What started as a normal day for an ordinary young woman here in Libya turned into a nightmare when a security guard at her public university physically and verbally attacked her, trying to bar her from entering her classroom because she was not wearing a head scarf.
The public assault in April on the woman, named Hind, is not unique, but it is rather uncommon. As Libyans repeatedly tell me, their country is made up of conservative — yet still moderate — Muslims.
As is often the case these days in Libya, this particular guard and his companion took matters into their own hands. There was no legal basis for their action. In the absence of law and order, and after two years of zero accountability, individuals, paramilitaries and militias are imposing “self-justice” according to their own standards and beliefs. The latest efforts of former Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his coalition of forces to try to step in and take control only furthers the instability of the situation.
In this legal void, there are other influences on Libyans’ behavior.
A fatwa from March 2013 by Libya’s grand mufti stipulating that women can attend a university only if it is gender-segregated caused an uproar recently. An earlier call by the cleric had gone even further, calling for gender segregation in all public institutions, universities and hospitals. The March 2013 fatwa also called on female students to dress according to Islamic traditions, which include covering the hair, to counter the dangers of “mixing” between the genders.
Several hundred miles east of Tripoli is the city of Derna, a bastion for militias with a self-declared Islamist ideology. In Derna, a university reportedly started building a wall in the middle of the campus to segregate female from male students, disrupting studies and limiting access. A militia contracted to provide protection to the university had stipulated this segregation as a condition for its services.
There are other examples. Dar al-Ifta, Libya’s main religious institution, which issues religious edicts and to which the grand mufti belongs, reportedly called on the government last year to not approve marriage contracts between Libyan women and non-Libyan men for fear that women would be misled into marrying men from other denominations. These calls caused an outcry and didn’t become law, but the government temporarily stopped issuing marriage licenses.
The same religious authority has called for a woman to be accompanied by a guardian if she wishes to leave the country.
In April, a security officer at the Tripoli airport tried to prevent the daughter of a prominent former lawmaker from boarding a plane with her two children, demanding her husband’s “permission” for her to travel, according to her brother, who gave me details of the incident. Her mother, who was also present, loudly confronted the officer, threatening legal action. The daughter managed to travel that day, but only after her husband spoke with the security official on the phone.
In the last few months, I have spoken with many young women in Tripoli who see their lives affected by this pressure. A Libyan friend who works at a reputable international organization told me recently that she was contemplating wearing a hijab when she leaves the house just to avoid the harassment. “I am scared they will do something to me,” she said.
Most of the harassment and attacks on women by militias and individuals go unreported and unchecked. When I asked one victim whether she had filed a police complaint, her answer echoed what I have heard many times: “Which police? The police can’t do anything for me. The militias are too strong.”
Female journalists and activists are often on the receiving end of harassment. In April, people in charge of security required female foreign journalists to put on head scarves when they attended the trial of former Kadafi government officials in Tripoli. Earlier this year, two Libyan journalists were not allowed to attend a trial at the same court because they are women.
It’s been well over two years since the end of the murder of Moammar Kadafi, and Libya’s security landscape is as fragmented as its politics are polarized and its elected legislature is dysfunctional. More than two years of militias operating with impunity have left their mark, and violence continues to spiral out of control.
These increasingly worrying restrictions interfere with a woman’s right to freedom of education and movement. They also come on top of existing discriminatory laws and practices that Libyan women face. Libyan authorities need to make clear to educational institutions and their own state officials, as well as non-state actors, that discrimination against women will not be tolerated. And they need to reform discriminatory laws and practices.
Meanwhile, Hind’s mother — a prominent writer and herself a victim of harassment and threats because of her outspoken opinions — told me that her daughter, an A student, was terrified and humiliated when the guard started to pull her away from the classroom. He told her, “I will follow you, until you wear the hijab.”
Hind’s parents, disillusioned like so many other Libyans, are contemplating sending her abroad to continue her education. “I am afraid for my daughter,” her mother told me. “I want her to leave.”
Hanan Salah is the Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch.