potential ones attending his workshop] have been asked by men to become candidates… because Libyan men are not so retarded as many think they are. On the contrary, they are much more relaxed and open about women taking such a position in society.”
He said that there are exceptions, and that women will no doubt face some challenges in Libya, which is “a conservative society after all”.
“Let me start with the challenges all of them will have, men and women, because that’s the main problem. None of them in this country has political experience, experience in speaking to the media, experience in debating, discussing and listening without freaking out and becoming emotional,” said Hamdan.
“It is basically starting from zero… it’s learning by suffering, but you know, I envy them. It’s so beautiful. It’s so pure.”
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz