Islamic State Social Policies Aren’t Exactly a Hit With Libyans

Why Libyans under Islamic State rule aren't taking to child brides and gender segregation.

Derna woman CROPPED

Lately, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to keep up with developments in Derna, the city in eastern Libya that has fallen under the control of the Islamic State. I’ve been interviewing people who have recently left the city as well as doing my best to cultivate contacts with those still there who are willing to talk.

Islamist militants often like to claim that they are trying to lead the members of their communities to a purified and more authentic version of Islam, one cleansed of the corrupting influences of the modern age. The new Islamic State rulers in Derna have been following their own version of this agenda, implementing a harsh new social code that runs sharply at odds with many Libyans’ understanding of proper Islamic practice. The militants have outlawed smoking. They’ve enforced tough new rules on public prayer. And they’ve implemented new taxes and fines to finance their newly established Islamic institutions. Though it’s hard to quantify just how unpopular such practices are, it’s clear that many residents have chosen to vote with their feet, leaving their homes in the city for life as penniless refugees rather than submit to Islamic State rule.

One of the most drastic examples of the split between mainstream Libyan thinking and Islamic State policies involves child brides. In October 2014, a group of Libyan and foreign jihadis, who had already been in control of parts of Derna for some time, declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, and since then there appears to have been a notable uptick in the numbers of young girls being married off to older men (though we should probably be a bit cautious about some of the sensationalist reporting in some quarters about a “boom” in child brides in Derna).

We’ve heard, for example, of a marriage between a leading Libyan militant in the city, the 55-year-old Abu Sufian bin Qumu, and a 16-year-old girl. Qumu is a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline militant group responsible for the killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012; Ansar al-Sharia’s leadership, including Qumu, reportedly declared their allegiance to the Islamic State in April. I’ve heard of cases in which families sympathetic to Islamic State ideology have married off their young daughters to foreign jihadis in Derna out of an apparently sincere sense of religious duty. But there are also stories of residents, far less sympathetic to the militants’ cause, who feel compelled to allow the marriage of girls (some as young as 12) in return for assurances of protection. Despite some of the recent media reports, there’s not much evidence that the phenomenon is widespread, at least not yet.

It’s hard to know with any precision how many people fall into either camp, of course. I’ve tried to speak to a number of people in Derna about the issue, but many felt uncomfortable discussing it and tended to dodge the questions. Even so, what comes through quite clearly is that there is generally a very strong social stigma attached to the notion of Libyan child brides being married off to foreign jihadis. Far from proudly embracing their presumptive role as leaders in restoring a noble and authentic Islamic practice, many of the people I’ve spoken with don’t want to be associated with it.

It’s worth noting that the relevant Libyan law, which has been in effect now for decades, sets the legal age for marriage at 20 — although there is a provision allowing judges to grant permission for younger girls to marry as long with permission from their guardians. But current Libyan law, it should be noted, is completely inapplicable in the city of Derna. The city has no functioning courts aside from the shariah tribunals established by the Islamic State.

Rather than dwelling on the sad but easy-to-sensationalize topic of child brides, perhaps we should be paying more attention to the plight of all women in Derna. The city’s militant rulers have introduced strict gender segregation policies, creating separate facilities for men and women at schools, universities, and other public places. Residents have told me that the Islamic State is now attempting to enforce a strict dress code for women in public, forcing them to wear head-to-toe coverings that entirely mask the face — a practice that is completely new to the city. The residents I’ve interviewed experience this strict interpretation of shariah law as quite alien to their own beliefs and traditions.

The Islamic State’s social engineering efforts in Derna are already having a huge impact on women’s rights and how women are treated and perceived. One woman activist, a teacher who left the city less than a year ago, contrasted the current situation with the way things felt back in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow: “We had a lot of hope in 2011 and 2012. The city was buzzing with civil society, much of it driven mainly by women.” She sighed. “And now we’re being thrown back to medieval times as far as women’s rights are concerned.” It’s hard to disagree.

(The photo above shows a young woman in Derna protesting against Qaddafi in the 2011 revolution.)

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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