Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Libya

  • Author: Alison Pargeter
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 5,500,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $7,570
Economy: Mixed statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 58 out of 177
Polity: Dictatorship
Literacy: Male 91.8% / Female 70.7%
Percent Women Economically Active: 25.6%
Date of Women's Suffrage: 1964
Women's Fertility Rate: 3.7
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 86% / Rural 14%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 2.3
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 2.1
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 2.3
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 1.2
Social and Cultural Rights: 1.8

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


Libya gained independence in 1951 and was ruled by King Idris until Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi took power in a bloodless coup in September 1969. He has retained complete control ever since. In the 1970s, Qadhafi developed what he termed the Jamahiriyah (State of the Masses), which was based on his political, economic, and sociological ideas as laid out in his famous Green Book. The Jamahiriyah is a unique form of popular Arab socialism that in theory enables every citizen to participate in the political process through a complex hierarchy of people's committees and congresses. However, in reality, Qadhafi is in complete control and runs an authoritarian centralized state that relies heavily on the security apparatus to maintain control.

Libya's population is currently estimated to be around 5.5 million, with a GDP in 2002 of $19.1 billion. Libya's economy is heavily state centralized and based primarily on the hydrocarbons sector. Private sector activity remains extremely limited, as it has been strongly discouraged by the regime, and at certain times outlawed. As a result, the bloated state sector is the largest employer. However, public sector wages have been more or less frozen since the early 1980s and most people have had to take on two jobs in order to survive. Unemployment levels are estimated to be around 30 percent, and this affects the youth in particular. There is also a large parallel economy that developed especially during the 1990s when Libya was under international sanctions.

Around 97 percent of the population is Arab or Berber (although the regime denies the existence of its Berber minority), and the vast majority of the population follows the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. Libya was largely isolated for much of the 1990s but is currently in the process of restoring its relations with the international community. Despite this new opening, the regime appears to be doing little to loosen its grip domestically. Due to the authoritarian nature of the regime, there are no genuinely independent women's organizations, and anyone permitted to work on behalf of women's rights must do so within the framework of the state and of what it terms "advancing the revolution." As a result, women's groups are tightly linked to the state and are permitted to cooperate only with international women's organizations that have been sanctioned by the regime.

Since coming to power, Qadhafi has repeatedly claimed to have improved the status of women by introducing legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination, by attempting to improve women's access to education and employment, and by encouraging women to participate in Libya's political, social, and economic life. However, in reality, women have not made many inroads into what is still essentially a male-dominated society, and they continue to suffer gender-based discrimination. This is largely associated with the fact that Libyan society remains extremely conservative, and patriarchal religious values and tribal cultures prevail. Moreover, despite the rhetoric of the regime, it has done little to try to overcome social and cultural hindrances to improving women's status.

It should be noted that the regime does not produce statistics on the status of women in the country on a regular basis.


Men and women are generally treated as equals under Libyan legislation. However, in some areas inequalities and discrimination persist, especially in those laws related to family issues, in which certain Islamic interpretations are followed. Officially, women have access to justice equal with that of men, but in reality they still find themselves at a disadvantage.

Libya has no constitution as such; instead, it has a series of declarations that form the basis of Libyan legislation. The most important are the New Constitutional Declaration (1969), which asserts the equality of all citizens before the law, and the Declaration of the Establishment of the Authority of the People (1977). The latter was based on Qadhafi's Green Book, which outlines his vision for the Libyan state and asserts, "Woman and man are equal as human beings. Discrimination between man and woman is a flagrant act of oppression without any justification." However, the text also stresses the biological differences between men and women, concluding, "man and woman cannot be equal."

There are laws and policies that include clauses aimed at protecting women from discrimination in various aspects of life. One of the most important is the Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Age of the Masses (1988), which states, "men and women are equal in everything which is human. The distinction of rights between men and women is a flagrant injustice which nothing justifies." These charters and declarations, written in Arabic, are widely distributed by the regime as propaganda tools.

The most important legislation to date that relates to women's status is the Charter on the Rights and Duties of Women in Libyan Arab Society. Drafted in 1997 by the regime, the charter asserts that women should participate in the General People's Congresses and Committees (equivalent of the parliament and associated bodies), defend their country, enjoy independent financial status, and assume leadership positions.

