Sexual harassment of Libyan women is holding us back

A recent Reuters article vaguely described sexual harassment in Libya by blaming it on “antiquated male attitudes that decades of gender equality reforms have failed to dislodge.”

While it is true that Libyan law sets the foundation for female equality, it was never properly enacted. To say that there have been “decades of gender equality reforms” is a gross exaggeration that implies the government actually tries to do something about the harassment. The government doesn’t: the article even quotes a Libyan woman saying that “The authorities need to confirm that this male behaviour is unacceptable.” In fact, if a Libyan woman were to report an incident to a police, it is very likely he would harass her as well. The Libyan government has mostly turned a blind eye, backed in part by a Bedouin mentality (the result of Libya’s desert Bedouins migrating to Tripoli over the past 40 years) that still views women outside the home as Western sluts.

The article does not comment on the social hindrance this creates, nor does it give us any insight into how often Libyan women are verbally abused. The answer is every time a woman leaves her home. It is constant. As someone who has experienced the very worst of the Libyan man’s verbal pestering, I was hoping for a little more profundity than this article provided. For example, the only two Libyan women are quoted in the article and they don’t describe the times they have been harassed, they only confirm that it exists. I’m dwelling on that because Libyan verbal harassment is not just rude or annoying, it is sexually explicit, demeaning and potentially scarring. No woman, busty, adolescent, rich, poor, fat, attractive, veiled or ugly, is spared. Libyan men constantly harass women because they can, without facing any consequences.

The situation is so bad that leaving the home can turn into a risky experience. My sister was recently in Tripoli, where she accompanied a female friend to the hospital. While waiting in the emergency room, minding her business, she was repeatedly subject to sexual remarks from a man twice her age. Opting as many women do, to just ignore his provocations by not acknowledging their existence, she turned the other way and engaged in conversation with her friend. The man persisted until the situation became so bothersome that her friend finally acknowledged the man, giving him some words of her own. At this point, he stood up and attempted to hit her, and would have succeeded, had it not been for a quick hospital staffer, who grabbed the man and escorted him outside. This scenario is repeated on a daily basis in public places all over the country. While Libya is not the only African country with this problem, it is different from Egypt because it has far fewer foreigners and far fewer women in the workplace. This means that Libyan women do not have the benefit of large numbers, either from each other or from the non-nationalist and more open-minded residents.

Women from most, if not all, predominately Muslim countries experience excessive sexual harassment, but in Libya it is out of control. Other than it being creepy and barbaric, it is a testament to a society kept in chains by its own way of thinking. It’s been nearly five years since U.S. sanctions were lifted and western businesses began dealing with Libya. If the government is seriously trying to strengthen its economy and reverse its pariah image, it should first improve conditions for women in or outside the workplace. Doing so would put foreign investors–some of them women–at ease. Furthermore, talented Libyan women would feel comfortable enough to contribute to their society–doing so in numbers is the only way to combat the rumors and gossip about women looking for work outside the home.

While societies do not change overnight, they can progress when a government enforces the laws it has put in print.

  • http://genderindex.org/ SIGI

    According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index, Libya ranks as number 91, of 102 countries. This story reflects some of the reasons why and how this affects women every day.

    For more information about gender equality and the position of women in Libya, see http://genderindex.org/country/libya. Leave a comment if you have information to add.