TRIPOLI, Libya — “I have waited my whole life for tomorrow, which will be a new day for Libya,” an elated Haja Nowara told Human Rights Watch on the eve of Libya’s first democratic national elections in July 2012. “We sacrificed a lot to get here.”
We met Nowara as she held a lonely vigil in the square outside the courthouse in Benghazi, where she had spent many evenings supporting the revolution since early 2011. She proudly displayed her voter registration card around her neck and waved Libya’s new national flag while people approached her to pay their respects. She had become an icon due to her steadfast participation in the protests that started the revolt that eventually led to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi.
The following day, we witnessed women joining men at polling stations across Libya to elect the 200 members of the General National Congress. A significant number of women — 33 — were elected after women’s groups lobbied hard for an election law that facilitated women’s political participation. Those women formed a caucus in the new parliament and have played an active role in Libya’s lively if rocky transition.
Today, Libya is preparing for another national election, this time to elect the Constituent Assembly, which will have responsibility for drafting the country’s new constitution. For Libyan women, the stakes could not be higher.
The drafting of the constitution will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Libyans to lay the legal foundations of their reformed state. For women, it offers the chance to establish their rights and reject discrimination. The General National Congress is now preparing a new election law in preparation for the Constituent Assembly elections, expected later this year.
A new Human Rights Watch report, "A Revolution for All," calls for the Libyan authorities to seize this historic opportunity and meet longstanding international obligations by taking four key steps as Libya transitions from 40-plus years of unremitting dictatorship.
First, Libya’s parliament should ensure that women are involved on equal terms with men in the constitution drafting process. Women should be able to participate fully and actively in the committee tasked with drafting the electoral law. Parliament needs to appoint a gender adviser to help ensure that the draft constitution is in accord with international human rights law.
Second, once drafting begins, the Constituent Assembly should ensure that the new constitution explicitly guarantees full equality between women and men — and that its equality guarantees over ride any current or future law. Anything less would be inconsistent with Libya’s obligations under the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and other international instruments that oblige states to ensure gender equality before the law, including access to legal remedies and due process.
The new constitution should also explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender, sex, pregnancy and marital status, among other categories. And it needs to require the legislature to pass laws to further prohibit discrimination by state and private parties, allow courts to strike down discriminatory laws and policies, and give those affected by discrimination an effective remedy.
Third, the General National Congress and future parliaments should repeal or amend Gaddafi-era laws and regulations that render women liable, either directly or by their impact, to discrimination and various forms of abuse. This includes discriminatory laws on gender-based violence, unequal “personal status” laws on family relations, and an ambiguous nationality law.
Libya’s current penal code, for example, classifies sexual violence as a “crime against a woman’s honor,” rather than against a woman as victim or as a violation of her bodily integrity.
Finally, the Libyan government and the General National Congress should work to eradicate discrimination against women in all aspects of the country’s public and political life. This means ensuring that men who commit violence against women, including domestic violence, do not escape justice. And it means working relentlessly to challenge negative stereotypes of women.
Recent developments in Libya underscore the challenges that women face. Last February, the Supreme Court effectively set aside restrictions on male polygamy and in April, the country’s influential Grand Mufti called for strict gender segregation in all workplaces, classrooms and government offices. Earlier, he urged the government to prevent Libyan women from marrying foreigners, leading the Ministry of Social Affairs to reportedly suspend issuing licenses for such marriages.
Women must be able to play a full part in Libya’s political and constitutional processes to consolidate the gains of the past two years and prevent their rollback. Their voices must be heard to end the discrimination that still permeates Libya’s laws and institutions.
Samer Muscati is the emergencies researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. Hanan Salah is a researcher for Human Right’s Watch on Libya and Mauritania, Middle East and North Africa division.