Powi is a Libyan lawyer and human rights activist, who asked to be remain anonymous for her personal safety. She chose to remain in Libya and carry out her mission, despite the great dangers she faces, including arrest, defamation and threats to her family.
According to Powi "Women in my country face many challenges if they attempt to get involved in politics, including threats, assassination attempts, ridicule and defamation on social media – with the latter being particularly striking as it infringes on the moral code which doesn't only affect women but all of her family members as well".
Despite the risks, Libyan women did not shy away from being at the forefront of political and civil society movements following the 2011 revolution, and expended much effort to consolidate the relatively minor gains. Yet they would soon be taken aback when confronting a new reality that depressed their aspirations: the Libyan revolution resulted in instability and turmoil, one in which extremist militias and military groups compete for power within a weak state with exhausted institutions, with repercussions in all fields and sectors, especially pertaining to women.
Initially, all parties hailed the role of women and valued their participation in the construction of the new state for the bravery and heavy participation they exhibited during the uprising (and afterwards) – yet today, the scene has changed, the idea of excluding women became a goal which all parties compete to achieve.
Silencing WomenIn a conversation with Raseef22, Powi said: "In my role as a lawyer I receive many threats, and indeed, more than one assassination attempt from militias because of my legal and rights'-based stances; women who defend human rights, especially amidst the major and repetitive violations and abuses that take place, find themselves in a circle of terror and danger. They [the runaway armed groups] only know how to practice violence, and talking about their transgressions means that you are categorized as supporting the opposing group, and thus have to be silenced through any means, because their principal and basic rule is that any voice that criticizes or accuses them of something is an enemy that must be silenced."
It should be noted that the lawyer and political activist Salwa Bughaighis was assassinated June 25, 2014, after she publicized the names of three Libyan soldiers who were killed in a single day in the city of Benghazi on her Facebook page.
Bughaighis was a human rights activist who was considered one of the symbols of the revolution and a founding member of the anti-Gadaffi National Transitional Council (NTC).
Almost a month later, on the 17th of July 2014 the parliamentarian Fariha al-Barqawi was assassinated in her car in the city of Derna. Barqawi had resigned from her post earlier that year in protest against the extension of the General National Congress (GNC – the former Libyan parliament) term, and was known for her strong and bold stances towards other parliamentarians.
Early in the revolution, Libyan women were encouraged to participate in all aspects of governance, but as stakes rose, militias started to fear women’s increasing influence and shunned their participation.
With the emergence of Islamists groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and Shura Mujahedin Council, Libyan women were targeted via threats, kidnappings, and even assassination attempts.
On the 29th May 2014 the journalist Naseeb Kernafa was also assassinated in the city of Sabha in south Libya, with her body and that of her driver being discovered in a graveyard in the city's suburbs, with marks of brutal torture. The forensic report affirmed that Kernafa was killed with a sharp object. Meanwhile the rights' activist Intisar al-Hasairi was assassinated in February 2015, and was known for her steadfast demand for the establishment of a democratic state and respecting the rule of law.
Gradually, the women who were bold enough to dare to express their views publicly became targets of various forms of violence, which led to the withdrawal of many from the political scene and the suspension of their activities and activism, while others fled to other Arab and European states in search of a safe haven. Meanwhile, those who decided to stay and continue their battle would be confronted with major challenges.
Powi stresses the fact that strong, independent women with leadership qualities are subject to routine exclusion in today's Libya, by contrast to timid women who are found on the sidelines, and who enjoy greater fortune because they are "easy to direct." This Powi says is because no tests or indicators of competence are adopted; furthermore, the categorization of women as belonging to a certain party, current or ideology has led to the exhaustion of many, and their subsequent retirement from public service.
Indeed, in her role as a lawyer Powi herself has been subject to two assassination attempts because of her litigation of cases important to public opinion. The first attempt was in the court itself, whereby militias stormed the courthouse determined to kill her, but she was safely evacuated from the backdoor of the courthouse, saving her from a gruesome fate.
On the challenges that Powi has faced, she says that the legal profession is a profession of death in states that are in their early stages of statehood or in a period of crisis and turmoil, adding that militias do not understand the concepts of law, rights, fair trials and the right to a defense and litigation; rather, all they understand is that if you defended those opposed to them then you too must be an adversary.
Indeed, since the revolution and the subsequent turmoil and violence in the country, international and human rights organizations have condemned the treatment of Libyan women, as well as charging the Libyan authorities with complacency in treating the problem, and not undertaking the necessary efforts to protect women from violence.
