How women are dealing with Libya's ever-present armed groups

Libya is in the midst of its third bout of civil war in less than a decade, with no near end in sight.

12 minute read

Khadeja Ramali

Co-founder, Project Silphium

Years of economic decline, governance chaos and conflict have had a deep impact on the country’s social fabric, and on the relations between and within its communities.

These developments have had a major effect on the lives of women and girls, whose physical security has been threatened, their mobility curtailed and employment opportunities reduced. But the period has also seen women find ways of adjusting, by starting their own businesses, pushing back against social restrictions imposed by conservative armed groups, and continuing to seek a voice in the political process.

Impact on security and mobility

While local armed groups are often denounced as undisciplined militias at the root of Libya’s problems, women interviewed for a Chatham House project said the fact that many armed groups were local and had a close relationship with their community was important to them.

This meant that there were rules that they knew they had to abide by. ‘There is a line the local groups won’t cross if you’re from the area. They live in the same neighbourhood and have to respect the community,’ said Sarah* , who lives in the Tripoli suburb of Suq al-Jumaa. ‘In a perfect world, of course, I’d prefer an official police and army [to be present] but that’s very hard to find right now.’ Interviewees from the Suq al-Jumaa and Abu Slim districts of the capital, Tripoli, felt that they would always be able to find someone they knew in the armed groups that are dominant in their area to help them out if they required assistance.

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There is a line the local groups won’t cross if you’re from the area. They live in the same neighbourhood and have to respect the community

  • *All names of interviews have been changed as the interviews spoke on the condition of anonymity
Illustration: Amy Reinecke

‘Security isn’t terrible but I feel it has changed, the previous groups who secured the city were from the community, now there is less trust,’ Maram from the central oasis town of Hun told the Chatham House interviewer. ‘You can’t tell where the armed groups are originally from.’ She stated that she felt less safe and didn’t trust the new security forces in Hun because they hailed from outside the area. This is further reflected by the fact that women interviewed reported feeling more comfortable travelling between areas they were more familiar with or that were run by armed groups who had a connection to the area.

In areas that had previously been under the control of local forces, the introduction of outside forces is met with trepidation. Maram felt that the city was relatively safe and closed off from external interferences prior to the entrance into the city of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), an alliance of armed groups mostly from eastern Libya that operate under the command of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. However, after the LAAF established their positions in the city, new LAAF-connected families had moved there, which had changed the dynamics said Maram.

Security and mobility - content continued

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.’

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We had multiple assassinations and killings every day and we were helpless, security has significantly improved after LAAF were in control it’s not even comparable, I have a life again.

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.

Impact on livelihood

The challenges of moving around have a deep impact on women’s ability to access employment. In the south, movement is largely restricted to the urban centres despite improvements in security.

In Sebha, for example, many new businesses and local organizations have relocated to newer neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city that have undergone a construction boom. Yet, women were nervous about leaving central areas. Before the cash crisis, some women would get their salaries while they sat at home. Now that’s not possible anymore.

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A woman must work to be able to support her family. Starting a business became something to brag about now.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

One interviewee said that she rejected a job offer in the new area of Sebha due to the distance from her home and the uncertainties of the route: ‘It’s fine if I needed to go there once or twice, but to go there every day would make me a target and I’d put myself in unnecessary risk, it’s still not secure.’

Women have found innovative ways around these constraints by starting their own businesses. In particular, they have turned to opening catering and food related services, sewing factories, and work as distributors to shops. Examples include Naksha art, started by a Libyan architect to sell drawings and sketches online, and Fashion House, a clothes boutique that also teaches women how to sew. Women have been particularly innovative in establishing businesses that they can operate from their homes, reducing the need to travel.

Impact on livelihood - content continued

‘Before the cash crisis, some women would get their salaries while they sat at home. Now that’s not possible anymore. A woman must work to be able to support her family. Starting a business became something to brag about now.’ says Najwa from Sebha. Female entrepreneurship was previously stigmatized as it was seen as a reflection of the failure of men in the family to earn sufficient income. However it is now increasingly accepted in major urban centres, interviewees report, because there is a clear need for cash in the current difficult economic climate. This provides the opportunity for women to have a larger role outside the home, yet further protections are needed to sustain these advances.

Most of these businesses run by women are part of the informal economy. They are not eligible for state assistance and won’t have access to legal protections in the future. This will hinder their owners from being able to grow their businesses in the future, and would benefit from legal support and access to finance to help them transition into the formal economy. NGOs are seeking to provide this support. ‘LEAP - a women’s entrepreneurship incubator has really helped me with advice and allowed me to create a business plan in addition to giving me a safe space to work,’ says Huda, a young entrepreneur who is setting up an agriculture business in her hometown. Initiatives like LEAP that are embedded within the community allow women to gain access to advice and expertise that would otherwise be too expensive to access on their own.

