Society of the Revolutionary Era

Libya Table of Contents

The roles and status of women have been the subject of a great deal of discussion and legal action in Libya, as they have in many countries of the Middle East. Some observers suggested that the regime made efforts on behalf of female emancipation because it viewed women as an essential source of labor in an economy chronically starved for workers. They also postulated that the government was interested in expanding its political base, hoping to curry favor by championing female rights. Since independence, Libyan leaders have been committed to improving the condition of women but within the framework of Arabic and Islamic values. For this reason, the pace of change has been slow.

Nonetheless, by the 1980s relations within the family and between the sexes, along with all other aspects of Libyan life, had begun to show notable change. As the mass media popularized new ideas, new perceptions and practices appeared. Foreign settlers and foreign workers frequently embodied ideas and values distinctively different from those traditional in the country. In particular, the perceptions of Libyans in everyday contact with Europeans were affected.

The continued and accelerating process of urbanization has broken old kinship ties and association with ancestral rural communities. At the same time, opportunities for upward social movement have increased, and petroleum wealth and the development plans of the revolutionary government have made many new kinds of employment available--for the first time including jobs for women. Especially among the educated young, a growing sense of individualism has appeared. Many of these educated and increasingly independent young people prefer to set up their own households at marriage rather than live with their parents, and they view polygyny with scorn. In addition, social security, free medical care, education, and other appurtenances of the welfare state have lessened the dependence of the aged on their children in village communities and have almost eliminated it in the cities.

In the 1970s, female emancipation was in large measure a matter of age. One observer generalized that city women under the age of thirty-five had discarded the traditional veil and were quite likely to wear Western-style clothing. Those between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five were increasingly ready to consider such a change, but women over the age of forty-five appeared reluctant to give up the protection their veils and customary dress afforded. A decade later, veiling was uncommon among urban women, as it had always been in rural areas. Women were also increasingly seen driving, shopping, or traveling without husbands or male companions.

Since the early 1960s, Libyan women have had the right to vote and to participate in political life. They could also own and dispose of property independently of their husbands, but all of these rights were exercised by only a few women before the 1969 revolution. Since then, the government has encouraged women to participate in elections and national political institutions, but in 1987 only one woman had advanced as far as the national cabinet, as an assistant secretary for information and culture.

Women were also able to form their own associations, the first of which dated to 1955 in Benghazi. In 1970 several feminist organizations merged into the Women's General Union, which in 1977 became the Jamahiriya Women's Federation. Under Clause 5 of the Constitutional Proclamation of December 11, 1969, women had already been given equal status under the law with men. Subsequently, the women's movement has been active in such fields as adult education and hygiene. The movement has achieved only limited influence, however, and its most active members have felt frustrated by their inability to gain either direct or indirect political influence.

Women had also made great gains in employment outside the home, the result of improved access to education and of increased acceptance of female paid employment. Once again, the government was the primary motivating force behind this phenomenon. For example, the 1976-80 development plan called for employment of a larger number of women "in those spheres which are suitable for female labor," but the Libyan identification of what work was suitable for women continued to be limited by tradition. According to the 1973 census, the participation rate for women (the percent of all women engaged in economic activity) was about 3 percent as compared with 37 percent for men. The participation was somewhat higher than the 2.7 percent registered in 1964, but it was considerably lower than that in other Maghrib countries and in most of the Middle Eastern Arab states.

In the 1980s, in spite of the gain registered by women during the prior decade, females constituted only 7 percent of the national labor force, according to one informed researcher. This represented a 2-percent increase over a 20-year period. Another source, however, considered these figures far too low. Reasoning from 1973 census figures and making allowances for full- and part- time, seasonal, paid, and unpaid employment, these researchers argued convincingly that women formed more than 20 percent of the total economically active Libyan population. For rural areas their figure was 46 percent, far higher than official census numbers for workers who in most cases were not only unpaid but not even considered as employed.

Among nonagricultural women, those who were educated and skilled were overwhelmingly employed as teachers. The next highest category of educated and skilled women was nurses and those found in the health-care field. Others areas that were open to women included administrative and clerical work in banks, department stores, and government offices, and domestic services. Women were found in ever larger numbers as nurses and midwives, but even so, Libyan health care facilities suffered from a chronic shortage of staff.

By contrast, in clerical and secretarial jobs, the problem was not a shortage of labor but a deep-seated cultural bias against the intermingling of men and women in the workplace. During the 1970s, the attraction of employment as domestics tended to decline, as educated and ambitious women turned to more lucrative occupations. To fill the gap, Libyan households sought to hire foreigners, particularly Egyptians and Tunisians.

Light industry, especially cottage-style, was yet another outlet for female labor, a direct result of Libya's labor shortage. Despite these employment outlets and gains, female participation in the work force of the 1980s remained small, and many so-called "female jobs" were filled by foreign women. Also, in spite of significant increases in female enrollments in the educational system, including university level, few women were found, even as technicians, in such traditionally male fields as medicine, engineering, and law.

Nonurban women constituted a quite significant if largely invisible proportion of the rural work force, as mentioned. According to the 1973 census, there were only l4,000 economically active women out of a total of 200,000 rural females older than age 10. In all likelihood, however, many women engaged in agricultural or domestic tasks worked as unpaid members of family groups and hence were not regarded as gainfully employed, accounting at least in part for the low census count. Estimates of actual female rural employment in the mid-1970s, paid and unpaid, ranged upward of 86,000, as compared with 96,000 men in the rural work force. In addition to agriculture, both rural and nomadic women engaged in the weaving of rugs and carpets, another sizable category of unpaid and unreported labor.

Beginning in 1970, the revolutionary government passed a series of laws regulating female employment. Equal pay for equal work and qualifications became a fundamental precept. Other statutes strictly regulated the hours and conditions of work. Working mothers enjoyed a range of benefits designed to encourage them to continue working even after marriage and childbirth, including cash bonuses for the first child and free day-care centers. A woman could retire at age fifty-five, and she was entitled to a pension. Recently, the regime has sought to introduce women into the armed forces. In the early 1980s the so-called Nuns of the Revolution were created as a special police force attached to revolutionary committees. Then in 1984 a law mandating female conscription that required all students in secondary schools and above to participate in military training was passed. In addition, young women were encouraged to attend female military academies, the first of which was established in 1979. These proposals originated with Qadhafi, who hoped that they would help create a new image and role for the Libyan woman. Nonetheless, the concept of female training in the martial arts encountered such widespread opposition that meaningful compliance seemed unlikely.

The status of women was thus an issue that was very much alive. There could be no doubt that the status of women had undergone a remarkable transformation since the 1969 revolution, but cultural norms were proving to be a powerful brake on the efforts of the Qadhafi regime to force the pace of that transformation. And despite the exertions and rhetoric of the government, men continued to play the leading roles in family and society. As one observer pointed out, political and social institutions were each pulling women in opposite directions. In the late 1980s, the outcome of that contest was by no means a foregone conclusion.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress