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Five Questions With Libyan Women Leaders

The Women and Foreign Policy program interviewed five Libyan peace activists to hear about how Libyan women have contributed to the peace process and how international actors can better support them.   
Libyan women participate in a protest in Misrata against the government after not receiving enough support following the deaths of family members due to the conflict.
Libyan women participate in a protest in Misrata against the government after not receiving enough support following the deaths of family members due to the conflict. Ayman Al-Sahili/REUTERS

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on women's leadership in peacebuilding and nonviolent movements, in which CFR fellows, scholars, and practitioners highlight new security strategies. The following interview is with five Libyan peace activists: Mabrouka Al-Kamaty, Libyan Women Elected Officials Network; Lubna Al-Beshari, ACTED (former); Rabia Abu Ras, Libyan House of Representatives; Lamees Bensaad, University of Tripoli; and Estabraq El-Hweti, Civil Democratic Bloc. 

1. How have women formally and informally participated in the Libyan peace process and in peacebuilding efforts? How many women are at the negotiation table?

Lamees: I was a member of civil society before I joined the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), and I did a lot of work regarding mediation and reconciliations. As women mediators, there was a lot of success, usually at the local level where there are many stories of women trying to bring different parties together. Before the LPDF, women were usually excluded from the negotiation table during formal meetings, and we advocated for women's inclusion, but unfortunately, no one would listen. There were just promises. There was UN Resolution 1325, but it wasn't applied in our case until recently. I have to pay tribute to Stephanie Williams [former acting special representative of the secretary-general for Libya], who included around 23 percent of women at the negotiation table.

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Lubna [translated from Arabic]: After the fall of the regime, we were disorganized and we didn’t know how to work formally in civil society, but in an unofficial capacity, we worked very hard. When the war started, women were always trying to bring all sides to the table. It was at that point, at the local level, where women were part of these efforts alongside men as well. As soon as formal negotiations started, it was only men at the table. At the negotiations in Skhirat, there were only men at the negotiating table, and there was actually a separate table for women in Tunis, even though women were in all the dialogues since the beginning. It was not easy for Libyan women, because they suffered from a lot of conservative societal pressure—including the assassination of politician Fariha Barkaoui, and recently, lawyer Hanan Al-Barassi. The last negotiations did not live up to our aspirations. However, we're happy that women have a quota now, and we have accomplished a lot because we're standing as one together.

Estabraq [translated from Arabic]: International organizations are unaware of how hard it is for Libyan women to be involved in politics and the public sector. They are considered dishonorable women and are shamed for what they do. Many of them are assaulted, assassinated, and bullied—especially on social media. General society stands with bullies because women’s public participation goes against societal norms, especially in the current tribal and military atmosphere. Ms. Najla Mangoush, now that she has been appointed [Foreign] Minister, has shown everyone that a woman can lead.

Rabia [translated from Arabic]: I was an activist in civil society before I was a member of the House of Representatives. It is true that women entered civil work, but they did not go for the big roles or the political leadership roles. Media had a very strong effect; the women had their roles and stances politicized, which affected their work. And the assassinations also affected their work greatly.

While many women worked on the reconciliation process, their participation was not that deep—they did not touch on deep-rooted problems. On the official side, women in the House of Representatives did not live the political life that politicians usually live because of division and wars. For example, Seham Sergiwa is still missing. The only thing she did is object to the idea of war. This caused a reduced role of women in parliament, where women were not able to take any stance or to ask for any decisions anymore.  However, women changed the environment with the LPDF. Women were able to bravely broach subjects that even men were not able to, such as transitional justice and political negotiations.

2. We see in other peace processes that women’s inclusion can sometimes broaden the agenda. What have Libyan women added to the peace process?

Rabia [translated from Arabic]: In terms of transitional justice, we wanted to talk about human rights violations in all regions of Libya. But we had people from the ex-regime, Haftar supporters, people from the Burkan group, and Islamists who didn’t want to broach that subject because they were suspicious, or they didn't want it to happen, or they thought it was going to be held against them.

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The men were not working towards the roadmap; they only wanted to plan out how to distribute power, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It was women who pushed for the roadmap, along with other independent young men who worked with them. The women said there will not be reconciliation without transitional justice or accountability. There cannot be immunity for parties who have committed the crimes; for example, women asked that the next government not have any military personnel. But in the end, women did not win because the votes of men outnumbered women’s votes.

3. Are the women participating in the national dialogue bridging regional and tribal divides? Do women share priorities across these geographic divides?

Rabia [translated from Arabic]: Yes, we all came from different backgrounds—civil society, government institutions, tribes, and urban areas. But we all agreed on many points to a large extent. Our discussions were very civil; we had respect for our differences and worked in a very professional way.

Estabraq [translated from Arabic]: Activists and politicians do not voice their objections publicly because there’s a lot of pushback in society. For example, I was part of a demonstration for Palestine, and when I came back home, I was surprised to find that social media was flooded with attacks on girls who were part of these demonstrations—what they were wearing and how they looked. This makes families afraid for their daughters. They don't want them to be in public service, civil society, or the political arena.

Mabrouka [translated from Arabic]: In the South, civil society was run mostly by women. This work helped us recognize societal problems, whether they were tribal, political, or regional. We learned a lot in the process, which helped us when we participated in political talks. Women in the LPDF were able to deal with everyone from all kinds of different backgrounds, which helped those who initially didn't want to accept others and their differences. It helped make the dialogue a success at the end.

In the LPDF, we made it clear what our societies wanted. We also insisted on broadcasting the sessions publicly because we wanted to establish transparency, and this had a great effect. In the countryside, I noticed a change in attitudes towards women. Many insist on my presence in meetings. I see that society is moving towards greater inclusion of women.

Lamees: Women campaigned and insisted on Libyan ownership in the UNSMIL process. Women nominated themselves to give their presentations in front of the public. It was broadcast in front of around two million Libyans. Regarding transitional justice, we brought the topics of accountability and human rights to the table.

4. What kind of support is needed to support Libyan women? What would you like to see from the U.S. government today to support women in leadership roles?

Lamees: The LPDF was a success and we managed to create a roadmap, but now, unfortunately, it's backsliding. We're not doing what we should be doing, which is following the roadmap. We need international community support—we need more UN support. Bringing forward the new executives and the new government is a great step. We managed to unify the country and to unify the institutions. But this is not good enough. The new executives have three important things they have to focus on: reconciliation, bringing better services to the public, and preparing for the upcoming December 24 election. Until this moment, there have been promises, but I can’t see real steps. I'm asking for whatever support the international community can offer to the LPDF.

We are happy and really encouraged by our five female ministers. But, we didn't achieve the 30 percent quota—it’s only a 15 percent quota. We still need women at all levels in those institutions, not just at the top.

We need the U.S. government to support Libyan women in leadership. This process must be activated. Unless we get authority again, we cannot move forward and advocate for other women to participate. We need to push for elections, and we need more women to get engaged and nominate themselves, which can only happen with women leaders at all levels. If women manage to do this, then we can say, we've achieved a lot and we've managed to break out of the stereotypes and empower women politically.

5. How can international actors better support Libyan women?

Rabia [translated from Arabic]: My country is in a very bad situation right now, and the coming elections are like jumping off a cliff. U.S. diplomacy has moved towards security, which we hope to accomplish. But now everything is pointing towards war. There is so much hatred and escalation between the East and West. There is no infrastructure to hold elections. For example, the Ministry of Finance is still not unified, but it is the pillar the elections stand on.

We hope the United States can open real dialogue on the issue of the East-West divide. There is also a big disagreement on the issue of the constitution. One group wants a referendum on the constitution, and another party wants a transitional era before the permanent one, and a third group is afraid of having a referendum on the constitution, afraid of the elections, and afraid of all the differences and the problems between the East and West.  If we can have a strong ally like the United States now, it would be helpful to reopen that dialogue.