Showing that women in Libya can be much more than just sexy bodyguards or accessories to murder, women are dipping into politics in the hope of drafting a constitution which protects their rights.
“Women gave a lot of hard work to support the revolution, so why not enter the government now?” asked Samira Karmusi, who is running with the Justice and Construction Party.
The party brings together members of the Muslim Brotherhoodwith other Islamists and independents. Like most emerging parties, it wants to legislate in accordance with Sharia, or Islamic law.
Karmusi said the men in her party, most of them professionals and some like her husband former political prisoners, welcome women on board.
“We feel that we can do it, that we can make it,” she told AFP.
Najia Gajem, a university lecturer who is running as an independent candidate in the district of Ein Zara, says not all men are so open-minded.
“Many of them think that women and their opinions have to stay at home. When you want to change this concept, you have to struggle,” she said.
The two women are best friends and hope to become ministers or ambassadors.
But they are split on whether women have a chance of playing a major role in politics after decades of dictatorship under Moamer Kadhafi.
In June, Libyans are due to vote for a constituent assembly which will replace the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).
The upcoming vote offers a good gauge on whether women’s gains in the revolt that toppled Kadhafi last year were fleeting or the start of a tidal change.
The Forum for Democratic Libya and the Beirut-based Beyond Reform and Development have been taking the temperature through a series of workshops.
Most, the groups found, agree on “equality” as a constitutional principle.
But what equality means when it comes to women sparks heated debates between liberals promoting full-political participation and religious conservatives demanding women’s exclusion, they reported.
Moderates seem to concur that women should be “equal” in rights as long as this does not come into conflict with Islamic law, especially on matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody.
Alaa Murabit, founder of the Voice of Libyan Women, said she is disappointed to see men and women slip back into their culturally accepted roles.
“What we need to do is reinterpret our religion,” Murabit said, stressing that a major obstacle was the “misuse and misinterpretation of Islam.”
Gender was an afterthought in the first anti-Kadhafi protests in the eastern city of Benghazi which were mixed until conservatives pushed the two sexes into separate camps again, she said.
Now, women are barely visible in the interim power structures.
The NTC is a sea of men, with just two women holding seats in the interim body. Likewise, Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib gave only two ministries, health and social affairs, to women.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, elections in the region have largely benefited Islamists and similar results are expected in Libya, which has a strong Sunni Muslim identity.
This is why Mubarit enlisted the help of Majida Fallah, one of the top figures in Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the kind of woman no one can argue with because she knows her religion.
“We thought that being a politician was a man’s role. This is culture, not religion. As Muslims, we know that women have to play a part in running the country,” Fallah said.
While Kadhafi had his own brand of feminism, restricting polygamy and pushing female participation in the workforce, society frowned on the high profile women around him.
Examples such as Kadhafi’s bombshell bodyguards and figures such as Huda Ben Amr — known locally as Huda al-Shannaga, the executioner — cast women in a negative light.
“These negative examples made women withdraw from public life,” Fallah said.
“There is a stigma,” agrees Murabit, adding that most women stayed out of politics because they didn’t want to be seen as sexually loose or corrupt.
Mawada Bushnaf, a TV presenter in Libya’s Hurra Channel, said it is critical for women to break with the past and run in the elections — even if men still reject the idea of a woman becoming president or prime minister.
“Men do not accept to be led by women,” she said.
“But if women participate in the national election, they will (help) write the constitution and save their rights,” she said.
Her mother, Bushnaf noted, ran in Benghazi’s local elections only to come under attack because she doesn’t wear the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.
But in a sign that women do stand a chance, also in Benghazi, Najat al-Kikhia became on May 21 the first woman elected to public office.
The NTC has pledged to hold elections for a 200-member constituent assembly by June 19, with two-thirds of the General National Congress seat to be made up of independents and the rest going to candidates from political groups.
In January, the interim authorities dropped a 10 percent quota for women in its electoral law. Instead, parties are required to put an equal number of male and female candidates on their lists.
Critics like Mubarit call the measure a “cop-out”.
Only 80 seats of the 200-member assembly are reserved for party candidates, with the remainder set aside for independents.
The consensus is that women who are working within political parties have a better shot because parties boast larger networks and deep pockets.
The real wildcard is whether women independent candidates — who represent just 90 out of 4,000 candidates overall — can succeed.
Most female candidates running as independents plan to campaign by word of mouth leaning on the contacts they have made as as educators, doctors or directors of charity organisations.