The “Symbolic Step” of Women’s Political Participation in A New Libya

The “Symbolic Step” of Women’s Political Participation in A New Libya November 28, 2011

New Libyan Health Minister Dr. Fatima Hamroush, photo from the Irish Independent

Libya’s new interim government, which was announced on November 22, has been tasked with preparing for elections scheduled for next June, when voters will select an assembly to write the new constitution. As expected, given the challenges of rebuilding the country after four decades of dictatorship and nine months of war, the choice of ministers has come under scrutiny. International media coverage took an angle that suggested some fears had been allayed, noting that Prime Minister Abdulrahman Keib’s cabinet seems to be chosen on the basis of regional rather than ideological affiliation. In particular, the fact that two women were appointed has been described as significant for post-Gaddafi Libya:

“In a symbolic step for Libya, a deeply conservative Muslim society, the cabinet included two women, heading the ministries of health and social affairs. El-Keib said those appointments showed women enjoyed more equality than ever before.”

The issue of women’s rights in Libya as a “deeply conservative Muslim society” was placed under a spotlight in the wake of controversial comments made by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Jalil’s declaration that the constitution will be based on Islamic law, using polygamy as an example, prompted claims such as “TNC Rewards Rebels with Polygamy,” a response that feeds fears that the Arab revolutions are falling into the hands of frightening Islamists, overlooking the fact that polygamy, though increasingly rare in Libya, had always been practised under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. This not-insignficant fact was easily brushed aside in part due to the revolutionary narrative, which takes the “winds of change” metaphors of the so-called Arab Spring at their word, often presenting the actions of new governments as complete breaks from the previous regime, when those actions need to be read within a historical context.

In Libya, for example, women have been able to vote since the sixties and have served in government since the late eighties, following the regional model where a few notable women occupy prominent positions, without this having much effect on the empowerment of women in the general popualtion. The nature of women’s political participation in the Arab world has generally been symbolic and conditional, where it exists at all. Earlier this year, for example, when Lebanon’s cabinet was announced, the 30 appointees did not include a single woman.

In Libya the appointment of Fatima Hamroush as the minister of health and Mabruka al-Sherif Jibril as the minister of social affairs is symbolic in a sense: two women ministers is not a high number. However, in one of the two cases at least, the charge that the appointment is only a symbolic step, or more symbolic than substantive, does not hold up. While in the Arab world women’s political roles are often limited to smaller portfolios, newly liberated Libya’s first minister for health will have a lot on her plate.  The challenges will need to address include the rampant corruption in Libya’s medical sector, which she defines as one of her priorities, to say nothing of the sensitive issue of care for those wounded in the war, which has sparked protests across the country, with relatives calling for more to be done by the interim government to help the injured.

The appointment of Dr. Hamroush, a Libyan opthalmologist with Irish citizenship, has prompted some criticism that she may be out of touch with the day-to-day of Libyan hospitals after 15 years outside the country. However, Dr. Hamroush has gained a lot of recognition and praise both in the country and abroad for her efforts in delivering aid during the war and in co-ordinating efforts to bring Libyans wounded in the conflict to Ireland for treatment. Media coverage of Dr. Hamroush’s appointment, in particular in Ireland, has highlighted her work as the director of Irish-Libyan Emergency Aid and head of the Libyan Health Office in Ireland. In a radio interview after Gaddafi’s death, Dr. Hamroush noted that her role in the standalone entity of the Libyan Health Office would be equivalent to a health attache if Ireland had a Libyan embassy. Dr. Hamroush is quoted as saying that she felt she could not turn down the opportunity to be part of the transitional government: “I couldn’t refuse this challenge, it would be like a soldier refusing to go to the battlefield.”

This idea of civic duty has been central to the broader debate on the greater inclusion of women in the political process in Libya. The regional Arab women’s NGO Karama recently organized a meeting of the Libya Peace Platform, a diverse group of Libyan women who gathered in Cairo to set strategies to promote women’s political participation, with the hope of convening Peace Platform bodies in five key Libyan cities that will work to empower women as politically engaged citizens who can work to change their communities. Zahra Langhi, founder of Friends of Free Libya, pointed out that:

Women have played a pivotal role in the Libyan Revolution. In fact, Libyan women (as mothers, wives and sisters of the victims of notorious prison of Abu Sileem) were the first to come out and protest on the 15th of Feb, crying out ‘Rise up Benghazi. This is the day we have been waiting for!’

The question of how to ensure women’s political participation post-revolution has to face the paradox that in portraying women’s political participation as a symbolic sign of democracy, women’s rights may continue to be used as a democratic facade, as cosmetic signs of change, as with the autocratic secular regimes who manipulated these issues for their own political interest. For this reason, covering women’s participation as a “symbolic step” needs to be framed by questions about how Arab women can narrate their responsibilities as political actors, representing women’s political participation as a prerequisite for and inseparable from any Arab awakening.

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