By Intissar Rajabany
International Women’s Day is a fraction of time, specifically set aside to rejoice in and praise the economic, political, cultural and social achievements of women at a global scale not witnessed during the rest of the year. It also provides an outlet to mobilize for gender parity.
Each year focuses on a specific theme. This year we are invited to challenge for change.
The last time I wrote about this special day in 2017, was to highlight the resilience of Libyan women, and I concluded that “even the tiniest step – that may be perceived as hardly noticeable – is for some of us, very bold.”
I come from the premise that historically women in Libya, do have a record of active involvement in the economic, political, cultural, and social development of the country.
There have been and continue to be pioneers who have chosen to challenge, oftentimes slowly, by operating in a way that aims to yield the best possible results without disrupting their local context.
Regardless of how humble these results have turned out they still happened, and each successive wave paved the way for the next group of women.
I like to keep that perspective in mind when pondering the topic of women’s empowerment in Libya, i.e. for Libyan women to enjoy equal opportunity and participation.
I have had the honour to be at the forefront of the movement for women’s economic empowerment in the last decade through USAID’s Libya Economic Empowerment (LEE) programme which supported economic entrepreneurial opportunities targeting women.
The project ended in March 2020 and I have had a year to reflect on its journey, impact and lessons learnt and observations.
Despite substantial progress in recent decades, labour markets across the world remain divided along gender lines. Women participation in the labour force remains lower than men, while women are overrepresented in the informal sector and a higher percentage of them are poor.
Legal restrictions still hamper women in a sizeable number of countries from reaching their full economic potential and the global conversation about gender wage gap has still not been resolved. Libya is no stranger to any of this with the added factor of a decade of civil war.
Women’s economic participation is a vital component of growth and stability in any country; being an oil producing country does not make it less so. The economic system under Gaddafi was highly centralized focusing on the oil industry. Private sector endeavours and entrepreneurship were neither valued nor fostered.
If the Libyan non-oil sector has knowledgeable and competitive businesswomen who operate successful and job-creating enterprises, and they have a better business support environment, adequate training, networking, and market linkages, then the private sector will be strengthened, and the economic empowerment of Libyan women will be improved.
LEE contributed to this theory by providing basic business skills training to women at the start-up level, and intermediate to advanced skills training and market linkages activities to existing or aspiring entrepreneurs.
Throughout this project I met an array of awesome strong, talented and vibrant women of all ages and all levels of educations from all over Libya.
These women were implementing partners, trainers, participants in the programme, government officials, inspirational guests, family members of participants, vendors and staff members.
Their common denominators were passion and determination to achieve their dream. Even after a long time passed since the closure of the project the vast majority of women participants contacted were able to provide concrete examples of how the training had helped them further their careers or businesses.
In cases when individuals participated in a series of linked trainings, the cumulative benefits of multiple trainings were consistently reported.
Even when they may not have had the opportunity to use the skills learned the women shared with us that they were passing on these skills to others.
I am blessed to have crossed their path and to have been part of that community which reached 45,000 individuals strong at some point. My life is so much the richer from their cumulative wisdom. But the woman who touched me to the core was the mother of a young female participant.
She was in her 60s, unable to read or write, but insisted on attending the entrepreneurship business skills training with her daughter. As a gesture of goodwill and because we still had the space, we allowed her to attend and found she was one of the most active participants with so much wisdom to share. She ended up submitting a project which was disqualified only because she was not the target age.
The demand for economic empowerment programming in Libya remains high; after all according to the most recent report from the World Bank – which has data up to 2019 – 34.1 % is the percentage of the females aged 15-64 in the total labour force in Libya.
From my experience, in the past years there has been a major programming shift to focus on youth as being the hope of change and improvement in the society.
If I have the opportunity and the latitude to work again on economic empowerment, I would make it a point to target not only youth but more mature elements of the society.
The senior women still have so much to give to build this country and so many dreams of their own to achieve. They are more importantly the keepers of large swaths of industrial and artisanal knowledge that maybe lost if not developed or preserved properly through modern business processes. Some of the more unusual projects – not necessarily from the traditionally pink sector – had come from older women.
Another observation made was that to effectively support women’s empowerment, economic or otherwise young men should be part of the empowerment programming but also older men who have championed women’s rights. When done correctly both would form the backbone of support and gender equality to the women.
