Transitions

First Libya’s Lady Lawyers Fought Qaddafi, Now They’re Fighting for Their Jobs

Recently I spoke to Amera Ali, a young lawyer from Tripoli, who had little good to say about the current situation. During the early days of the Libyan revolution, Ali took to the streets as part of a lawyers’ movement to protest the killing of anti-Qaddafi protesters. As she was putting her life on the ...

OSAMA IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
OSAMA IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

Recently I spoke to Amera Ali, a young lawyer from Tripoli, who had little good to say about the current situation. During the early days of the Libyan revolution, Ali took to the streets as part of a lawyers’ movement to protest the killing of anti-Qaddafi protesters. As she was putting her life on the line, I am sure she never dreamed that the end of the conflict would bring a-not-so subtle campaign to drive women out of the judicial and legal profession altogether. 

With conservative forces on the rise, leaflets preaching the importance of wearing the hijab have started appearing; distributed to female lawyers who do not wear one by religious men who observe the strictest forms of sharia. "The voice of women in a council of men is an act of shame, even if she is reciting the Quran," say one of the leaflets, a hint that women should not be working in courts altogether. The campaign goes on to threaten the non-compliant with kidnapping and rape by sending anonymous messages to them. Some lawyers have even had their family members targeted via messages on their phones and Facebook pages. 

The pressure does not stop there. Female lawyers are increasingly being constrained to practice only family law. Many are forced to hand over their criminal cases to male lawyers due to threats by defendants and the government’s inability to protect them; even in the courtroom. In some instances, their supervisors have served female lawyers with unjustifiable warning notices, tarnishing their professional records and delaying their clients’ trials. 

As with so many other aspects of Libya’s transition, the precarious security situation in Libya is responsible for complicating matters. Criminals and convicts, many of them heavily armed, are freely roaming the streets. "The situation has become very dangerous and scary for lawyers in Libya," said Ali. The recent assassination of prominent lawyer and activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari in Benghazi has led many to reconsider their profession, she added. 

Worse than the criminals themselves, however, are the bystanders who do nothing when witnessing a crime. This general tendency toward inaction leaves criminals free to do what they please whenever they please, dramatizing the weakness of the legal system. Libya’s lawyers and citizens (both male and female) have been intimidated into a state of indifference during the last two years. 

Marginalizing women is just another way to break the backbone of Libya’s legal system. The judiciary’s autonomy has been under consistent threat due to blatant interference by the country’s politicians. The General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim legislature, has undermined the judiciary by making some of its legislation beyond judicial review; the most famous being the political isolation law that led to the resignation of former-President Mohamed al-Magariaf.   

However, these are not the only challenges facing the judiciary and legal professionals in Libya. In the past year, Libya has witnessed an increase in the attacks on judges and lawyers. Lawyers, judges, and activists have been the targets of assassination (here and here). These attacks led Lawyers for Justice in Libya to voice concern over the lack of security for the judiciary in post-revolution Libya.

What’s particularly odd about this phenomenon is that women have been allowed to work and serve as judges since 1981. The first woman judge was appointed by the Qaddafi regime in 1991, and estimates put the number of women judges at 50 as of 2010. There are about 600 female lawyers that stand to be affected by these tactics in Tripoli alone. If they were to quit, as 25 women recently did, it would be detrimental to rebuilding Libya’s legal system. 

The judiciary is critical to the well-being of post-revolution Libya. It is evident that a functional legal system, one that protects rights and redresses wrongs, is vital to restoring the peace and stability to such a war-torn society. Only with a sound legal system — and a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary — will people trust their disputes to the state, and refrain from the vigilante score settling that signals the breakdown of the rule of law in the country. 

For this reason, Libya’s female lawyers are integral to the building of a new country. They have been very vocal in support of human rights and women’s rights and other civil society organizations. If they continue to be sidelined, and remain absent in bodies like the Supreme Court, it would silence a crucial voice in one of Libya’s most important institutions. 

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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