Women have the right to full and equal status as citizens and enjoy the same rights as men regarding the right to acquire, change or retain their nationality, or replace it with another nationality. A woman forfeits her nationality only if she wishes to adopt her husband's nationality. However, Libyan women do not have the same rights as Libyan men to transfer their nationality to their foreign-born spouses or children. While children of a Libyan father and non-Libyan mother are given Libyan nationality, children of a Libyan mother and a non-Libyan father are not and require visas to enter the country.

Under existing legislation, Libyan women officially have the same access to justice as men. Qadhafi abolished the dual court system after the revolution and merged civil and Shari'a courts. There are four levels of courts – summary courts, courts of first instance, appeal courts, and the Supreme Court. Civil courts now employ Shari'a judges who sit in regular courts of appeal and specialize in Shari'a cases, i.e. family cases. At the top of the judicial structure is the Supreme Court of Libya, which has five separate chambers, one each for civil and commercial, criminal, administrative, constitutional, and Shari'a cases. The Supreme Council for Judicial Authority is the administrative authority of the judiciary, which handles matters of appointment, transfer, and discipline. People's or revolutionary courts were set up to try political and certain economic offenses, although Qadhafi declared in 2004 that these were to be abolished.

Both men and women have the right of recourse to the judiciary. Women are free to pursue legal proceedings, and any woman subjected to discrimination on the basis of sex has the right to submit complaints to the court, although there is no information available as to whether any such case has been brought to trial.

Despite this legislation, however, many women find themselves at a disadvantage when seeking legal redress. This is due to the traditional nature of a society that expects a woman to consult with her husband or male relatives before taking any form of legal action. Moreover, the accepted practice is for legal action to be taken by a male on a woman's behalf, although women of a higher social class have more freedom in this respect.

The penal code and criminal legislation apply equally to men and women. However, women and men are treated differently in some cases such as adultery. Although both sexes are liable to a punishment of 100 strokes of the whip for adultery, Article 375 of the penal code allows for a reduced punishment for men who kill a female relative for committing adultery. Furthermore, if a man inflicts bodily harm against the female relative, the prison sentence is limited to a maximum of two years. Beating or light injury is not penalized. There is no such legislation relating to women, and they do not have similar rights. The killing of women in the name of family "honor" (or "honor killings") is not thought to be widespread in Libya. However, there is little information available about the extent of the problem.

Women suspected of engaging in oppositional political activity are subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile. Although it is generally assumed that women do not engage to any significant extent in such activities, those suspected face the same penalties as men. However, the regime tends to be more cautious about imprisoning women, as families and tribes view the imprisonment of one of their women as an insult to the "honor" of the family.

An adult woman is recognized as a full person before the court and is equal to a man throughout all stages of litigation and legal proceedings. However, in practice, women are generally not considered to be as authentic witnesses as men. Islamic principles that are followed in Libya assert that one male witness is equivalent to two females.

The Libyan government acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1989. However, it maintains reservations to Articles 2 and 16(c) and (d) on the grounds that they are incompatible with Islamic Shari'a law and Libya's personal status code. It appears that the Libyan government has attempted to implement some of the CEDAW stipulations, largely through introducing legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination in various sectors. However, as already stated, the gap remains between legislation and reality on all of these measures, due primarily to the conservative nature of society. In reality, women continue to face discrimination at all levels.

A number of women's groups are operating in Libya, such as the Libyan Midwife Association for Mother and Childhood Care and the Al Wafa Association for Human Services. However, little information is available about what these groups are engaged in and the extent of their activities. Moreover, as everything in Libya is done through the state, there are no genuinely independent groups or civil society actors. Anyone who tries to initiate such activities would be in a very dangerous position and liable to harassment, imprisonment, and other forms of mistreatment.


  1. The government should implement a nationwide program to provide legal literacy to girls and women through media, schools, community centers, and public events.
  2. The government should make printed copies of laws, policies, and statistics readily available so that open discussion on problems women face can take place.
  3. The government should appoint women's rights monitors in all government ministries to ensure integration of women's rights into the work of all government agencies.
  4. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws in conformity with CEDAW.


Women have some degree of autonomy and independence under Libyan legislation. However, due to the authoritarian nature of the Libyan state, both men and women suffer limitations on their freedoms and are vulnerable to the arbitrary nature of the security apparatus. Women suffer from additional restrictions due to social pressures that deter them from acting independently. They are also vulnerable to violence and abuse that go unreported due to the social stigma attached to taking any incident beyond the confines of the family. Any woman who tries to do so is generally considered to be disloyal to her family, and as such, is likely to be ostracized by the community and regarded with disdain.

Islam is the declared state religion, and Libya broadly follows the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. The state controls mosques as well as the content of the Khoutba (weekly sermon) at Friday prayers. After coming to power, Qadhafi devised his own particular interpretation of Islam, and Libyans who do not adhere to this interpretation may find themselves in a dangerous position. Women, like men, are generally unlikely to face harassment solely because of their religion. However, if they engage in any religious activity that is deemed to have a political dimension, they are likely to be persecuted by the state. Although there appears to be an increasing tolerance of women wearing the hijab (head cover) in recent years, wearing the niqab (complete covering of a woman's body and face) is likely to attract suspicion because of fears about Islamist opposition. The government is broadly tolerant of other faiths, largely because they do not represent a threat. However, a non-Libyan man must convert in order to marry a Muslim Libyan woman, whereas a non-Libyan woman is not required to convert if she marries a Muslim Libyan man.

Officially, women have freedom of movement and do not need to request permission to travel abroad. However, due to the overtly patriarchal nature of Libyan society, most women will not travel unless accompanied by a husband or male relative. Those who choose to travel alone or with other women are generally members of the elite and are still expected to secure the permission of their families in order to do so. Traveling inside Libya also presents difficulties for Libyan women if they wish to stay in hotels, as rooms are generally not rented to unaccompanied women due to cultural traditions.

Libyan women are also restricted in their local environment. Due to social pressures, women rarely walk in the streets in the evenings unless accompanied by a male family member or another female. Furthermore, unlike her male siblings, an unmarried woman is expected to provide her family with details of any excursion outside the home. Restrictions are generally stronger in rural areas or small towns.

The family code in Libya is partly based on the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. Women do not receive equal treatment with men under certain parts of the family laws. While not particularly widespread, polygamy is still permitted, although Qadhafi has tried to dissuade people from engaging in the practice by speaking out against it. In order to take a second wife, the man must secure prior judicial permission based on grounds of financial and physical capacity. He must also obtain the written agreement of the first wife, although authorization may be given by a court in exceptional circumstances. A man has the right to divorce his wife by law, though he must petition the court in order for it to be valid and the divorce has to be agreed by a legislator. Judicial divorce is also available to women if the husband is deemed unable to maintain his wife, is absent without justification, or is impotent.

The court will decide for a couple if both parties do not mutually agree to divorce and cannot be reconciled. If the woman is deemed the cause of the divorce, then not only is she denied any outstanding mahar (dower payment), but in addition, the custody of her children is given to the husband. In some cases, she is also ordered to pay compensation. If the court decides that the divorce is the fault of the husband, he is ordered to pay compensation as well any outstanding mahar. After a divorce has been granted, the law imposes on the husband a duty to maintain his wife for a certain period regardless of how wealthy she may be. However, in practice it seems that this is not enforced and that divorced women face many difficulties if they do not have family to fall back on.

Custody is a right of both parents with a married status. If a couple separates based on mutual agreement, the mother has the right of custody, followed by her mother, then the child's father and his mother. However, a child who is in the custody of its mother must be supported financially by its father unless the child has its own private assets.

By law, women are able to negotiate their marriage rights. The Promotion of Freedom Act No. 20 (1991) stipulates, "Every male and female citizen has the right to form a family based on a contract of marriage concluded with the consent of both parties." Officially, a guardian may not force a ward of either sex into marriage or prevent a ward from marrying. However, according to tradition, women cannot marry without the consent of their father or male guardian. Marriage is generally a family affair, especially in rural areas, and partners are often designated from birth and are dependent upon family and tribal ties.

The minimum marriage age for women is 20 (the age of majority is 18), although they can marry earlier if a court grants permission. There are cases, especially in rural areas, where women are married at a much earlier age. Educated women tend to marry later but find it more difficult to meet husbands. This is partly due to the tradition that dictates that once females pass a certain age, they are less marriageable. These women are often regarded with suspicion and disapproval by much of society, which is an added challenge for older women in search of a spouse. Women still often marry older men, but it is considered shameful for a man to marry a woman who is older than he. In any marriage in Libya, the man is considered to be the head of the household.

Slavery is prohibited under the penal code and does not appear to be a problem. However, women are subject to torture and other forms of intimidation and abuse. Those who are suspected of belonging to or being sympathetic to outlawed opposition groups are at risk. There were, however, no known cases of women being tortured during 2003. Women are included in the Collective Punishment Law of 1997 that rules that if a member of a family or tribe commits a crime, the entire family or tribe is liable for punishment. Women are sometimes denied the right to leave the country in order to join family members who are suspected of involvement in opposition or political activities outside the country.

The penal code prohibits the trafficking of women for the sex trade. Yet, women – mainly from sub-Saharan Africa – are sometimes trafficked across Libya into Western Europe. In 2003, Italy and Libya signed an agreement to jointly patrol their territorial waters to curb trafficking. The extent of the problem, however, and the state's actions to address this problem, remain unclear due to the paucity of information provided by the state.

Domestic violence remains a problem, yet there is no law that declares domestic violence or marital rape a crime in Libya. Domestic violence is therefore handled under Libya's general criminal law. Article 63 of the penal code stipulates that there must be evidence of inflicted damage in order for the perpetrator to be punished. Little detailed information is available on the extent of the violence, as it often goes unreported, largely because the issue is still considered taboo and shameful. Furthermore, in some parts of Libyan society, hitting one's wife is not considered unacceptable. Cases of incest or rape occurring in the home are also not generally reported or prosecuted, as this too is considered a private matter and also carries much social stigma.

Rape that occurs outside the home is generally not reported or discussed. Problems are sorted within the family, as most families want to conceal any violation of "honor." According to Libyan legislation, if a man rapes a woman, then he is expected to marry his victim to "save her honor." The woman is supposed to agree to the marriage, but in reality, under social pressures, the victim has no option but to marry. In view of the shame associated with matters of violence, and especially sexual violence, there is no support system to assist the victims.

Women who choose not to wear the hijab are sometimes subjected to verbal abuse, intimidation, and sexual harassment. Women who walk unaccompanied may also face some forms of intimidation, as they are considered to be morally loose and targets for male attention. Divorced women are also viewed as shameful by society. They are subject to verbal harassment and more likely to be vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. There is no state provision or legislation to protect women from these types of abuse.

No genuinely independent rights groups or civil society actors are working to improve the situation of violence against women, as none are permitted to exist in Libya. Any activity outside that sanctioned by the state is prohibited. The state itself is not known to have initiated any women's groups to work on such issues, which may be because the state, for political reasons, has chosen to accommodate certain traditional and cultural norms.


  1. The government should introduce laws criminalizing domestic violence and rape, including rape within families.
  2. The government should initiate support networks, create counseling and legal and financial services, and establish shelters for women who are victims of violence.
  3. The government should implement public awareness campaigns addressing domestic violence, rape, incest, and sexual harassment of women and girls to bring these issues into the open and reduce the taboos surrounding them.
  4. The government should allow independent women's rights groups to work freely and openly to promote women's human rights, including advocacy around women's autonomy and personal freedom.


Despite the regime's encouragement and Qadhafi's repeatedly stressing that women should undertake jobs, females continue to be underrepresented in the workforce primarily due to social pressures. Socially, a woman's place is still generally considered to be in the home and her primary role to be caring for her family. However, some members of the elite have chosen to pursue careers. Women are entitled to their economic rights, but in reality men continue to hold most of the purse strings.

Under the revolutionary system in Libya, private ownership is limited. However, women have the same rights as men to ownership and have full and independent use of their land and property. They have the right to bank loans, mortgages, and other forms of financial credit. Nevertheless, due to the dominant social tradition, land and property ownership is still considered a male's domain.

Under Libyan legislation, women have full and independent use of their income and assets. They are also free to use banking services, and banks do not require the consent of a husband in order to provide loans to the wife. Yet in reality, social traditions dictate that males generally control the income and finances. Even if a loan is secured in a woman's name, the money usually goes to the husband. This is not always the case for women of higher social class, especially those who are single.

While women are legally able to enter into business and economic activities at all levels, this area is still dominated by men in practice. There is a system in Libya that allows people to set up private partnership schemes if they apply for a license. However, women are not granted as many of these licenses as men, largely because fewer women choose to apply, as this is considered to be a male's domain. Furthermore, some women who have been granted licenses choose to hand them over to a male relative to run the partnership, a more socially acceptable arrangement.

Women fare unfavorably under Libyan inheritance laws, which are based on interpretations of Islamic principles; they inherit only half of that which is due to their brothers. For the minority Tuareg population, however, it is believed that inheritance should be through the female line, although there is no accurate information available on this issue.

Education is free and open to all Libyan citizens. The regime has taken numerous steps to improve women's education, including making it compulsory up to the intermediate level. However, this requirement is rarely enforced. The number of women taking advantage of educational opportunities has increased over the past few decades, but girls continue to lag behind boys. Furthermore, while urban women have relatively good access to education, a significant proportion of rural women still do not attend school. The UNDP recorded that in 2004, 29.3 percent of Libya's females over the age of 15 were illiterate.

According to the Libyan government's National Committee for Information and Documentation, the number of males and females receiving education is almost equal. In the 2000-01 academic year, 131,529 women attended university out of a total female population aged between 20 and 24 of 346,130. In the same year, 151,390 men were attending university out of a total population for the age group of 346,130. At the other end of the scale, for the age group of 6 to 14 year olds, 534,425 girls were attending school, out of a total population of 556,693, as opposed to 560,029 boys out of a total population of 571,458. The Libyan National Committee for Information and Documentation reported that in 2001, 16 percent (41,336) of the female work force had a university degree or above and 48.3 percent (125,398) had a secondary school certificate. All academic fields are open to women, although they tend to shy away from subjects that have traditionally been considered the male domain, such as engineering.

The regime has specifically encouraged women to join the workforce. The Resolution of the General People's Committee (1988) states that work is a duty for every woman who is capable of working. The Consolidation of Freedoms Law 20 (1991) stipulates that men and women are both free to choose the work that suits them. However, by law, women are prevented from undertaking heavy labor or dangerous work, and they are not to be made to work more than 48 hours per week.

According to the UNDP, women comprise 22 percent of the Libyan labor force. However, women continue to work mainly in the service sectors, especially in education and health. Large numbers of women, especially in rural areas, undertake unpaid work, including agriculture or traditional or cottage industries.

In 2003, women were permitted to enter the traffic police for the first time, and Qadhafi called on Libyan women to fight for their country again. In fact, the regime has encouraged women to undertake military training and there are special female police forces, bodyguards, and military academies. However, this is generally looked upon as something shameful by much of Libyan society, which views it as contrary to cultural and religious tradition.

Despite the regime's attempts to increase female employment, decisions relating to a woman's employment are generally influenced by her father while she is unmarried and her husband after she is married. Considerations such as the distance of employment from a woman's home play a part in the decision-making process, as women are generally expected to choose work that is close to their home. Moreover, families still tend to prefer their daughters to work in traditionally female jobs, such as education, nursing, and cleaning. For those women who continue to work after marriage, their jobs are generally considered to be of secondary importance to their husband's job.

Libyan labor legislation rules that employers must pay equal wages to men and women if the nature and conditions of their work are the same. However, in reality, women are often paid less than their male counterparts. According to the latest available figures from the National Committee for Information and Documentation, more than 50 percent of women earned between 150 and 199 dinars per month in 2001, as opposed to only 27.4 percent of men, and very few women earned more than 250 dinars per month.

Furthermore, there is still considerable discrimination in the job market, as employers often see women as unreliable, less competent than men, and likely to leave their employment once they are married. There is also still significant resistance to the idea of a woman's holding a position that involves having authority over men. In a survey of Libyan students, only 29 percent of men asked whether women should be employed in jobs that give them authority over men accepted the idea, while 63 percent of women accepted it. There is no legislation to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Libyan legislation provides for maternity leave of three months, during which time 100 percent of earnings are payable. The woman must have worked for her employer for a minimum of six months in order to qualify. Women are also eligible for a maternity grant from the fourth month of pregnancy until confinement. They are legally permitted two half-hour breastfeeding breaks per day that are considered to be part of their working hours. Any employer who employs more than 50 workers in one place should provide a nursery. However, in reality, childcare is still considered a responsibility to be taken on by the extended family.


  1. The government should invite education experts and women's rights advocates to study the levels of gender-stereotyping and discrimination against women in school materials and textbooks and use the findings to introduce positive role models of women.
  2. The government should revise existing labor laws to abolish policies that discriminate against women and establish a gender-discrimination office where women can send confidential complaints.
  3. The government should allow independent women's groups to work openly to highlight the obstacles facing women and to present suggestions on how women can more easily access business opportunities and income generation programs.
  4. The government should draft laws that protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace in both the public and the private sectors.


Due to the authoritarian nature of the Libyan regime, men and women have no political or civic rights outside those sanctioned by the state. Political parties are banned and membership in such entities is punishable by death. Libya has a unique political system comprising a complex hierarchy of people's congresses and committees in which, in theory, all citizens can participate. However, in practice, all decisions are in the hands of the leader and his immediate circle. Anyone trying to engage in political or civic activity is liable to severe penalties including arrest, detention, and possible torture.

The regime does not tolerate any unauthorized assembly. Women are permitted to take part in gatherings and demonstrations orchestrated by the state but are prohibited from any type of gathering that has not been sanctioned in advance. Assemblies, strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations are all banned under Law 45 of 1972. A General Women's Union is responsible for implementing social programs on behalf of women and children. However, all activities of this nature remain heavily regulated by the state. The state regularly organizes conferences on women's issues, but they are little more than large-scale propaganda exercises to promote the regime.

The oppressive nature of the regime acts to limit freedom of expression, which is prohibited in Libya. The state has a multi-layered security apparatus; any man or woman daring to express any opinion contrary to that of the Jamahiriyah will be in an extremely dangerous position. Due to social pressures, women are further expected to refrain from expressing their opinions. The regime denies the existence of minorities in Libya, including Berbers, and it is illegal for parents to give their children Berber names. The authorities refuse to register children with such names and will deny them access to schooling.

Women have been allowed to participate in Libya's judiciary since the beginning of the 1990s and have been free to work as judges, public prosecutors, and case administrators under the same conditions as men. A number of female judges have been appointed by the state, although they remain underrepresented in comparison to men. Libyan women are able to work as lawyers, but information on independent women lawyers or women's lawyer groups working for human rights is not available.

In theory, executive structures of government are open to women. However, in practice, men almost exclusively fill these positions. Very few women have been appointed to the General People's Committee (cabinet), and in the cabinet reshuffle of June 2003, no women ministers were appointed. The number of women appointed to the secretariats of the General People's Congresses is extremely limited, although in 2003, one woman was appointed as the Secretary of Social Affairs of this body. A General Secretariat for Women's Affairs that was established in 1992 has a series of offices under it. In January 2003, a Libyan woman was appointed by the Libyan government to chair the annual session of UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Libya has also appointed a small number of women ambassadors.

Women are encouraged to participate in the Basic People's Congresses, where every citizen can come to discuss and make decisions on policies, although they continue to be dominated by men. In an attempt to encourage more women to participate, the regime set up separate women's congresses to appeal to the conservative elements of Libyan society. However, while this means more women may attend, it in fact serves to reinforce the idea of gender segregation. There are also women's revolutionary committees – these are paralegal organizations set up to "defend the revolution" and spread regime propaganda.

Overall, despite narrowly defined attempts by the regime, it is still socially difficult for a woman to take a position in politics. Social attitudes continue to be resistant to the idea of women participating in politics. In a survey carried out among Libyan students, only 38 percent of men were in favor of women playing a political role, but 72 percent of women were in support.

Access to information is generally limited in Libya; most foreign newspapers and publications are banned. Women increasingly use the Internet for information, but it is partly censored. For example, the websites of Libyan opposition groups based abroad have been disabled. Women also have access to some satellite television stations. Nevertheless, due to the repressive nature of the state, the possibilities for women to use information to empower themselves are extremely limited.