This past decade has given us the opportunity to get to know many contemporary Libyan women who have been trailblazers in their own right, some young and others more mature, but it also enabled us to get reacquainted with earlier heroines who made contributions that have been sidestepped or whitewashed from history.
In a discussion I was following on social media recently, one commenter said the term “women who make a historical change” can only be described for women who make a massive impact like receiving a Nobel prize, literally award, change the course of history, scientific invention etc.. and not a woman who has completed her education or made it as the first minister of defence or the first to graduate from engineering school.
That is just normal. ( NOT !)
He forgot that for us to be where we are now there must have been other women for whom this was all a first. He was booed by many on the forum, but he was also supported by like minded men.
I kept wondering if his negative comment would have been the same had we been talking about men’s achievements.
Libyan women should feel proud of their achievements whether they are personal or on a large scale. These achievements deserve to be celebrated after all they have been undertaken against major challenges and sacrifices.
Intissar K. Rajabany is a development professional with over 15 years of experience designing and implementing projects in the MENA region focused on social change, women and youth empowerment, inclusive economic growth, and private sector facilitation.
Libyan Women; The Guardians of Tradition
International Women’s Day is dedicated to the social, cultural, political, academic and economic achievements and contributions of women and young girls.
Every day, Libyan women continue to shape and carry our society in more ways than we can imagine. Despite the many challenges and barriers that Libyan women face, they continue to maintain their eloquence and strength.
The importance of women in the work and domestic sphere is undeniable and crucial. And as we continue to recognize their work and achievements, we should also acknowledge that Libyan women are the guardians of tradition and culture.
When I think about Libyan culture, I envision my mom in the kitchen making aseeda, the delicious Libyan couscous on Friday’s, the elaborate and beautiful patterns of Henna during celebrations and the exquisite, glamorous badla arbiya.
I picture my grandmother’s facial tattoos that served as a stamp, marking her Libyan identity. I think of my mother telling me stories of our family and teaching me how to speak Arabic amongst many other things. When I think about being Libyan, I think about the community of women who raised me and taught me about my culture and identity.
As I grow older, I begin to realize that Libyan women have engraved their mark on every aspect of Libyan society. From the language, to the food, fashion and work place, Libyan women play an essential role in defining what it means to be Libyan.
Witnessing many accomplished Libyan women in the workforce opened my eyes to how powerful Libyan women are. Despite the social pressures and stigmas, Libyan women are breaking barriers and demonstrating that for those who choose to do both; a work-life balance is definitely achievable.
To the world, Libyan women are a mystery, hidden in the shadows as the men have been prevalent leaders in society. But it is the women who are the real role models and influencers, having a significant impact on Libyan culture.
As the world begins to see more women representation, Libyan women are also fighting for their voice to be heard. From protesting alongside men during the 2011 revolution to occupying positions in government, it is evident that these women are hungry for change.
Gendered discrimination continues to inhibit women, but slowly and silently we are seeing Libyan women challenge the status-quo.
Local customs and traditions are transforming, but in order to eliminate systemic barriers to ensure Libyan women are realizing their full potential, it is crucial that we continue to support their endeavours and advocate for gender equality and representation.
When we empower women, our society will also thrive but if we fail to tackle these ongoing issues surrounding gender inequality, our society will continue to face several challenges.
We must celebrate all the women who take on incredible challenges and whose stories and work are shaping Libyan culture. Every woman should be able to lead a life that she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful and oppressive customs and norms.
As Libyan women are a beacon of hope; paving the way for others and demonstrating that they have always been and continue to be leaders in our society.
As I grow older and the responsibility of sharing my culture and knowledge with the next generation nears, I realize it is up to me and my generation to redefine what being Libyan is about.
This is why it is critical for us as Libyans to acknowledge that we are part of a beautiful culture, with a very rich history and so much potential to thrive. However, there are many harmful customs and cultural norms that inhibit us from reaching this potential.
Coming together as a community to empower women will establish new traditions and norms that will empower the next generation and create positive change.
Esra Bengizi was born in Benghazi, Libya and immigrated to Toronto, Canada as a child. She is a PhD student at the University of Toronto where her research interests are in post-colonial and feminist studies. Most of her academic and personal work are centred around the topics of social justice and women empowerment.