WASHINGTON – Until the night Libyan lawyer and activist Salwa Bugaighis was shot dead, the people of Benghazi thought they were still safe from assassination behind the concrete courtyard walls and thick wooden doors of their own homes.
In the summer of 2014, women who might have been targets still feared being shot in their cars or while walking down the street – but not in their houses, said Wafa Bugaighis, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Libya in Washington and Salwa Bugaighis’ first cousin.
“It was not just the murder of Salwa,” Bugaighis said. “It was the murder of our aspirations, because she was murdered on the day of the election, on a day that was supposed to bring a lot of hope and optimism.”
Longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years – a generation – before he was killed in 2011 after a bloody eight month struggle sparked by the Arab Spring. In the hopeful and uncertain months that followed, women moved from fighting for freedom from a despotic regime to struggling for a place in a fledgling democracy. Their work, which was welcomed with open arms during the revolution, was now shunned.
Salwa Bugaighis had returned to the eastern city of Benghazi from the capital, Tripoli, amid threats, to vote in the general election. She and other women like her demanded a role in decision making. This made them targets as armed militias began encroaching on the authority of a central government still finding its feet.
Women are often the trailblazers of social justice movements, but also the first to get pushed aside when the time comes to make decisions, said Manal Omar, acting vice president for the Center for Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace.
Bugaighis saw that exact thing happen in Libya.
“As soon as the dust of the war settled … we started seeing the movement of pushing back women,” Bugaighis said. “We realized at that point that our work was welcome in the beginning because it was highly needed, but then there was a change of mind somehow.”
In charge of affairs
Six months after Salwa Bugaighis was killed, her cousin Wafa Bughaigis became the first woman to serve as Libyan chargé d’affaires to the United States and the highest ranking Libyan diplomat in the country.
A title meaning “in charge of affairs,” chargés assume the duties and responsibilities of an ambassador when he or she is absent, or serve as de facto ambassador until one is appointed.
Since taking her post, Bugaighis has been focusing on easing the burdens on Libyan college students in the U.S. Many of them are sponsored by the Libyan government, and making sure they get their tuition money can be trying. She is also working to secure the multiple entry visas for the students, so they can return home to visit their families.
“In Libya, we have seen the courage and resolve [of women] but honestly, it’s been very challenging, very critical – many times scary,” Bugaighis said.
We are committed. There is no turning back.– Wafa Bugaighis
But Bugaighis is no stranger to challenges – when she served as deputy secretary for political affairs, she was not only the first woman to serve in her post, but she was also the only woman in the building. It was daunting, she said, but she pulled through.
Currently the Libyan House of Representatives is 16 percent female – but the cabinet is all male, something Bugaighis says is unacceptable.
“I have high confidence in women, and women in politics and decision making,” Bugaighis said. “I don’t believe any society can prosper without women.”
Canaries in the coalmine
Women’s issues are like canaries in the coalmine, Omar said. They’re often dismissed as side effects of a backward society, but are almost always indicators that the general state of human rights in a country is heading in a bad direction.
“It’s very rarely an isolated incident which just targets women,” Omar said. “When you pay attention to how a country treats women … you actually really get a pulse on what’s happening inside the country and the community as a whole.”
For Libyan-Canadian physician and activist Alaa Murabit, the largest issue inhibiting Libyan women’s participation in government and civil society is security. Until women can participate without fearing for their lives, encouraging them to be active is nearly futile, she said.
In 2011, Murabit started the Voice of Libyan Women, an organization dedicated to the inclusion of Libyan women in peace and security dialogues.
“We can’t keep telling people, ‘Speak out, speak out’,” Murabit said. “’You might get assassinated, you might lose your kids, you might lose your house, [but] speak out’ – and then there’s no reason to. There’s no result, there’s no response.”
This lack of response can cause women to retreat, Omar said, dismayed by the slow pace of discussions or the lack of seats at the table.
“There’s a lot of talk about promoting women’s inclusion in the peace processes and security but then we don’t recognize that there has to be foundational things – we have to create a system where their voices are heard,” Murabit said.
Bugaighis doesn’t buy the argument that women don’t want to participate, even when their lives are in danger. She said it’s because they are being deliberately blocked and it has to end.
“They are willing but they have to be given the opportunity,” Bugaighis said of Libyan women. “We are committed. There is no turning back. There is no turning back.”
Reach reporter Nadia Dreid at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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