Libyan Elections Give Women A 17% Starting Point
Women's representation in Libya was bolstered by a "zipper system" calling for male-female parity in parties' lists of candidates. In a surprise, a liberal coalition edged out Islamists. "Women don't want to wear the niqab," says a women's rights leader.
TRIPOLI, Libya (WOMENSENEWS)--Thirty-three women have been elected to serve in Libya's General National Congress in the first free elections since a NATO-backed revolt last year toppled the regime and the death of Moammar Gadhafi.
Libya's electoral commission unveiled results on Tuesday, ten days after the vote. The last time Libyans went to the polls was almost half a century ago under the late-monarch King Idriss, who Gadhafi toppled in a bloodless coup in 1969. The North African nation held parliamentary elections in 1964 and then again in 1965 but parties were banned. "This is a very good starting point: 32 women elected with the parties and one independent," said Samira Massoud, acting president of the Libyan Women's Union, a growing national organization with membership in the thousands. The tally gives women 16.5 percent representation in the 200-member transitional authority.Massoud said that unlike sisters in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, women in Libya -- an oil-rich and sparsely populated desert country where tribal traditions remain strong -- had almost no political history under Gadhafi or much experience in civil society activism. In a surprise, Libya's landmark vote gave an edge to a liberal coalition over Islamist parties. The coalition is led by Mahmud Jibril, a former regime official who defected and became the international face of the 2011 revolution. "Libyan society is afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, this why they all gravitated to Jibril," said Massoud, adding that Libyan women fear being forced to wear the niqab, which covers the face, as is required of women in Saudi Arabia. Those elected in the July 7 polling will appoint a new government and deliver a new constitution on the basis of a process still under debate.
Libyan women's next challenge is securing a foothold in the committee of 60 that will draft a constitution. It is unclear whether this group will be appointed or elected. Women benefitted in the polls from a so-called zipper system that required parties to alternate between male and female candidates not only within their lists but also across the top of their lists. Female candidates were just shy of half--545 of 1,206 candidates--of those vying for seats reserved for parties. Only 85 women out of 2,501 contenders took the risk to run as individual candidates. Keeping in mind that the starting point was zero and that women gained less than 2 percent of seats in neighboring Egypt's parliament, international observers are praising the performance of Libyan women. "Seventeen percent is not a bad start to me," said Sabra Bano, director of Gender Concerns International, based The Hague, the Netherlands. Election observers ranging from the European Union and the United Nations to the U.S.-based Carter Center all celebrated the high turnout of female voters on election day in their preliminary reports. "We are starting very fast. Libyan women could not practice politics before because there was room for only one," said Massoud, referring to Gadhafi and his green book, or manifesto. Massoud said a stigma was attached to the women visible in public life under Gadhafi, because he used them for sex rather than as a sounding board for ideas. "Women's organizations back then were small in numbers and under his control,” she said.
Women made up 45 percent--1.3 million--of the registered voters in this election and turned out in high numbers to vote. Election commissioners provided separate polling booths for men and women. In the run-up to elections, major parties across the spectrum endorsed a greater role for women in the next government, a gesture supported by a couple of U.N.-sponsored trainings for aspiring female politicians. The majority of seats--120 of 200--in the Congress were reserved for independent candidates rather than parties. Only one woman out of the solo candidates claimed a seat as a representative of the oasis town of Bani Walid. That figure, Bano said, was "depressingly low" and begs the question of whether Libya would benefit from introducing a quota-system to ensure greater gender parity in future elections, due after a new constitution is passed. Discontent with the participation of women in politics by some individuals was evident in acts of vandalism that smeared out the faces of female candidates, even though the vast majority of them appeared veiled. All parties were obliged to include women in their lists. A handful of the 142 political parties decided to depict their female candidates as a silhouette rather than put up a picture. The majority of the elected female representatives came from the ranks of either Jibril's National Forces Alliance or those of the Justice and Construction Party, which was launched by Libya's Muslim Brotherhood.
Dominique Soguel is a contributing reporter and Women's eNews Arabic editor.