By Andrea Backhaus
Libya is disintegrating into chaos and lawlessness. Women who stand up to those in charge of the country end up fearing for their lives, even though it is these very women who could bring stability to the country.
It could just as well have been her, says Rida al-Tubuly, adding that she is simply lucky to still be alive, lucky not to have been killed like Hanan al-Barassi.
It has been six weeks since the assassination of Hanan al-Barassi. For weeks afterwards, many people in Libya continued to express their outrage. People like the human rights activist Rida al-Tubuly, who lives and works in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and fights for a society where Libyan women can live in safety.
“People who question those in power in Libya are putting their lives at risk,” she says on the telephone. “This is especially true if you are a woman.“
Lawyer Hanan al-Barassi was assassinated on 10 November in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. It was the afternoon, and the 46-year-old had gone out to do some shopping.
She had just parked her car outside a shop when masked men stepped up to her car and shot her in the head. Human Rights Watch has described the assassination as a “cold-blooded execution”.
“Hanan al-Barassi was brave,” says Rida al-Tubuly. “She addressed even the thorniest topics.” Al-Barassi was vocal in her denunciation of the abuse of power by the ruling militias in her country.
She accused armed groups of sexual attacks and criticised the despotism of the warlords and those faithful to General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, which controls the eastern part of the country.
In response, she received death threats. On the day she was killed, al-Barassi hinted in a video that she would soon go public with details about the corrupt networks of one particular armed group. Prior to that, she had said that members of Haftar’s family were involved in corruption.
Rida al-Tubuly explains that in Libya, men are elevated to the important positions because they promise their supporters benefits. Women, on the other hand, stand up for things like human rights and the rule of law. “And for that, they receive threats.”All across the country.
A country disintegrating into chaos
Since the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya has been split down the middle. On the one side is the UN- and EU-recognised Government of National Accord under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the capital, Tripoli.
The GNA is also backed by Turkey and Italy. On the other is General Khalifa Haftar, who has the backing of a number of countries including Russia and, to a certain extent, France. Add to the mixture dozens of militias, clans, foreign mercenaries and Islamist groups that are all jostling for power.
Haftar’s rebels control large swathes of the country, ruling with an iron fist. For just under a year, Haftar’s troops advanced on Tripoli; in the summer, his offensive collapsed. But this did not bring the country any peace.
For years now, the reports coming from Libya have been grim: not only because the country is disintegrating into chaos and lawlessness, but also because people who have fled there from southern Africa are being tortured, abused and enslaved.
Little attention is, however, paid to the struggle of those Libyans who uncover wrongs, injustices and maladministration in Libya and want to see progress in their country – and who risk their lives to do so.
Branded a traitor
Rida al-Tubuly knows what that means. The 58-year-old human rights activist is professor of pharmacology at the University of Tripoli and has been working for equality for decades.
In 2011, she and three female students set up the organisation “Together We Build It”, which seeks to empower women to get involved in society and politics.
For example, Al-Tubuly and her colleagues are pushing the Libyan government to implement Resolution 1325, which was passed by the UN Security Council in the year 2000.
This resolution calls on countries to grant women in war zones an active role in peace-building and peace-keeping. “This resolution was the first time that it was officially acknowledged that although it is women who suffer most in wars and conflicts, they are generally excluded from the peace process,” says al-Tubuly.
She says that it is not easy to remind the government that it is bound by the resolution.
Last year, al-Tubuly spoke to the UN Security Council in New York about the precarious situation of Libyan women. In her speech, she criticised the men in positions of power in both the east and the west of the country.
She told the council that the assassination of women politicians and activists was an everyday occurrence under both leaderships, and that women were being excluded from social and political life. For this, she received death threats in her native country.
The Libyan television channel Alhadat even dismissed her as a spy and a traitor. Even acquaintances phoned her up and asked her whether it was true that she was an agent.
Death threats are an everyday occurrence for many women
There is violence against women all across Libya. However, it would seem that in the east of Libya in particular, women are exposed to intimidation and violence when they take a stand against the powers that be.
In July 2019, Siham Sergiwa was abducted from her home in Benghazi by armed men, allegedly men with links to Haftar’s army. Sergiwa was a member of the House of Representatives in Tobruk.
Human rights organisations consider her abduction to be a politically motivated act. Prior to her abduction, Sergiwa had openly criticised Haftar’s military offensive against Tripoli.
To this day, no one knows what happened to her. A few years previously, in June 2014, the renowned human rights lawyer Salwa Bughaighis was shot dead by unidentified men in her home in Benghazi.
In the following month, July 2014, politician Fariha al-Barkawi, the representative of Derna in north-eastern Libya in the General National Congress, was killed. She had condemned the assassination of Salwa Bughaighis in the strongest terms.
Following the assassination of Hanan al-Barassi, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL, called on the authorities in the east of the country to promptly bring the perpetrators to justice.
But hardly anyone in Libya believes this will ever happen. Not one of the men who have killed or abducted women in recent years have been sentenced or punished. The crimes were never even investigated.
Laila Mughrabi, a human rights lawyer who had to flee Libya because of the threats against her life, once told Amnesty International in an interview that the Libyan authorities and society often attribute the assassination of women to things like theft, inheritance and honour killings.
