Feminism In Libya: After Gaddafi's Glass Ceiling, New Risk Is Islamist Repression

Often with multiple passports, the “foreign” vanguard in the battle for women’s rights in Libya must shift their attention from the evils of dictatorship to the risks of pious Islam.

Women marching last May in Tripoli (Magharebia)
Women marching last May in Tripoli (Magharebia)
Richard Werly and David Wagnières

TRIPOLI - They refer to themselves as the "strange women." And for good reason - they all grew up under the dictatorship, but through family ties and education managed to stay on the margins of Muammar Gaddafi's system and the traditional women's roles that are present everywhere in the Libya, a country dominated by conservative Islam.

The most audacious of them do not even wear the hijab, the veil that younger women carefully swaddle their faces with, "to look like a beautiful moon." Most of them are not married, having successfully resisted family pressure or arranged marriages. Their passports have often served as a shield.

Jamila, a veterinarian and painter, is Libyan and German. Hadiah, a teacher and potter, is French-Libyan. Sheherazade is originally American. Before the fall of the dictatorship abolished the barriers woven by four decades under Gaddafi, they all had access to the seaside suburb of Regatta, where expatriates mix with the local elite who come to westernize themselves away from malicious looks.

These "strange" women are accepted by the mixed population in the capital city. They were once promoted by the fallen regime in order to encourage a more modern image of the country, and today they are at the avant-garde of discussions about a free Libya.

"That ‘men's revolution" would never have triumphed without the support of the mothers and the wives, the sisters and the daughters," says Ibrahim Chellany, a former advertising professional and founder of the monthly magazine The Libyan. Three fourths of the magazine's editorial team are women under 30.

Sheherazade Kablan, an intellectual who just returned to Libya from the United States, was on the cover recently. "I consider her our model," says Iba Shebani, 24, a young television presenter who is half-English. Iba was in Oxford during the war, but returned to Libya right after the fall of Tripoli on August 21. "It was my duty. Libyan women of my generation have a lot to bring to the table."

Jamila, 40, is more reflective. Up to this moment the veterinarian, university professor and artist led a double life. As a state employee, she quickly experienced the glass ceiling that Gaddafism had in place for women who were excessively independent. "I was named department head. And then nothing," Jamila said. "The system expected from me something that I was not giving it."

Her mother is German, and married to a prominent Libyan lung specialist who knows many of the "Colonel's' comrades-in-arms. She knows how much her daughter has suffered. "All of the qualified women, whose education the regime encouraged, have found themselves in the same situation: marginalized trailblazers."

Jamila didn't hesitate to jump headlong into the void left by the revolution, and reactivated a scholarship to study in Italy, where she will be returning shortly. Her artistic work, however, underscore the silence around feminist causes in Libya. The articles on painting in The Libyan finally allow her to discuss her work. But opportunities for expositions are still quite limited. The human figures and nudes that she has been painting since adolescence are still taboo in a society corseted by religion and dominated by men.

High heels and polygamy

"People talk to me about sexuality and danger," the artist says as she shows her works. "I respond that I am an artist who is in love with life." She shakes her uncovered hair and adjusts her loose-fitting sweater. Her students, at the university, are almost all veiled.

Even with tight jeans and high heels, they are willing to accommodate the justifications for polygamy recently enumerated by Mustapha Abdul Jalil, the president of the Transitional Council, a pious Muslim. "It is all very complicated," Jamila says. "These young Libyan women work, they drive their cars and they admire life in the West, but they are still submissive toward men."

The question of divorce is one example. There were already laws that were favorable to women under Gaddafi, but they were rarely applied. There are also laws against harassment. But is it necessary to protest in the streets to defend these laws? " The fate of the Libyan revolution is in the hands of the fathers, the brothers and the husbands. Freedom of speech risks breaking up families," said Naima, a Tunisian woman in Misrata.

In this large port city, which along with Benghazi was at the heart of the insurrection, has always been conservative. The katibas (brigades) from Misrata weren't accustomed to seeing women on the street in cars and in offices before they arrived in Tripoli. Hadiah, whose mother is French, prefers to laugh about it. "When they see me without the veil, the revolutionaries attribute it to the fact that I am not 100 percent Libyan. For these kids, I am from planet Mars."

She notes that Gaddafi was focused on eliminating the different parts of Libyan society. "Everyone fell in line," says Hadiah. "The big challenge is to have a different way of thinking or a different attitude."

The two women walked together towards Martyr's Square in Tripoli to celebrate the revolution, just as thousands of others. The occasional un-veiled girl smiled at them. "Gaddafi's fall at least enabled us to see that we were not alone," Hadiah continued. "A discrete republic of strange women was born in Tripoli."

Photo - Magharebia

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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