Amongst these organizations was Amnesty International, which declared in a 2018 report that women who have been outspoken against corruption and acts of violence by militias and the Libyan National Army (led by Khalifa Haftar) are subject to threats, kidnapping and violence on the basis of social background from the part of these parties; furthermore, the report documented cases of defamation of activists on social media sites which have exacerbated negative stereotypes in society, forcing them to withdraw.
Migrate to Europe
Tazini al-Emrani is a young ractivist who was forced to flee to Tunisia, and then to Europe, following threats against her family and especially her brother. Emrani had come to the conviction that the current reality in Libya is one hostile to women, and that the scope for their activism is very limited "amidst the confinement of the competing parties to armed groups with an authoritarian militaristic ideology in the east of the country and others with an extremist religious ideology, centered in the west”.
On the gradual shift against women activists in Libyan society, Tanzini told Raseef22: "Libyan women played a strong role in spreading liberal ideas during the revolution, especially as relating to freedom of expression and women's rights, and they found a good resonance for a period of time. However, other ideological currents gradually began to emerge which were based on dividing the society according to their ideas, to a Muslim group and a non-Muslim group, and of course liberals were placed in the second category. Bit by bit we witnessed the emergence of groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Benghazi Shura Mujahedin Council and others, who did not accept any major roles for women, and started to target them through various means, ranging from assassination to terrorizing, kidnapping and torture."
Tazini adds: "In a record time many women activists were killed, such as Salwa Shura and Hamida Bousaghr, without any judicial pursuit of their killers; the systematic violence against women activists led to many fleeing the country, such as Majdouline Obayda, the young activist who offered much during the revolution and afterwards, and who was dedicated to the establishment of a democratic Libyan state that respected freedoms and rights, but later found herself a refugee in London after she was kidnapped twice and tortured."
The activist continued: "The war shattered the feeling of security, and forced Libyan women to return to their stereotypical roles, not least after the transformation of any active women leader who had a certain view of the militias or religious groups into a target. The danger remains greater for us women activists who work on supporting the freedom of women and the freedom of society, with several women being kidnapped and threatened, as I was several times because of my activism and opinions, which prompted me to leave the country and led many others to retreat."
According to estimates by international bodies, no less than 18 women and 13 girls were killed, as well as 26 women and 15 girls injured, as a result of the armed clashes that took place in Libya in 2017 alone. Furthermore, the proliferation of weapons has disadvantaged women and girls in particular, who are still subject to arbitrary detention, and being detained in prisons without guards.
Losing My Independent Work
Over the past few years, Libya has seen wars between various interest groups and a struggle for influence amongst armed groups that have exploited the weakness of the state, accordingly imposing their own controls and rules by force – thus demolishing the dreams of many women who aspired to fundamental change in the country, as with journalist Fatima Ghandour, who found herself abandoning one of her media projects and left the country out of fear of extremist militias.
Ghandour told Raseef22: "It is true that I am still active and practicing journalism, if outside of Libya, but I have lost my own independent work, especially my media enterprise 'Mayadeen', which we founded when we were able to embark upon the path of free journalism after 2011. During this period I had the opportunity to engage in various media activities, such as my work as an instructor in print journalism in various Libyan cities such as Tripoli, al-Bayda, Sabha and Awbari, but with the Muslim Brotherhood overrunning western Libya in alliance with militias in 2014, we received a devastating blow to all our dreams that we began to accomplish as civil society women, journalists and members of parties."
The Libyan journalist added that many journalists and civil society activists (both male and female) are currently facing a permanent threat, in a country where twenty million pieces of light, medium and heavy weaponry are distributed across dozens of militias centered in key cities such as Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan.
Yet Ghandour insists that Libyan women, despite everything, continue to struggle to prove themselves and attain their rightful place, both in Libya and abroad, which is a reality that has been reflected in repeated success stories here and there, and which ensures that there is no way to exclude Libyan women, even if it was by the force of arms.
It should be noted that there are dozens of conflicting militias in Libya, as well as two governments vying for power: the first being the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord under the leadership of Fayez al-Sarraj which is based in Tripoli, and the second parallel government under the leadership of Abdullah al-Thinni in east Libya, which is supported by the 'Libyan National Army' commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Despite the fear of the runaway militias in the country, there are many Libyan women who quietly continue to undertake their activities away from the watchful eyes of their adversaries, in full faith that they have the right to play an important role in their society, and in the belief that this rabble surrounding them will be gradually tamed and dispersed. At such a point, the country will be ready for a brighter future, and so its women should be prepared to claim the standing they deserve – according to several women activists who refused to divulge their identities out of fear of the militias.