“Perceiving these women as equal political actors is not an option” for the authorities, she went on to say, adding “their assassinations are then boiled down to criminality and nothing more.“
Marwa Mohamed, who works for the Libyan human rights organisation Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL), believes that there is a reason why such violence against women in possible: “There is complete impunity in Libya.”
Mohamed, who currently lives in London, left Libya in 2014. “When every aspect of the rule of law disappears in a country, this has a very real impact on the lives of the people who live there,” says Mohamed on the phone.
She goes on to say that while things have never been easy for women in Libya, it is now more dangerous than ever before. “We have seen the consequences it can have when prominent women are not afraid to voice their opinion.“
Mohamed says that many women have withdrawn because of the targeted violence and also because of the threats received on online platforms and the smear campaigns that are intended to destroy a woman’s reputation – both forms of violence that target women in particular.
According to Mohamed, the security risks are real. But, she adds, the prevailing climate prevents women from expressing themselves in public or running for political office. “There is this narrative that says women don’t want to be in the public eye because they fear for their safety,” says Mohamed. “But that’s not true. Women should have the opportunity to make this decision for themselves.“
Hopes dashed of more freedom for women
When Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, many women held very high hopes for the future. They hoped that they would become more visible in a freer society; that they would be able to take up the places in society that their qualifications entitled them to.
Many Libyan women are very well educated. Before the war, almost as many women as men held bachelor’s degrees or higher.
Nevertheless, it is traditionally very difficult for women to find skilled employment, because they live in a society where the work done by a woman is not held in the same regard as the work done by a man and because many of them live in rural regions where there is the strong conviction that a woman’s place is in the home.
In many families, there is no room for wives, daughters or sisters to voice opinions on political matters. For decades, the state required women to remain silent.
While there was more security under Gaddafi, says Mohamed, and women could move freely about the country, “we had no civil society.” Nor were they actively involved in public or political life. “That is another reason why there was a revolution.“
But the transition process after the overthrow of Gaddafi became increasingly overshadowed by violence that pushed women further and further to the sidelines, says human rights activist Rida al-Tubuly.
Every one of the people who then took hold of the reins of power were men. Islamist extremists flooded into the country and tried to ban women from public life.
Wherever they were in power, they launched campaigns to ban women from driving cars or travelling alone. At the same time, the number of militias grew. Some of them were more religious, others less so, but to this day, all of them continue to undermine state control.
There are too many militias and too many guns, says al-Tubuly. “And the militias rule like the mafia.” Young men join the militias because they get paid by them and can do what they like with impunity. “If you are part of a militia, you have power,” says al-Tubuly. “You are protected. You have a network.”
Women, on the other hand, she says, did not want to found militias or shoot at each other. Nor were they, in most cases, supported by the influential clans because the clan leaders preferred to see women at the kitchen sink.
On the road to peace?
It is hugely important that women are adequately represented in politics and administration, especially now when there is the prospect of something like peace in Libya.
In October, al-Sarraj and Haftar agreed to a cease-fire. According to the terms of the agreement, all foreign fighters have to leave the country.
In addition, 75 representatives of Libya from the fields of politics, the military and civil society are currently negotiating the future of the country in a dialogue forum under UN leadership.
So far, the delegates have agreed that elections will be held in December 2021. At the same time, negotiations in the Libyan port city of Sirte are being held to hammer out the details of the ceasefire.
Even if all this sounds like a massive improvement in the peace process that stalled for several years, many observers are only mildly optimistic.
They are critical of the fact that the composition of the dialogue forum does not represent the Libyan people: the delegates were selected by the UN and not by Libyans themselves.
What’s more, many of the delegates have no real influence on the balance of power. Many groups in Libya have already said that they will not recognise any agreements reached by the forum.
It also remains to be seen whether the basic conflicts can be resolved so quickly: the clan feuds, for example; the fight for oil and money; the large numbers of militias and mercenaries that have not yet been willing to withdraw; the weapons that continue to be smuggled into the country.
No stability without women
There is one major perspective missing from these negotiations: the perspective of Libyan women.
Of the 75 delegates who are discussing Libya’s future, there are 17 women. This, says Marwa Mohamed, is “a good number, but not yet enough.” Many of those who are currently steering the peace process are not interested in handing over more power to Libyan women.
“It is not enough to have a few women sitting around the table,” says Mohamed. “We must ensure that women are really involved in the political process and hold key positions in government.“
Moreover, she adds, key freedoms must be ensured if free and fair elections are to be held in one year’s time. These freedoms include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of participation.
Mohamed says that Libya is a far cry from all that at the moment. “Hanan al-Barassi was killed in Benghazi in broad daylight, while the UN-led delegation was discussing Libya’s future,” says Mohamed. This shows the contradiction between what is being discussed in theory and what is happening on the ground in the country.”
Professor Rida al-Tubuly agrees. Many politicians in Libya and representatives of international organisations are of the opinion that peace and stability in Libya should be ensured before talking about women. “But there can be no stability unless women are directly involved,” says al-Tubuly.
She says that she is constantly hearing people say that Libyan women are not qualified enough to assume positions of responsibility. Whenever she hears this, she gives the same reply: “If the men of Libya were so qualified, we would not have had this chaos for the last ten years.“
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Andrea Backhaus – Journalist | Middle East, war & conflict, and beyond | Formerly based in Egypt.