By Khadeja Ramali and Tim Eaton
Libya is in the midst of its third bout of civil war in less than a decade, with no near end in sight. However, women found ways to adjust.
Years of economic decline, governance chaos and conflict have had a deep impact on the country’s social fabric, and on the relations between and within its communities.
These developments have had a major effect on the lives of women and girls, whose physical security has been threatened, their mobility curtailed and employment opportunities reduced.
But the period has also seen women find ways of adjusting, by starting their own businesses, pushing back against social restrictions imposed by conservative armed groups, and continuing to seek a voice in the political process.
Impact on security and mobility
While local armed groups are often denounced as undisciplined militias at the root of Libya’s problems, women interviewed for a Chatham House project said the fact that many armed groups were local and had a close relationship with their community was important to them.
This meant that there were rules that they knew they had to abide by. ‘There is a line the local groups won’t cross if you’re from the area. They live in the same neighbourhood and have to respect the community,’ said Sarah*, who lives in the Tripoli suburb of Suq al-Jumaa.
‘In a perfect world, of course, I’d prefer an official police and army [to be present] but that’s very hard to find right now.’
Interviewees from the Suq al-Jumaa and Abu Slim districts of the capital, Tripoli, felt that they would always be able to find someone they knew in the armed groups that are dominant in their area to help them out if they required assistance.
‘Security isn’t terrible but I feel it has changed, the previous groups who secured the city were from the community, now there is less trust,’ Maram from the central oasis town of Hun told the Chatham House interviewer.
‘You can’t tell where the armed groups are originally from.’ She stated that she felt less safe and didn’t trust the new security forces in Hun because they hailed from outside the area.
This is further reflected by the fact that women interviewed reported feeling more comfortable travelling between areas they were more familiar with or that were run by armed groups who had a connection to the area.
In areas that had previously been under the control of local forces, the introduction of outside forces is met with trepidation. Maram felt that the city was relatively safe and closed off from external interferences prior to the entrance into the city of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), an alliance of armed groups mostly from eastern Libya that operate under the command of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
However, after the LAAF established their positions in the city, new LAAF-connected families had moved there, which had changed the dynamics said Maram.
Areas controlled by lesser known militias are seen as unpredictable, and are consequently avoided by women. This was because there was limited prospect of those groups being held to some level of accountability.
Sarah from Suq al-Jumaa noted the importance of the existence of ‘a code for dealing with women’ to be present. For many Libyan women, any indication of improper treatment or behaviour can lead to social stigma, and is consequently a major consideration over their movements.
Others see the LAAF differently.
‘We had multiple assassinations and killings every day and we were helpless, security has significantly improved after LAAF were in control,’ says Sorour who lives in Benghazi.
‘It’s not even comparable, I have a life again’. Of course, the relationship of particular communities (and constituencies in those communities) to warring factions plays a big role. These vary across the country.
In the east of the country, there was agreement that the LAAF consolidation of control had contributed to improvements in security, making it easier for women to travel. In this regard, the LAAF’s arrival in the south was perceived positively by interviewees who said it had resulted in an improvement in security and decreased criminal activity in the area.
Female interviewees in Sebha, the capital of the southern Fezzan region which has been subject to ongoing power struggles, welcomed the return of regime-era army and police officers to their jobs in 2019 as part of the LAAF expansion into the south.
The interviewees saw these regime-era elements as more professional and legitimate – evoking memories of a more stable and safer time – than the armed groups that had replaced them.
‘Sebha had become a crime hotspot, we had it all, kidnapping, murder, robbery. It was dangerous to go out alone, so we’d go out in groups for protection,’ bemoaned Najwa, who lives in the city, before remarking on the progress made.
‘I had to travel to work in a group to feel safe [before], but now I am able to go to my job without any fear.’
Yet, interviewees also acknowledged that LAAF control in the east has been accompanied by a limitation in freedom of expression, and that mobility for women remains conditional.
‘In order to get a security approval for me to travel, my brother had to say I was going for a health treatment and my family was picking me up on the other side,’ complained Abir, from the city of Tobruk near the Libyan-Egyptian border.
She explained that even though women were allowed to travel after the ban, she still had to lie about the reasons for travelling, such as pretending the trip was needed for medical treatment or to attend a family gathering, to avoid further scrutiny by LAAF forces.
There was an illusion of freedom that could disappear at any moment, she reflected.
Impact on livelihood
The challenges of moving around have a deep impact on women’s ability to access employment. In the south, movement is largely restricted to the urban centres despite improvements in security.
In Sebha, for example, many new businesses and local organizations have relocated to newer neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city that have undergone a construction boom. Yet, women were nervous about leaving central areas.
One interviewee said that she rejected a job offer in the new area of Sebha due to the distance from her home and the uncertainties of the route: ‘It’s fine if I needed to go there once or twice, but to go there every day would make me a target and I’d put myself in unnecessary risk, it’s still not secure.’
Women have found innovative ways around these constraints by starting their own businesses. In particular, they have turned to opening catering and food related services, sewing factories, and work as distributors to shops.
Examples include Naksha art, started by a Libyan architect to sell drawings and sketches online, and Fashion House, a clothes boutique that also teaches women how to sew.
Women have been particularly innovative in establishing businesses that they can operate from their homes, reducing the need to travel.
‘Before the cash crisis, some women would get their salaries while they sat at home. Now that’s not possible anymore. A woman must work to be able to support her family. Starting a business became something to brag about now.’ says Najwa from Sebha.
Female entrepreneurship was previously stigmatized as it was seen as a reflection of the failure of men in the family to earn sufficient income. However it is now increasingly accepted in major urban centres, interviewees report, because there is a clear need for cash in the current difficult economic climate.
This provides the opportunity for women to have a larger role outside the home, yet further protections are needed to sustain these advances.
Most of these businesses run by women are part of the informal economy. They are not eligible for state assistance and won’t have access to legal protections in the future.
This will hinder their owners from being able to grow their businesses in the future, and would benefit from legal support and access to finance to help them transition into the formal economy.
NGOs are seeking to provide this support. ‘LEAP – a women’s entrepreneurship incubator has really helped me with advice and allowed me to create a business plan in addition to giving me a safe space to work,’ says Huda, a young entrepreneur who is setting up an agriculture business in her hometown.
Initiatives like LEAP that are embedded within the community allow women to gain access to advice and expertise that would otherwise be too expensive to access on their own.
khadeja Ramali is a social data researcher and social media analyst with a focus on Libya/Mena.
Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow with Chatham House’s MENA Programme. His research focuses on the political economy of the Libyan conflict.