Change in the air: Libya's women discuss newfound freedoms

Change in the air: Libya's women discuss newfound freedoms
5 min read
Society: Women in Libya are breaking boundaries in their working lives as well as in the realm of education and social life. Many are wondering if these changes are here to stay, or whether they are a transient after-effect of the war.

Today in Libya increasing numbers of women are driving and travelling alone; abandoning traditional dress, and entering into work and education in areas that saw limited female participation in the past. All of this would have been unthinkable in the eyes of a highly conservative society (in some areas of the country at least) not too long ago.

However, these changes are being readily accepted today, raising questions around whether they are here to stay in Libyan life, or whether they simply represent a sudden development brought about by the unstable reality of the country in the aftermath of the war and which may not last. 

Part of a wider change

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication spoke to rights activist Badria Hasi, who does not believe that the changes are linked to political developments or the governing system.

"This is because women enjoyed relative freedom under the previous regime, perhaps even to a greater extent than now, although they live in greater safety today".

"Hasi views the developing situation for women as forming part of more widespread changes happening outside the country, especially the explosion of social and alternative media platforms, as well as increasing opportunities to study and travel abroad"

She adds: "Despite the large margin of freedom today many still do not want to hear about women who have been exposed to crimes and forced disappearance. This is a different situation for women to that under the previous regime. Then, women were restricted from expressing their views, but they did participate in public life, albeit in a limited form".

Hasi views the developing situation for women as forming part of more widespread changes happening outside the country, especially the explosion of social and alternative media platforms, as well as increasing opportunities to study and travel abroad. She doesn't view the changes as a rebellion against conservative values or principles.

'Unending social barriers' 

For her part, Dr Nour Al-Ati says that she was forced to confront her family's "stubbornness" when they insisted she didn't work the night shifts which the private health centre she works for had demanded. After much argument, her family yielded to her decision.  

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"Women face unending social barriers: even after she overcomes her personal fears - around the woman's duty to uphold family honour, and possibly of violence against her - she'll find herself struggling with the economic pressures of her independence. Even if she manages to get a decent job with a good salary, most likely she'll be forced to hand it over to the head of the household whether her father or husband".

Necessity forcing change

Al-Ati believes that the hard living conditions that prevail in the country, as well as the rise of sanatoriums (especially in the private sector) which want to hire female employees, have forced society to accept women working more varied hours than it used to.

"In private sanatoriums, many women work night shifts".

Libyan women's newfound freedoms are not limited to altered workplace conditions and increased job opportunities. Driving cars - especially in rural areas – is another sign of the shift taking place. In the deeply conservative city of Misrata it is no longer unusual to see women driving, going shopping, or heading to women-only cafes or parks to meet female friends.

Change in the air: Libya's women discuss newfound freedoms
Libyan women have been entering into more areas of work and education in recent years [AFP via Getty Images]

In the realm of clothing, whilst a widespread commitment to wearing the hijab is evident, many young women's clothes now reflect new styles that society used to reject. University student Shaima Rashid says: "Until recently, society was strict with women – for instance in my area we were not allowed to wear trousers, especially at the university.

But today, trousers have become a symbol of personal freedom". Rashid does not deny the continued impact of family restrictions on her, but says she views wearing the hijab as "symbolic".

"What is most important to me is that it protects me from verbal abuse". However, she refuses to limit her aspirations to fit restrictions imposed by traditional customs: "Times have changed, and we need to keep up – how long do we want to keep living in the past?".

Strict conservatism reflects a bygone age

Social researcher Hasaniyya Al-Sheikh suggests that placing societal restrictions on women may be counterproductive in terms of their aims, and may end up threatening family unity and cohesion by causing female family members to rebel against the barriers placed in front of them.

"The strictness of conservative societies when it comes to women may hint at a feature of life which has passed in the society's history which was based on her perceived role and men's jealousy when it came to their families"

She says: "The strictness of conservative societies when it comes to women may hint at a feature of life which has passed in the society's history which was based on her perceived role and men's jealousy when it came to their families".

Concern over slipping values

She warns however against the "values crumbling and slipping away, if the flow of increasing freedoms is not monitored and engaged with by specialists, university officials and those who control popular media platforms", pointing out that young women and girls have actually run away from their families in attempts to realise their dreams of freedom and independence, before finding themselves lost in unfamiliar societies.

For this reason, she believes that certain social restrictions should form an important part of limiting a breakdown in social values.

Despite this, Al-Sheikh welcomes increased freedoms for women being legislated for. She mentions that she visited a women's association that plays an active role in providing aid assistance, and which has gained a prominent reputation for its work.

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She says it has contributed to the retrieval of values like solidarity and mutual responsibility; values which seemed to disappear after the war. Al-Sheikh says that the association's members move around freely, hinting that the respect and freedom they enjoy is linked to the work they do.

In her opinion: "If society appreciates the type of activities which women are doing, this will give women more freedom".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.