Accessing services

Women who lack access to public institutions and local services through their own social support network are more at risk of being manipulated by armed groups through the facilitation of access to these services. Salwa, a young woman from the Tripoli suburb of Hadba who studies at a Tripoli University, told Chatham House that the militia members tasked with providing security at her university request simple favours from female students in exchange for helping them with university services. She said that the militia members offered to help her with administrative tasks like enrolling her on a course, or even convincing a lecturer to let her retake an exam.

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…Security forces should be there to protect us but they’re the ones you find harassing women asking for something in return for their service.

Here, they could clearly leverage their influence over the university’s employees. In return, female students might exchange their personal phone numbers with the militia member and agree to talk to him over the phone or, in some cases, to accompany him to cafes outside the university campus. There is no pressure to use these services, she said, but giving these favours would lead to an acceleration of services at the university itself to women who didn’t have any ‘wasta’ (personal connections) to lean on. ‘This is currently happening and will continue to happen because of the lack of order on campus overall and the power these groups have over staff,’ Salwa concluded.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

‘I feel safe going to the local municipality or bank and asking for help from the young guards, they treat me like their mother, but I wouldn’t send my daughter there, they’d think she was unprotected,’ said Mona, a woman from Tripoli’s Abu Slim district. Age is seen to play a role in the perceived risk associated with accessing services such as withdrawing cash from the bank. Younger women are still seen to be vulnerable in public places like banks, with families once again concerned about potential aspersions being made against young women’s honour. Here, local municipalities could do more to help facilitate access to such services for vulnerable groups who lack the social protections of others.

For women, establishing personal connections with armed groups is looked down upon. However, some of the young female interviewees noted the clear improvement in living conditions on offer were they to enter into a romantic relationship with a member of an armed group. Salwa, the university student, mentioned access to benefits like new clothes, the latest smartphones, cash allowances in addition to a range of ‘wastas’ (connections). These benefits are an incentive to overlook the negative perception associated with the armed group members, she said.

Restrictions placed upon women

Similarly, in many places in Libya, armed groups are known to be engaged in informal and often illicit activity that has traditionally been frowned upon. Yet, all of the women interviewees living outside the capital agreed that participation in illegal income generating activities was not seen as a social stigma any more. Such activity was increasingly being seen as a way of earning a living in modern day Libya, and a necessary one in certain parts of the country. This illustrates the gap between the view of these activities in foreign capitals, where participation is associated with reckless criminality, and some local perceptions of needs and opportunities. Moreover, men participating in these activities were also seen as eligible bachelors in their local community by local women.

Social pressures on young men have grown and it is now unavoidable to not engage in illegitimate activities in one way or another in order to achieve milestones like marriage, Noria an interviewee from Qatroon reflected. ‘Even those that resisted [involvement in illicit activity] for so long finally caved in the end. Everyone is involved in the business. It’s hard not to be, there is pressure everywhere, young guys are buying the latest cars, buying houses, getting married.’ 

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We realized these things could happen to anyone so now we keep everything private, you never know what will trigger these groups to come after you.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

When the Morality Crimes Unit aligned with the eastern-based Interim Government arrested a group of young women in a Benghazi cafe in December 2018, the women were left bemused by the charge that they were operating a casino and dancing with men. The women had arranged the gathering at the café via Twitter to meet and play board games, and there was no dancing (it wouldn’t have been illegal if there was). A statement from the Morality Crimes Unit cited the presence of board games like Monopoly and UNO as evidence of gambling. The statement would also claim that the party was mixed between males and females, but the males present were the owner of the café and his staff.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

Due to young women being involved and the cultural sensitivity associated with their reputations being tarnished, there was an uproar on social media and from the Benghazi community over the actions of these officers. The Minister of Interior in the east, Ibrahim Bushnef, to whom the forces purportedly report, promised to investigate. However, the online and offline mobilization and community pressure in support of the girls resulted in the charges being dropped and the cafe reopened.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

On the face of it, this was a success, but the result has been to scare the young women into silence. Interviewees in the east said that women felt that they needed to operate more discreetly to avoid scrutiny of such armed groups. The Morality Crimes Unit is a Salafi-led force, with highly conservative views on religious and social life. ‘We realized these things could happen to anyone so now we keep everything private, you never know what will trigger these groups to come after you’ Sorour, a young woman who attended the gathering told the Chatham House researcher. She went on to say that there was an increase in online monitoring by the Morality Crimes Unit and supporters of its ideology after the incident, as part of attempts to limit the public outcry through popular opinion Facebook pages.

Restrictions - content continued

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At any moment they could come and stop you, you don’t have any power or rights… When we have power cuts I regularly had meetings with co-workers and employees in cafes but now it’s too risky.

