“Libyan girls can become president now”

June 5, 2014

Earlier this year, Libyan activist and founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace Ms Zahra’ Langhi visited the Netherlands. The platform was established with support from Hivos after the fall of former ruler Moammar Qadhafi in 2011. Hivos sat down with Ms Langhi and spoke about the fall of Qadhafi, the current political situation in Libya and why she regards disarmament to be the absolute priority for her country at this moment.

The message of Libyan activist Zahra’ Langhi is urgent and crystal clear: “Disarmament – that is our absolute priority. Not the elections, nor constitutional reforms. First we must disarm the militias.”

Since the end of the Qadhafi era, hundreds of militias ‘govern’ thousands of fighters who, according to the BBC, own “two million pistols, machine guns and rifles”. The elected government is too weak to keep control over the militias.

Can you explain what is happening at the moment?

“In Libya there is no separation of powers. Some Congress Members are part of a militia, which caused them to lose their legitimacy. They use the power of their militias to push forward legislation. Female MPs that express diverging opinions are threatened. We have to break the militias’ power.”

Zahra’ Langhi is a prominent gender specialist and political activist. In October 2011 she founded the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP), a movement working towards peace, human rights and female leadership.

Can you tell us about that initial phase?

“In the beginning, we were euphoric. Qadhafi had been ousted. Young people, women, men: everyone was engaged and hopeful, and finally we had elections. The LWPP succeeded in its efforts to have male and female candidates appear alternately on party lists. In June 2012, Libyan women won 17 percent of the seats of the National Congress (Parliament). That was a real victory.”

The euphoria now has been replaced by disappointment and frustration. How did that happen?

Zahra’ Langhi speaks softly, but her message is loud and clear: “I blame myself and my organisation for not addressing the rights issues from the start. Our priority should have been with national dialogue and reconciliation. Everyone was focusing on the elections, and how to influence the electoral law so that women would be represented. That is good, and it is needed, but it is not where we should have started.”

What should have happened instead?

“If you would ask me now, I would say: Do not begin with elections in post-conflict countries going through a democratic transition. Do not start with an unchecked press. We see that it divides society and enhances polarisation. There are no democratic checks and balances yet whatsoever. The press is not free. In Libya, the militias own all television channels. Disarmament and security, that is where we should have started. It should now be our main priority to work on this.”

Are you supported in this approach?

“The international community is currently pushing Libya to write a new constitution, but the youth is not involved in this process. In the Constitutional Assembly, only six out of sixty seats are reserved for women. I understand that there are international budgets available for the reform of our constitution. But be flexible, and consider a national dialogue about reconciliation as a part of that process. Listen to what Libya itself wants. Let’s take the 1951 Constitution as a starting point, for now that is good enough. First we have to work on demilitarisation and reintegration of armed citizens.”

How do you view the future of Libya?

“We live in exciting times, full of change. I think it will take at least ten more years to realise a stable Libya, with stable government institutions that can guarantee full participation of women and men, young and old. Some time ago, I heard a girl state at a conference that she wants to become President. To her I say, without any hesitation: Yes, you can!”

Women on the Frontline

Organisations in the Middle East and North Africa like Zahra’ Langhi’s Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace are part of Hivos’ network. Hivos highly values the participation of women in the Arab world during this challenging transitional phase to more democracy. According to Programme Manager Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, “Especially now, it is crucial to support women in order for them to have a say in their countries’ futures. These women were in the front lines to demand change and finally got a chance to make their voices heard. In doing this, they have opened a door that was firmly closed before, and this door will not be closed again.” The women’s organisations can count on training, expertise, financial and moral support from Hivos, in cooperation with Oxfam Novib and PwC.