The Libyan flag flaps madly in the wind at the embassy on Hyde Park Corner. A short line of women stand under the latticework façade, clasping their handmade placards. Hilal Milaadi rubs her hands together for warmth on what was a very chilly Thursday afternoon in London. Three other Libyan women stand beside her. The group have gathered in solidarity with women demonstrating in Tripoli and Benghazi to mark Libyan Women Pride Day. The protesters are calling on the authorities to protect women from gender-based violence through the enforcement of the law.
“He raped a woman in Tripoli Hospital knowing that nobody will catch him,” reads some of the scrawling handwriting. According to those gathered, a young woman was raped by a man suspected of being a member of one of Libya’s many rogue militias (although recent reports suggest the individual belonged to hospital security). Those demonstrating feel the crime has been swept under the carpet: “We didn’t see any investigation, or any strong statements against it, so it’s really terrifying, it’s like nobody cares,” explains Sarah Milaadi, one of the demonstrators.
It seems that little has changed since Iman Al-Obeidi rushed into a hotel lobby packed full of foreign journalists pleading with them for protection while screaming that she had been raped and tortured by Libyan security forces. That was in March 2011, when Tripoli still belonged to Gaddafi loyalists. Al-Obeidi was dragged out of the lobby by government henchmen and subsequently pronounced drunk and mentality unstable by an official spokesperson.
The new Libyan Congress may not be resorting to such wild accusations, but a dysfunctional justice system allows the culture of impunity to continue. Victims of sexual violence are offered little refuge in a system where the “penal code considers sexual violence to be a crime against a woman’s ‘honor’ rather than against the individual,” say Amnesty International.
Tackling gender-based violence has become a priority for many women in Libya as public safety across the country deteriorates due to the government’s failure to rein in the militias. Hilal Milaadi is just visiting the UK capital; she usually works as a mining engineer in Tripoli. “It’s very difficult, if you go out and somebody stops you and asks you to step out of your car, and he’ll take you, it would be very easy, no one will protect you.”
Fatima Othmani agrees: “The majority of militias, they just go around and they rob whatever they want, if they want your car, if they want a woman.”
Despite the dangers, protection is not forthcoming—not even within the home, let alone in public spaces. Last week, Libyan Mufti Al-Sadiq Al-Ghiryani issued a fatwa against a UN agreement on women’s rights, arguing that some of the articles were in contradiction with Shari’a Law. One of the disputed clauses ensured a wife’s right to file complaints against her husband for rape or harassment. Under Libyan law, rape within marriage is not considered to be a crime, and women who have suffered domestic violence have no recourse to the authorities.
As Libya slowly edges toward drafting a new constitution, the opportunity presents itself to have the protection of women and their rights enshrined in the new charter. One Libyan women’s activist will not let the opportunity pass her by: the constitution, she says “must guarantee equality of citizens, regardless of gender.”