Illustration: Amy Reinecke

‘At any moment they could come and stop you, you don’t have any power or rights,’ Huda, an interviewee from Tripoli confided, ‘When we have power cuts I regularly had meetings with co-workers and employees in cafes but now it’s too risky.’ Fears of the imposition of conservative social values upon women are felt across the country.

In Tripoli, several women interviewees said that it was hard to predict when armed groups might target them. Huda, who usually met colleagues in cafes for meetings in Tripoli said that she had to cancel any such arrangements after a raid by unknown forces on a local café in the Hay al-Andulus neighbourhood of the capital in late October 2019, based on similar justifications to the one in Benghazi. She moved all her activities to a local women’s coworking space instead. The forces alleged that the café was allowing mixing between genders. The group also allegedly interrogated the men in the café and threatened the owner by requesting he shut down the women’s section.

Another fault line in the conflict?

Armed groups justify such infringements on civilian freedoms through their self-assigned mandates to police ‘public morals’, which they base upon pre-2011 legislation that prohibits hosting parties, musical and any entertainment activities in the public places without permission. However, the legislation is ambiguous and leaves the bounds of immorality and indiscretion undefined. Such incidents illustrate that there needs to be more public awareness and outreach to clarify exactly what infringements of ‘public morals’ mean within the Libyan legal system so that it is not exploited. 

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In coordination with Dr Aisha al-Barghathi, we announce our full and unequivocal support for the operations of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces…

Political life in Libya has become increasingly polarized in the wake of ongoing conflict between the GNA and the LAAF. Some organizations representing women have also been divided along these lines.

‘Women see it as a lifeline to empower them to work in government positions despite cultural resistance’ said Salma, an interviewee from the southern city of Sebha. She was referring to the formation of the Libyan Women’s Empowerment Commission (LWEC), headed by the above-mentioned Dr Aisha al-Barghathi. The LWEC was established by the LAAF in the eastern and southern region in July 2019. It mirrors the Women’s Empowerment Unit, affiliated with the UN-backed Government of National Accord. There is much to be done. Women’s groups have criticized women’s exclusion from public life in Libya, and from internationally-mediated political negotiations in particular. Women have played an historic role in the mediation of inter-community conflict and continue to do so despite the growing militarization of Libyan society, these groups point out.

The existence of the LAAF- and GNA-affiliated women’s organizations illustrates the extent to which the LAAF and GNA are competing in all fields of social and political life. Perceived authenticity within the community is one way the LWEC is gaining support in the eastern and southern regions of Libya and is a method that is helping maintain LAAF popularity in these areas. For example, the interviewee from Sebha thought that LWEC’s offer of ‘financial support for small businesses run by women and the provision of free legal representation for women in domestic abuse situations’ had the potential to improve women’s lives. The enthusiasm was such that women had travelled from other southern cities to attend the LWEC’s launch in the south, she said.

However, many see these organizations as seeking to co-opt and dominate the civil society space in an effort to monopolize funding from international donors. Moreover, members of these organizations hope to be represented in the civil society track of political negotiations, giving them an opportunity to support their political patrons.

Libya’s conflict has placed restrictions on women’s access to the labour market, freedom of movement and ability to congregate, but the conflict is also changing Libya’s society, its attitudes towards women’s entrepreneurship and social relations. Going forward, international policymakers should focus on supporting the expansion of the social freedoms women have gained and making sure they have access to the necessary legal and economic protections.


— Women from Zliten pledge allegiance to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces in coordination with the Libyan Women's Empowerment Commission. Source: Facebook, 7 April 2020

Key findings

Some women’s ability to travel and retain their mobility has been limited by ongoing conflict and instability.

However, the close relationship between some armed groups and the community was important to women interviewees: it gave them confidence that the group would operate within accepted parameters. Interviewees were much less likely to travel in areas under the control of forces that they did not know well.

Even in areas of relative security women noted clear limits of expression, feeling their freedoms could be stripped at any moment.

Some expressed concern over attempts by armed groups with Salafi-leanings to enforce vague notions of public morality.

Many women have started their own business ventures, often working from home in order to earn a living.

In some major urban centres, there seems to be a positive shift in attitudes towards women’s employment, although it should be noted that the women continue to operate outside of the formal economy, and thus lack legal protections.

There have been significant donor efforts to support women’s representation in the political process and engagement in the economy, but the warring parties’ competition for influence has also spilled into this * .

  • *This article is part of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme research project on understanding the developing role of armed groups in Libya. This report is based upon in-depth-interviews conducted by Khadeja Ramali with 11 women of varying ages and socio-economic profiles in different regions across Libya (five in the northwest, two in the east and four in the south). The interviews were conducted between August 2019 and November 2019.