  1. The government should allow free and competitive elections to take place, and should take concrete steps to ensure that Libyan women have equal participation at all levels of the political process.
  2. The government should allow independent political parties to operate freely and mandate the reservation of seats in political bodies for women.
  3. The government should allow independent civil society organizations to operate freely in all parts of the country and cooperate with international women's groups.
  4. The government should establish mechanisms to ensure that women are not discriminated against in the hiring policies of government structures and to ensure that women are promoted to senior positions within all branches of the government.


Women have limited social and cultural rights due primarily to the dominance of traditional values. In the past, Libya was largely a Bedouin society, but it is increasingly urbanizing. Despite these changes, Libya remains very conservative. Religion and tribal affiliation are the main driving cultural forces in Libya. Women find themselves at a disadvantage in many areas. The state has tried to promote women's social rights through legislation and through Qadhafi's repeated encouragements for women to play a more active role in society. However, this has not fundamentally changed perceptions, and women continue to face discrimination.

Women have limited abilities to make decisions about issues relating to their reproductive health, which in most cases is considered a family affair. While contraception is available in Libya, little information is available in the public domain, and it therefore remains a taboo subject. According to the UN, there is no government support to assist women with contraceptive use; the latest available figures suggest that in 1995, the proportion of married women using modern contraception was only 26 percent. Female genital mutilation is not widely practiced in Libya, although it is still thought to occur in a number of remote rural areas.

Abortion is illegal and punishable under the penal code. Anyone who procures an abortion is liable to imprisonment, although if it is deemed that the reason behind the act was to preserve the family "honor," i.e. in the case of rape, then the penalty is halved. If a woman procures her own abortion, the punishment is imprisonment for at least six months. However, illegal abortions are carried out in Libya, or some Libyan women who can afford it are thought to travel to Tunisia, where the procedure is more readily available.

Every Libyan citizen is entitled to free health care, and women have the same access as men. However, due to the poor standards of health care inside Libya, those who can afford it travel abroad for treatment. Considering that women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative during travel, the cost of being treated abroad increases, and the expense may prevent some women from traveling in order to receive higher quality treatment.

Libya has a limited private housing market due to the peculiarities of a political system that discourages private sector activity. Women do have the right to own and use housing, but the tradition dictates that a woman's home is generally in the husband's name if she is married. Single women are expected to live with their parents or relatives, as it is deemed shameful by society for a young woman to live alone. The government does not provide accommodation or hostels to assist working women.

Women are able to work in the media. However, all forms of media are strictly controlled and neither women nor men are free to influence media content. Only those women with the necessary connections are able to secure employment in this field. The print media frequently publicize the promotion of women in society, but this is primarily pro-regime propaganda. For example, International Women's Day is celebrated and widely reported in the media, but this attention is generally focused around praising achievements of the regime. Many stereotypes appear in the media that emphasize a woman's role as mother and housewife.

Women are adversely affected by poverty, especially those who are illiterate. Under the social security law, widows are entitled to welfare payments in the form of a percentage of their deceased husbands' pension. They are allotted between 30 percent and 75 percent of the pension regardless of age. However in practice, due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, these payments appear to be difficult for women to collect, and the amount is often insufficient for survival. Women who are divorced face particularly acute challenges. Those who are widowed or divorced and unable to work are expected to rely upon their families for survival.

Women are not free to participate in or influence community life, policies, and/or social development at the local level unless sanctioned by the state. However, older women tend to be given more respect and are consulted about decisions that affect the family, such as marriage and other domestic affairs.

Genuinely independent women's rights groups do not exist in Libya; as a result, women are not able to carry out advocacy work to promote and protect women's social and cultural rights. Any activity in this regard must be sanctioned by the state.


  1. The government should take concrete steps to reduce the taboos associated with contraception and reproductive health through countrywide information campaigns and increased education for women, especially those living in rural areas.
  2. The government should work with schools and community centers to encourage and provide sports facilities for girls and women.
  3. The government should establish women's centers throughout the country to provide clear and simple information to Libyan women about their legal rights, government services, and access to complaint mechanisms and legal services.
  4. The government should create support networks for the most vulnerable groups of women in society such as widows, disabled women and girls, women in prison, and unmarried women who become pregnant.

