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February 27, 2013

Libya's Women Activists Outraged by Court Ruling on Wives

by Jamie Dettmer

Libya’s Supreme Court has overturned a marriage law requiring a husband to secure the approval of his first wife before taking a second. This ruling on multiple wives has horrified liberals, who fear the clock is being turned back on advances won during the revolution on women’s issues and the small gains already made under former leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Earlier this month, the court quashed the Gadhafi-era Marriage Act (Law 10) requiring men to secure the consent of a first wife before taking a second.

Under the former legislation introduced by the late dictator, a husband had to go to court to seek permission to marry further wives, if he failed to gain approval of the first.

Shahrazad Magrabi, founding director of the non-governmental organization Libyan Women Forum, says the court’s decision to do away with the requirement adds to liberal worries that post-Gadhafi Libya will be more conservative than they hoped when it comes to women’s issues.

“At the beginning, we really were very surprised and very shocked as well. Because it is a right that we had, [and] we were able to get a few years ago and it is very important that women [think] at least they won’t be cheated, you know, because we feel that a person who is married to someone and then going and remarry without her consent is cheating and I don’t think Koran allows that,” said Magrabi.

She says that liberal activists will not accept this decision without a fight. But other women support the ruling because it is in line with Sharia law.

“I am not against the decision because it goes in line with religion, the Islamic religion. The Islamic religion allows a man to have four wives. He has to inform the wife, so the religion says he has to inform the wife if he wanted to get married, but it doesn’t say he has to take permission," stated Najwan ElHouni. "When Gadhafi had the decree that a man had to get the permission of the woman, he was just trying to get all the women on his side.“

Women played a critical role in the revolution that toppled Mr. Gadhafi -- from the perilous smuggling of guns and medicines to organizing media outreach. Now, women activists are upset that Prime Minister Ali Zeidan appointed only two women to his cabinet -- as ministers for social affairs and tourism.

When it comes to greater participation in politics, all women activists agree about the need for more involvement by women. But there is a growing division in Libya’s women’s movement when it comes to family issues.

Most women activists accept that a new constitution will be based on Islamic Sharia law and do not see any contradiction between that and their demands for greater gender equality and a bigger role for women.  

What concerns the more liberal activists is who interprets Sharia and how men apply it, says Farida Allaghi, a veteran human rights campaigner and founder of the Libyan Forum for Civil Society. “Here again, it is very disappointing and it is very sad that now they play with the interpretation of Islam in the 21st century to fit their agenda and to fit their interests and to fit their own ideology as men. This is not going to be acceptable by Libyan women anymore, anyway. This is not Islam," she said. "Islam has been hijacked.”

Liberals are now anxious that other Gadhafi-era laws will be struck down, including a measure that prohibits parents marrying off teenage daughters. And, they are fearful of other retrograde measures being introduced such as requiring women when traveling to be accompanied by a husband or a male relative.