Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Libyan Youth Yearn for Normalcy

Rebecca Murray

TRIPOLI, Mar 14 2012 (IPS) - Young men and women socialise together at Tripoli University’s ‘campus B’ tarmac parking lot as they prepare to sit for examinations during this tumultuous school year.

Student union members in Tripoli. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

Student union members in Tripoli. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

Many things have changed for the estimated 120,000 students of the public university. The Green Book curriculum has been eliminated, classroom debate encouraged, and the threat of Gaddafi loyalists spying on classmates is vanquished.

Male students who took time off to serve as rebel fighters against Gaddafi’s regime now volunteer to secure the university’s perimeter, to the detriment of their studies, some say. Libyan women also played a key, but less visible, role in the resistance.

A sleek but unfinished multi-storey complex, intended as the new campus, towers over aging low-slung classrooms, overgrown grass, scrawled graffiti and a bombed building which previously housed pro- Gaddafi militants.

Unfortunately construction on the new structure is now halted. Student union members say contractors forgot to lay down plumbing before pouring the foundation.

Despite their battered surroundings, the students – many wearing fashionable skinny jeans and sweaters – are empowered and optimistic when asked about their future, but often vague about specific changes.

Mohammed Al Harby, 27, head of the Student Union, sits comfortably on a sofa with peers in the dean’s office at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. “We want to build a connection between the students and the administration,” he says. “For many years there was a big gap.”

Overall, he says, Libya faces big political challenges. “Everything is going too slow – everything. People are starting to compare the government to a turtle. There are promises; some have been done, some have not.”

Al Harby, whose group has 250 members, says there a stigma attached to a student union. “People have this old idea about an organisation inside the university – that it’s a group of people who were kind of secret intelligence. People still fear to do the same mistake.

“Also, to be honest with you, people our age are tired, really tired. They don’t have energy any more to work hard in a union or party – they say just give me a good salary and life – I have just been waiting and waiting.”

Youth dominate Libya’s demographics; nearly half the population is under 20 years old, with an estimated unemployment rate of 30 percent.

Al Harby is happy with the government’s recent promise that all students will receive a 60 dollar monthly stipend, but concedes he doesn’t know how the funds will be distributed.

Posing a similar quandary is the lack of student awareness about the mechanics and content of the electoral process – rules, registration, political party and independent candidate platforms, public forums and debates. Libya’s national elections are due in June.

The winners of this critical election will subsequently form a committee to draw up the constitution.

Lujeena, 19, along with fellow student, Rula, 22, are two of the few women on campus that do not wear hijab.

“We hope they will apply Sharia as there is no danger in that,” says Lujeena. “But if they use the name of Islam to prohibit things – that’s what we are afraid of. Basically if women cannot drive, if they take away our freedom, make us wear hijab.

“Islamic groups are very active on the campus as well as in the neighbourhoods,” Lujeena adds.

“Women today should take positions in the government, but not the presidency,” comments classmate Basher Al Jfeiry, 22. “Because of the Gaddafi mentality, and how men are going to see it. If a woman will be the president of Libya they won’t go for it. Hopefully in the future this will change.”

The crowd in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square (formerly Green Square) at the recent Feb. 17 anniversary of the uprising was remarkably festive, with men, women and children lighting floating lanterns to express joy over their new hard-earned freedom.

Haja Saber and her best friend, Rowaida Mokhtar, both young English students, were in the crowd celebrating with their families. They are adamant about gender roles in a new Libya.

“We have high goals as women, and we can do some of the men’s jobs,” says Saber. “But men have the big power.”

Mokhtar agrees. “Women should stay in their homes. They could do small things like being a teacher – but limited jobs. The country is about men, not women,” she adds.

This does not fit the agenda of Issraa Murabit, 20. She is a dynamic leader with the local NGO, Voice of Libyan Women, that emphasises women’s access to healthcare, education and public understanding of gender-based violence.

The organisation is practical in setting out what it can achieve. It believes shelter houses for women will be difficult to implement in a conservative society, and that women tend to distrust hotlines – one of which was set up by the former Gaddafi regime, but used to abuse, rather than help, vulnerable females in distress.

Educating Libyan women about the electoral process, political transparency, and gender representation are primary to the organisation’s goal.

The NTC leadership agreed under pressure from women’s groups to scrap a ten percent quota initially proposed for women in the electoral law. Now the country will be split into constituencies based on geography and demographics, with 120 seats going to individuals and 80 to political parties.

Men and women will share equal representation in the amount of seats won by each political party; and women’s groups are banking on the potential of a larger female voice because of this.

As for youth participation: “There are two sides of a coin,” Murabit says. “One, youth have been raised not to take action. The mentality of a lot of youth is, why isn’t the government listening to us?

“Two, the government isn’t listening to them. Right now it’s an older guys’ game, those who have been waiting 42 years. But they should be involving and recruiting youth with energy.”

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