AUTHOR: Alison Pargeter is a Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute at Kings College London. She works primarily on security issues in North Africa with a particular focus on Libya. She has conducted several research projects on Libya that have entailed fieldwork, and has also published numerous articles on the country.


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. "Libya Data Profile," in World Development Indicators database (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, August 2004),

2. The World Factbook: Libya (Springfield, VA: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2004), http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ly.html.

3. Ibid.

4. Muammar al-Qadhafi, The Green Book (Tripoli: World Centre for the Study and Research of the Green Book), 1983.

5. Ibid.

6. Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Age of the Masses (1988), http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8744/grgreen.htm.

7. Legal Profile: Libya (Atlanta, GA: Emory Law School Islamic Family Law Project, undated), http://www.law.emory.edu/IFL/legal/libya.htm.

8. "Judiciary: Libya" (New York: UNDP Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, undated), http://www.pogar.org/countries/judiciary.asp?cid=10.

9. "Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah" (New York: United Nations CEDAW Second Periodic Reports of States Parties, 15 March 1999), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reports.htm#l.

10. "Nahwa ufq awsa wa musahama fa'ala lilmarra al-libya [Moving Towards A Greater Horizon and Effective Contribution for Libyan Women]," Al Beit magazine, undated.

11. Conversation between the author and a Libyan lawyer based in the UK, May 2004.

12. International Religious Freedom Report 2003: Libya (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 18 Dec. 2003), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/c10269.htm.

13. Mahar is an Arabic term for the dower payment that a Muslim woman has the right to receive from her husband at the time of her marriage.

14. Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah, Second Periodic Report of States Parties Due in 2000 (New York: United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child, CRC/C/93/Add.1, 19 Sept. 2002), http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/CRC.C.93.Add.1.En?OpenDocument.

15. Mustafa Attir, "Mulahathaat hawla audaa ashabaab fi Libya [Notes on the Situation of Libyan Youth]," (undated),,www.moattir.com.

16. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices-2003: Libya (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 25 Feb. 2004), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27933.htm (hereafter cited as Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State)).

17. 2002 Human Rights Report on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children: Libya (Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, The Protection Project, March 2002),

18. Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 14 June 2004).

19. Abdel Salam Bashir al-Duwaiby, "Al Unf al-Ahili: Al Aba'at al-Silbiya wal Ijra'at al-Wikaiya (Al-Mustama al-Arabi al-Libi Kanamuthej)" [Family Violence: The Negative Dimension and Prevention and Treatment Procedures – Arabic Libyan Society as a Sample] (undated), http://www.amanjordan.org/studies/sid=21.htm (in Arabic).

20. The Tuareg are a nomadic tribal group located in the deserts of the southwest of Libya that are thought to number around 10,000. They adhere to a form of Sunni Islam but incorporate non-orthodox elements. However, as the regime denies the existence of minorities in Libya, it is extremely difficult to find information about them or the status of Tuareg women.

21. Table 24, "Gender-related development index," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 217-220. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

22. "The Distribution of the Libyan Population Aged between 6 and 24 in Education According to Gender for the Academic Year 2000-01" in Al Khitab al-Ahsai [Statistics Book] (Tripoli: Libyan National Committee for Information and Documentation, 2002), www.nidaly.org.

23. Ibid.

24. "Educational Level of the Workforce According to Gender, 2001," op. cit., www.nidaly.org.

25. "Libya: Women in Public Life" (New York: UNDP Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, 2004), http://www.pogar.org/.

26. "Educational Level of the Workforce According to Gender, 2001," See Appendix III, op. cit.

27. M. Attir, op. cit.

28. "Breakdown of Libyan labour force according to income and gender 2001," op. cit., www.nidaly.org (in Arabic only); see Appendix II.

29. A. Obeidi, Political Culture in Libya (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 2001), 185.

30. "Al-Zawari li Al-Tawalt [Al-Zawari speaks to Al-Tawalt]," www.tawalt.com/letter (in Arabic).

31. A. Obeidi, op. cit., 187.

32. World Contraceptive Use 2003 (New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 21 April 2004),

33. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

34. Social Security Programs Throughout the World-Libya Report: 2002-03 (Washington, D.C.: Social Security Online, 2003)

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