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III. Background

We’re trying to move the law from theory into practice. There are women in the police, the army, the judiciary, and the university, but the problem is that much of the society still holds a primitive view of women.
— Libyan attorney [name withheld], Tripoli, May 4, 2005

Libyan women have made substantial legal and social gains since the al-Fateh revolution of 1969.1 These advances, many of which are unparalleled in other countries in the region, have improved women’s status in the family and their participation in public life. However, despite the existence of formal guarantees of equality, women continue to confront widespread discrimination throughout Libyan society, which remains largely male-dominated and patriarchal. Adult women are often treated socially and legally as perpetual minors under the guardianship of their fathers or other male relatives. While no reliable statistics exist on the incidence of violence against women in Libya, senior government officials categorically deny its existence in the country. There is no domestic violence law, and laws punishing sexual violence are inadequate, leaving victims without effective judicial recourse.

Women’s Legal Status

Libyan women enjoy a host of legal rights denied to women in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. For example, the minimum age of marriage is equal for both men and women, and is set relatively high at twenty.2 Only judicial divorces are officially recognized, prohibiting husbands from verbally repudiating their wives.3 Divorced woman are granted presumptive custody of their children.4 Libyan women may hold judicial positions in all courts, including family courts—a right granted only to men in most of Libya’s neighboring countries.5

Inequalities persist in law, however, such as in citizenship laws that at present allow only men to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse.6 In some areas, adult women continue to be considered legal minors with restricted decision-making power over their lives. For example, while there are female police officers in Libya, they require the permission of their fathers for admission to the Women’s Police Academy.7 When Human Rights Watch visited a government-run drug rehabilitation facility in Tripoli, the director noted that all 5,500 patients admitted over the past five years were men. This is no doubt due to the fact that women of all ages need permission from their fathers or male guardians to enroll in this program.8

Like men, the Libyan government denies women the right to organize politically outside state-sanctioned parameters. Their only avenue of political participation is within the Basic People’s Congress (mu’atamar al-shabi al-asasi) open to all Libyans over the age of eighteen.9 The government-run General Women’s Union within the General People’s Congress (the legislative branch) is responsible for implementing all social programs for women and children. In 1992, the General People’s Congress established a department of Women’s Affairs with a deputy responsible for women. However, the Secretary of Social Affairs has recently absorbed this department, and its deputy is now responsible for a much wider portfolio not limited to women’s affairs. 

While the government has attempted to increase women’s access to employment, Libyan women continue to lag behind men in this area. Women comprise only 22 percent of the Libyan labor force in the formal sector.10

In 1989, Libya acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Libya has also ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, which allows the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups.11 Libya was among the first countries to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, guaranteeing women access to justice and equal protection of the law.12 This Protocol requires state parties to adopt all necessary measures for the prevention, punishment, and eradication of all forms of violence against women.13  Additional obligations to protect women’s rights and ensure their equal status under the law are enshrined in other international instruments ratified by Libya including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)14 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).15   

However, at the time of its ratification of CEDAW, Libya entered reservations to article 2 (on the right to non-discrimination) and article 16 (c) and (d) (on non-discrimination in all matters relating to marriage and family relations), stating that the convention must be implemented in accordance with shari’a (Islamic law). In July 1995, Libya submitted a new general reservation stating that the treaty’s implementation cannot conflict with personal status laws derived from shari’a. Such reservations undermine the object and purpose of the treaty because article 2 is considered to be a core article of the convention.16 These reservations have been widely criticized by other governments.17 The CEDAW Committee has also noted that “reservations to article 16, whether lodged for national, traditional, religious or cultural reasons, are incompatible with the Convention and therefore impermissible and should be reviewed and modified or withdrawn.”18

Government Response to Violence against Women

Violence and rape is very rare. You might find two cases [in Libya] from people belonging to non-Libyan cultures.
—Amal Safar, deputy of social affairs in the General People’s Congress, Tripoli, April 25, 2005
Society looks at that woman [a rape victim] as if she made a mistake. The woman pays the price for this. She gets an exit visa from society.
— Libyan attorney [name withheld], Tripoli, May 4, 2005

The manner in which violence against women is handled in the Libyan legal and judicial system raises serious human rights concerns. Widespread denial that violence against women exists in Libya, and the lack of adequate laws and services, leaves victims of violence without an effective remedy and deters reporting of rape. According to government officials, programs and services for victims of violence are unnecessary due the absence of this phenomenon in Libyan society. The deputy of social affairs told Human Rights Watch:  “We don’t have violence against women… if there was violence, we would know.” She claimed that violence against women in Libya ended with the onset of the 1969 al-Fateh revolution. “We can’t deny that previously before the revolution, there were wrongdoings against women,” she said.  Another official told Human Rights Watch that the existence of “social values” in Libya made violence against women rare.19 These claims are not backed by any qualitative or quantitative research.

While the extent of violence against women in Libya remains unknown, a senior judicial official told Human Rights Watch that their office regularly confronts domestic violence cases.20 According to this official, 99 percent of the victims eventually withdraw their cases.21 Secretary of Public Security Nasr al-Mabrouk told Human Rights Watch that in Libya “it is completely prohibited to use violence against women in any way,”22 but this is not the understanding of those in the highest levels of the Libyan police. The head of the Public Security Training Administration, Brigadier Mohammed Ibrahim al-Asaybi, told Human Rights Watch: “Disciplining [a woman] is my right. But that right is not limitless… when your son makes a mistake, you can reprimand him and hit him but you cannot take a pistol and shoot him.”23 It is unclear how much scope a man has to “discipline” his wife under Libyan law. According to Brigadier al-Asaybi, “there is no exact boundary for violence against women.”24 Moreover, according to article 375 of the penal code, if a man kills a wife, mother, daughter or sister whom he suspects is engaged in extramarital sexual relations, he benefits from a reduction in penalty.

Domestic violence is not explicitly prohibited by law. Police officers are also not specifically trained to handle cases of violence against women. According to Brigadier Mohammed Ibrahim al-Asaybi, the same official who condoned “disciplining” wives with violence, “women’s rights are not addressed [in the training manuals provided to police cadets] since women are equal.” He dismissed the idea of specialized police officers trained to handle cases of family violence:  “If we think about it, what’s next? A tourism police? A children’s police? An electricity police? A women’s police? We would be divided into ten pieces. We can’t get too specialized. We’re a small country.”25  

There are no shelters for victims of violence in Libya. Victims of violence, particularly rape victims, would thus find government-provided “shelter” only in the social rehabilitation facilities described in this report.

The classification of sexual crimes in the Libyan penal code is problematic. The law considers sexual violence to be a crime against a woman’s “honor.” The chief prosecutor  for Tripoli told Human Rights Watch: “If a woman is raped, that is a threat to her honor. She’s usually kicked out of the home and stays in the social welfare home.”26 The penal code classifies sexual violence under “crimes against freedom, honor, and morality,” which does not appropriately reflect the nature of the crime.27All forms of sexual assault should be considered fundamentally as a crime against the individual rather than a crime against specific norms or values.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the criminalization of extramarital sexual relations in Libya also would severely impede the ability of rape victims to seek justice.28 A court may view a woman’s charge of rape as an admission of illegal sex unless she can prove (by strict evidentiary standards) that the intercourse was non-consensual and therefore not fornication or adultery. According to high-level government officials, only the most violent rape cases (mostly involving older men attacking minors) are criminally prosecuted, while the rest are remedied “socially” through family arrangements such as coerced marriage in order to avoid public scandal. Libya’s chief public prosecutor Mohamed al-Masrati explained:

When a judge is presented with a case of sexual relations between a man and a woman, the judge searches for the best solution that serves both parties. If the sexual relations were forced, the parents often intervene in these matters and try to find a social solution outside of the court. This is better than destroying families.

The judge suggests marriage when there are appropriate circumstances: if the judge feels that both parties are willing, if the families of both parties are capable of cooperating, and the judge is convinced that there were previous [sexual] relations.

Judges don’t force them to marry. The judge looks at both sides, the situation of the woman and the man, while taking into consideration the opinions of the family. The judge [then] decides whether it [the case] should end in jail time or a social solution in order to keep the issue secret.29

A female prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that “most rape cases end in marriage.”30 According to the public prosecutor, if the rapist and the victim agree to marry, the judge issues a sentence that the court does not immediately enforce. “If the marriage lasts and they have children, the sentence is no longer valid; it is dropped. But if there are problems, and he [the rapist] attempts to deceive the woman again, the judge [requires the rapist to] serve the sentence,” he said.31 Under these circumstances, it is likely that the courts coerce many women into marriages with their attackers and that the women have not given their free and full consent to the marriage, in violation of international law.32

The sexual history of a rape victim and her relationship (intimate or otherwise) with the rapist may also determine whether the court prosecutes the rapist or proposes marriage as a “solution” to the case. According to the attorney general, a judge proposes marriage when “there was a relationship.” However, he noted, “when a woman is young and is assaulted by an older man, the perpetrator is imprisoned….If there is a clear assault on a woman, we take criminal action [emphasis added].”33

The legal trend in many countries is that the general reputation of the victim has no bearing on a judicial determination of whether she was raped in a particular instance. Many countries have enacted “rape shield laws” that explicitly bar the admission of reputation or opinion evidence relating to a woman’s past sexual behavior in rape cases. Such rape shield laws also prohibit the admission of other evidence regarding a woman’s past sexual behavior, with a few limited exceptions.

While the real extent of violence against women in Libya is unknown, the government is failing to act with due diligence in determining the extent of these crimes and responding appropriately to them when they do occur. In General Recommendation 19,34 the CEDAW Committee emphasized that states may be “responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.”35

[1] Colonel Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi led a military coup known as the al-Fateh Revolution on September 1, 1969 that overthrew the monarchy of King Idris al-Sanusi. The Revolutionary Command Council headed by al- Qadhafi ruled the country until the “popular revolution” of 1971, establishing a system of “direct democracy.” This system later evolved in 1977 towards the Jamahiriya (or “state of the masses”) in place today.     

[2] Law No. 10 (1984) Concerning the Specific Provisions on Marriage and Divorce and their Consequences, chapter 1 (Marriage), section 2 (General Provisions), article 6 (Legal Capacity). Judges are granted the authority to make exceptions for earlier marriages “where [the court] determines some benefit or necessity and after the agreement of the guardian.” Dawoud S. El Alimi and Doreen Hinchcliffe, Islamic Marriage and Divorce Laws of the Arab World (London: Kluwer Law International, 1996), p.183.

[3] Law No. 10 (1984), chapter 2 (Divorce of the Spouses), section 1 (Divorce), article 28. Dawoud S. El Alimi and Doreen Hinchcliffe, Islamic Marriage and Divorce Laws of the Arab World (London: Kluwer Law International, 1996), p.189.

[4] Law No. 10 (1984), chapter 3 (Consequences of the Dissolution of Marriage), section 6 (Custody), article 62. Al-mara’ fi al’tashiryat al-libaya [Women in Libyan Legislation], (Tripoli: Publication of the Women’s Affairs Secretariat of the General People’s Congress, 1994), p. 113.

[5] Law No.8 (1989) Concerning Women Holding Judicial Positions, article 1. Al-mara’ fi al’tashiryat al-libaya [Women in Libyan Legislation] (Tripoli: Publication of the Women’s Affairs Secretariat of the General People’s Congress, 1994), p. 232.

[6] A law allowing Libyan women to transfer citizenship is reportedly in the final stages of preparation. Human Rights Watch interview with Miriam al-Leyd, consultant at the Tripoli Appeals Court, Tripoli, April 25, 2005.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with officers at the Women’s Police Academy, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with Ismail Mabrouk Karama, general director of the Drug Enforcement and Control Authority, Tripoli, April 25, 2005.

[9] Basic People’s Congresses exist in each local administrative unit (sha’biyya). Each Basic People’s Congress elects a People’s Committee (lajna sha’biyya lil mahalla) which appoints the local representative to the General People’s Congress (mu’tamar al-sha’b al-‘amm) or national legislative assembly.  

[10] See “Gender” in the Libya section of the UNDP Programme on Governance in the Arab Region website: (retrieved June 28, 2005).

[11] Libya ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women on June 18, 2004.

[12] Article 8. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa was adopted by African Heads of State and Government on July 10, 2003. Libya ratified this protocol on May 23, 2004.

[13] Article 4, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

[14] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976 and acceded to by Libya on May 15, 1970.

[15] Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3 entered into force September 2, 1990, acceded to by Libya on May 15, 1993.

[16] See section on “Reservations to CEDAW,” the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs [online] (retrieved August 18, 2005).

[17] Denmark, Finland, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have entered objections to these reservations. Sweden, for example, stated that “indeed, the reservations in question, if put into practice, would inevitably result in discrimination against women on the basis of sex, which is contrary to everything the Convention stands for.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Nasr Amin, secretary of interior, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with a senior judicial official [name withheld], Tripoli, May 2, 2005.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with Nasr al-Mabrouk, secretary of public security, Tripoli, April 26, 2005.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with Brigadier Mohammed Ibrahim al-Asaybi, head of the Public Security Training Administration, Tripoli, May 3, 2005.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Youssef al-Mahatrash, chief prosecutor for Tripoli, May 2, 2005.

[27] See Libyan penal code, chapter 3.

[28] Law No. 70 (1973) "Regarding the Establishment of the Hadd Penalty for Zina modifying some of the Provisions of the Penal Law." Article 1 defines zina as intercourse between a man and woman who are not bound to each other by marriage. Flogging is prescribed as punishment for those convicted of the zina offenses outlined in articles 3 and 4.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed al-Masrati, chief public prosecutor, Tripoli, April 27, 2005.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Intissar al-Ghiryani, prosecutor, Tripoli, May 2, 2005.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed al-Masrati, chief public prosecutor, Tripoli, April 27, 2005.

[32] ICCPR, article 23 (3) and CEDAW, article 16 (b).

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed al-Masrati, chief public prosecutor, Tripoli, April 27, 2005.

[34] General Recommendations elaborate on the contents of the provisions of the Convention and are intended to provide guidelines to states parties in order to assist them in fulfilling their obligations under these treaties. 

[35] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), General Recommendation 19, Violence against women, U.N. Doc.A/47/38 (1992) para. 9.

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