One of the fascinating things about Islam is how, just when the West thinks they have Muslims figured out, they learn they don’t.
The Justice and Construction Party in Libya is a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists and independents who want to legislate according to Sharia. Yet, they are welcoming women into the party as potential candidates for office. One such woman is Samira Karmusi, who is running for Parliament, and explained “Women gave a lot of hard work to support the revolution, so why not enter the government now? We feel that we can do it, that we can make it.”
Though Mrs. Karmusi has the support of a party, Najia Gajem is running as an independent, and does not share Mrs. Karmusi’s belief that men are accepting of women in politics. Or maybe the fact that she is a university lecturer is intimidating to many men. “Many of them think that women and their opinions have to stay at home. When you want to change this concept, you have to struggle.” Nonetheless, Mrs. Karmusi and Ms. Gajem are best friends, and share an ambitious nature, both hoping to rise to become ministers or ambassadors in the new Libya.
In June, Libyans will vote for a “constituent assembly,” a representative body, to replace the National Transitional Council, which has never held an election. The NTC in turn replaced the single-party show-council under Moammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi had set up a series of councils in towns, city neighborhoods and rural districts which ostensibly advised Qaddafi, who had also decentralized the government, lodging the various equivalents of cabinet departments in separate cities.
Along the way, a new constitution has to be written, and the issue of women’s roles and rights is looming large in those debates. The Forum for Democratic Libya and Beyond Reform and Development out of Beirut, Lebanon, have been holding a series of meetings and workshops to hold citizen discussions about the framework of the new government. While most people agree on the principle of equality, what that means is spread across a broad spectrum from full participation to exclusion. The middle ground appears to be that women should be equal, as long as equality does not conflict with traditional Islamic law on the matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody of minor children.
And that’s the conundrum constantly facing all sect-divided religions – who gets to decide what God intended and how Holy Scripture should be interpreted. Alaa Murabit, who founded Voice of Libyan Women, said “What we need to do is reinterpret our religion,” because she believes a major obstacle to progress in Libya is the “misuse and misinterpretation of Islam.” Murabit enlisted the help of Majida Fallah, a top member of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ms. Fallah is a woman who knows which part is true religion and which part is culture. Ms. Fallah noted that “We thought that being a politician was a man’s role. This is culture, not religion. As Muslims, we know that women have to play a part in running the country.”
Ms. Fallah would need to be the greatest orator and debater in Islamic history to win the argument over the true place of women in Islam, based on the life of the Prophet and the foundations of the Sunni and Shia sects. Mohammed was able to devote his life to his studies and contemplations (when not leading armies) because he married women who could support him through their business endeavors. The Sunni sect draws its origins from the Prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, father of Mohammed’s young, favorite wife, Aisha. Abu Bakr was the first Caliphate. Shia derives from Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed, husband of the Prophet’s only surviving child, Fatima. Fatima allegedly died of injuries sustained during a violent confrontation between her husband and supporters of Abu Bakr, and Aisha rode into battle with her father and led a rebellion against the third Caliph. These two women were pivotal to the development of Islam. It was only in later times that women were forced into the background in Muslim culture.
Part of the problem in Libya is the high-profile given to women who surrounded Moammar Qaddafi, women like his personal nurse and buxom bodyguards. It made ordinary women retreat from public life to avoid being associated with Qaddafi’s women.
Initially, the NTC had included a 10% quota for women in its electoral law. That was replaced with a requirement that an equal number of male and female candidates be on each party’s list. The election on June 19 is to elect a 200-member assemby, of which only 80 members would represent a political party and 120 would be independents. Conventional belief is that women have a better chance of being elected if they are members of a party, especially since only 90 independent women have declared their candidacy out of 4,000 candidates.
On May 21, Najat al-Kikhia was elected to public office in Benghazi, the first women ever freely elected to office in Libya. Her election has inspired others to believe that equality is possible, maybe even probable.