Areas controlled by lesser known militias are seen as unpredictable, and are consequently avoided by women. This was because there was limited prospect of those groups being held to some level of accountability. Sarah from Suq al-Jumaa noted the importance of the existence of ‘a code for dealing with women’ to be present. For many Libyan women, any indication of improper treatment or behaviour can lead to social stigma, and is consequently a major consideration over their movements.
Others see the LAAF differently. ‘We had multiple assassinations and killings every day and we were helpless, security has significantly improved after LAAF were in control,’ says Sorour who lives in Benghazi. ‘It’s not even comparable, I have a life again’. Of course, the relationship of particular communities (and constituencies in those communities) to warring factions plays a big role. These vary across the country. In the east of the country, there was agreement that the LAAF consolidation of control had contributed to improvements in security, making it easier for women to travel.
In this regard, the LAAF’s arrival in the south was perceived positively by interviewees who said it had resulted in an improvement in security and decreased criminal activity in the area. Female interviewees in Sebha, the capital of the southern Fezzan region which has been subject to ongoing power struggles, welcomed the return of regime-era army and police officers to their jobs in 2019 as part of the LAAF expansion into the south.
The interviewees saw these regime-era elements as more professional and legitimate – evoking memories of a more stable and safer time – than the armed groups that had replaced them. ‘Sebha had become a crime hotspot, we had it all, kidnapping, murder, robbery. It was dangerous to go out alone, so we’d go out in groups for protection,’ bemoaned Najwa, who lives in the city, before remarking on the progress made. ‘I had to travel to work in a group to feel safe [before], but now I am able to go to my job without any fear.’
Yet, interviewees also acknowledged that LAAF control in the east has been accompanied by a limitation in freedom of expression, and that mobility for women remains conditional. ‘In order to get a security approval for me to travel, my brother had to say I was going for a health treatment and my family was picking me up on the other side,’ complained Abir, from the city of Tobruk near the Libyan-Egyptian border. She explained that even though women were allowed to travel after the ban, she still had to lie about the reasons for travelling, such as pretending the trip was needed for medical treatment or to attend a family gathering, to avoid further scrutiny by LAAF forces. There was an illusion of freedom that could disappear at any moment, she reflected.