Libya Table of Contents

Libyans reckon kinship patrilineally, and the household is based on blood ties between men. A typical household consists of a man, his wife, his single and married sons with their wives and children, his unmarried daughters, and perhaps other relatives, such as a widowed or divorced mother or sister. At the death of the father, each son ideally establishes his own household to begin the cycle again. Because of the centrality of family life, it is assumed that all persons will marry when they reach an appropriate age. Adult status is customarily bestowed only on married men and, frequently, only on fathers.

In traditional North African society, family patriarchs ruled as absolute masters over their extended families, and in Libya the institution seems to have survived somewhat more tenaciously than elsewhere in the area. Despite the changes in urban and rural society brought about by the 1969 revolution, the revolutionary government has repeatedly stated that the family is the core of society.

The 1973 census, the last for which complete data were available in mid-1987, showed that the typical household consisted of five to six individuals and that about 12 percent of the households were made up of eight or more members. The pattern was about the same as that reported from the 1964 census, and a 1978 Tripoli newspaper article called attention to the continued strength of the extended family. Individuals subordinated their personal interests to those of the family and considered themselves to be members of a group whose importance outweighed their own. Loyalty to family, clan, and tribe outweighed loyalty to a profession or class and inhibited the emergence of new leaders and a professional elite.

Marriage is more a family than a personal affair and a civil contract rather than a religious act. Because the sexes generally were unable to mix socially, young men and women enjoyed few acquaintances among the opposite sex. Parents arranged marriages for their children, finding a mate either through their own social contacts or through a professional matchmaker. Unions between the children of brothers were customarily preferred, or at least matches between close relatives or within the same tribe. One study, however, showed that many marriages occurred outside these bounds, the result of increased levels of education and internal migration. Nomads, particularly the Tuareg, have always allowed much more freedom of choice and courtship.

According to law, the affianced couple must have given their consent to the marriage, but in practice the couple tends to take little part in the arrangements. The contract establishes the terms of the union and outlines appropriate recourse if they are broken. The groom's family provides a dowry, which can amount to the equivalent of US$10,000 in large cities. Accumulation of the requisite dowry may be one reason that males tend to be several years older than females at the time of marriage.

Islamic law gives the husband far greater discretion and far greater leeway with respect to marriage than it gives the wife. For example, the husband may take up to four wives at one time, provided that he can treat them equally; a woman, however, can have only one husband at a time. Despite the legality of polygyny, only 3 percent of marriages in the 1980s were polygynous, the same as a decade earlier. A man can divorce his wife simply by repeating "I divorce thee" three times before witnesses; a woman can initiate divorce proceedings only with great difficulty. Any children of the union belong to the husband's family and remain with him after the divorce.

Both the monarchical and revolutionary governments enacted statutes improving the position of females with respect to marriage. The minimum age for marriage was set at sixteen for females and at eighteen for males. Marriage by proxy has been forbidden, and a 1972 law prescribes that a girl cannot be married against her will or when she is under the age of sixteen. Should her father forbid her marriage to a man whom she has chosen for herself, a girl who is a minor (under the age of twenty-one) may petition a court for permission to proceed with her marriage.

The revolutionary government has enacted several statutes expanding women's rights and restricting somewhat those of men in matters of divorce. Women received increased rights to seek divorce or separation by either customary or legal means in cases of abandonment or mistreatment. Other laws prohibit a man from taking a second spouse without first obtaining the approval of his first wife and forbid a divorced man from marrying an alien woman, even an Arab from another country. A companion law prohibits men in the employ of the state from marrying non-Arab women. Yet the child born abroad of a Libyan father is eligible for Libyan citizenship irrespective of the mother's nationality, while a child born to a Libyan mother would not be accorded automatic Libyan citizenship.

In a society as tradition-bound as Libya's, the effects of these new laws were problematic. Despite the backing of the regime and Qadhafi's calls for still further modifications in favor of women, the society reportedly was not yet ready to acknowledge the new rights, and women were still hesitant in claiming them.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress