The New Society of the Revolutionary Era
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 (see Health and Welfare
, this ch.).
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
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 (see Health
and Welfare , this ch.). Recently, the regime has sought to introduce
women into the armed forces (see Women in the Armed Forces , ch.
5). 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
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.
Data as of 1987