I am an eighteen-year old who will vote for the first time in the upcoming election. I’m writing this article after asking three women’s rights activists, Hajer Sharief, Rida Altubuly, and Nadia Alkshaik of Together We Build It organization (TWBI), to share their insights on how women have fared in elections over the past decade.
Libyan women have been involved in shaping several aspects of the country’s political landscape in the past ten years and this history, as much as our hopes and expectations for the country’s future, will determine the role we can play in the upcoming 24 December election process. Women continue to run as candidates for all legislative bodies, they work hard to be part of policymaking, and they speak up for a population in which forty percent of voters are women.
Women have been important players in raising public awareness about elections. It is in our interests that a peaceful democratic transition take place, so we have spoken up and empowered women and men to become actively involved. Women have proven our ability to change electoral law to increase inclusivity. In 2012, it was only because of their persistent efforts that 16.5% of the total number of seats of the National General Council (33 seats) went to female candidates. Their continued advocacy and pressure on the legislative body of the National Transitional Council also led to important changes, including women’s election to institutions in which they represent the interests of Libyan civil society.
What specific hopes do Libyan women have of the upcoming elections?
“That’s a tricky question,” says Hajer Sharief. “It can’t really be narrowed down to a single issue. My hope is that the election law will include the enabling mechanisms needed for women to meaningfully participate and that the outcome will be fair. One of the best mechanisms we know of is the Zebra list, a measure political parties are often advised to take to help insure the inclusion of women in elections. It works through alternating female and male candidates on election lists so
that political parties present a list topped by a woman in one constituency, and a list topped by a man in another. It implements this zebra pattern in every constituency in the country. We’d like to see this type of representation of women in all Libyan elections, whether present, upcoming, or future.”
Rida Altubuly, the founder of TWBI, agrees. “Libyan women should enjoy their right to participate without having to debate and fight for it, as happens every time an election is planned. That’s what I hope for in December: that women from different walks of life and parts of the country will have all the facilities we need to participate.”
“Yes,” agrees Nadia Alkshaik, a TWBI project manager. “There’s no way that women won 33 seats in the country’s first elections by chance. That result came because women worked very hard, but also because we had a mechanism to support our activities. Although it’s still not clear if the upcoming elections are Parliamentarian or presidential, women need the reservation system of the Zebra list if we’re to remain visible on the political scene.”
Rida Altubuly enlarges on this point. “We can look back at how women’s role in political life has evolved from 2011-2021. It’s been a tough decade for us: we’ve had ups and downs in terms of our participation. We gained the Zebra list early on, but we failed to gain any kind of guarantee that it will always be used. Libya’s gone through different stages and so have Libyan women. Today, it’s clear that women politicians still have to worry about being marginalized and neglected. There are no guarantees: yes, we can go forward but it’s just as easy to be pulled back again. There’s no linear progression, no easy evolution. What’s the same after a decade is that we still need to make a lot of effort to broaden our participation in building inclusive and effective Libyan institutions. But on the bright side, our decade of efforts to raise awareness of women’s right to political participation has started to convince the public. We have reached a point where significant numbers of people are conscious and acknowledge the importance of paying attention to women as a constituency. We’ve
only made this progress because civil society and organizations focusing on women have continuously engaged with the public and kept women’s issues in front of decision-makers. Today,for example, we have the first foreign affairs minister that women’s rights activists really feel happy to support.”
This brief history lesson has really helped me understand the country in whose political life I’m about the participate for the first time as an enfranchised adult. As I prepare to vote, I think the most important strength women have is solidarity. We need to stand together, to focus on our common agendas much more than on minor divisions between us, or else we risk losing everything we’ve achieved and hope for in the decades to come.