“Families Only”: Understanding Social Segregation in Libyan Cities

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Comic by Abdullah Hadia, a young boy can’t wait to visit a new amusement park only to be told that entrance is for families only (you can check out more of his work on Libyan culture and society here)

There are certain parts of Libyan society that you can only see if you’re a woman. Whether it’s the glass ceiling or anxiety of walking in the street, it’s hard to explain the invisible bonds that restrict a woman’s daily life to someone who isn’t tied down by them. It is the crux of the issue affecting the discourse on women’s rights in Libya, that men cannot fathom what it is that limits a woman’s abilities.

But then, there’s one aspect of injustice in Libya that only men experience: family-only spaces.

“للعائلات فقط” “Families only”; This is what is written on signs that are increasingly posted in front of cafes, restaurants, resorts, beaches, parks, any and all kinds of public spaces in Libyan cities. The term “family” is a euphemism; what the sign really says is “No single men allowed”. The sign also says something else, “This space is safe for women”. That’s because you don’t need to be a “family” to enter this space, you just need to be a woman. You can come alone, with friends, or even with your actual family. Women have complete access to this space, but men only have access if they are accompanied by a woman. In a patriarchal society, it’s a strange twist of power.

This concept began several years ago, when “public” (commercial) spaces became more ubiquitous in Libya following the lifting of sanctions. The ability of citizens to open private businesses led to the establishment of cafes and restaurants which – in conservative Libyan societies – were just for men, a space outside of the house to hang out. But in big cities, the trend began to change (either because city women are bold or because business-owners realized they also had disposable incomes, or both) and restaurants were designed to have two sections; “men only” and “family-only”. Since women were sometimes accompanied by men, it didn’t make sense to create a women-only section, so instead it became a condoned space for mixed-sex mingling.

But the family-only space has evolved to a multi-dimensional space not only limited as a place to ‘hang out’, especially as the spaces themselves have become more than just cafes; it’s where civil society organizations conduct their meetings, it’s where couples have their dates, and it’s where a lot of social events that were previously held in homes now take place. Birthdays, engagement parties, women’s gatherings, you name it. Libyans in big cities are moving out of their sitting rooms and into the public spaces offered by private businesses. In Benghazi, we’ve seen the creation of ‘resorts’ and ‘parks’, places that offer not just somewhere to eat but also outdoor areas to walk around, within the double enclosure of a physical wall and the protection of the family-only sign.

What is the logic behind the family-only space? In the unregulated jungle that is the Libyan street, women are often targeted by the harassment of men, whether uncomfortable leering or catcalling, and in some cases physical harassment. Unlike the more progressive example led by neighbour Tunisia, there are currently no laws (and in the case of the current situation, no law enforcement) stopping street harassment. Where can Libyan woman go that is both outside the confines of the house but also comfortable enough to walk around without being bothered? Behold the birth of the family-only space.

This family-only concept has evolved even further. Recently in big cities such as Benghazi and Tripoli, entire streets are closed off as ‘families-only’ during festivities. The entrances of one major street in Tripoli is manned by militia men at night during the entire month of Ramadan, with men being told to go away if they don’t have a “family” accompanying them. As this trend increases, men are feeling increasingly pushed out of their cities, especially as businesses see that it’s more profitable to target families rather than just men. Young men have taken to social media to complain about the family-only concept, saying that it’s not possible or fair that they need to have a female companion in order to enter most public places.

It’s not fair to be expected to have a member of the opposite sex with you at all times? Now you know how we feel, say the women! While it’s fantastic that this dialogue of gendered spaces has been opened in Libya, it avoids one key issue, which is that of our public spaces in general.

Whether it’s men-or-family only, most of the time it’s private businesses who regulate “public space”, which require that you pay to enter or stay. Actual public spaces, ones that don’t require fences or entrances and exits, are being neglected, because these are not considered “safe spaces”. The formation of two public spaces, one regulated and the other neglected, is cementing inequality in Libyan cities. Those who cannot afford to enter family-only spaces but don’t feel safe enough to use the free spaces will have no part of the city besides their homes, and they lose all the joy of being an urban dweller.

The segregation of single men from public spaces also creates a kind of inequality. A man is not considered decent enough to mix with society until he is part of a family or can create one. Women, by contrast, are expected to be part of a family but have full access to societal spaces since they are the “core” of any family anyways. A family is created when a woman is added to the mix. The entire concept is underpinned by the segregation of gender which permeates the functioning of cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that men and woman can’t, or shouldn’t, mingle together in spaces. Even in liberal Tunisia, cafes in less affluent parts of cities are clearly only for men, spaces that can’t be accessed by women.

Yes, big cities are moving away from this type of segregation, and smaller cities are following, but it’s being replaced by a new type, a more complex gendered segregation influenced by economics. Men still largely dominate the right to the city, but women are now taking this right through a more socially accepted approach, at the expense of the truly public spaces. Both men and women will have to negotiate city space and find a way to coexist without any type of segregation if the city is to be enjoyed by all its denizens.

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How Gender Stereotypes in Libya Are Killing Individuality

Were you that young girl who was told that she should being playing with dolls instead of playing soccer? Are you that young man who had to fake masculinity in order to avoid being mocked? In Libya, our gender stereotypes have been carved in stone long, long, ago, and any slight deviation outside these very rigid definitions can lead to teasing, ostracizing, or worse.

I grew up as a sort-of tomboy; I preferred jeans to dresses, and cut my hair short (much to my mother’s horror). I didn’t care for make-up, and while other little girls dreamed and planned their wedding day, I was busy writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and thinking of the day I could travel to New Zealand to see the set of the movie myself. In short, I was very much a deviation from the mainstream.

Within my circle of close friends, those who’ve known me, it was never an issue, because that’s who I’ve always been. I was only made aware of my being “different” and “weird” when I started university. While the other girls were dolled up with perfectly matching outfits (where did they find the time? I always wondered) I quickly stuck out like a sore thumb in class with my worn-out hoodies and flip-flops.

“My mom said I shouldn’t graduate until I get engaged,” was the rationale behind the time and effort these girls put into looking as presentable as possible. I picked up on the “dress code” pretty quickly; a bulky headscarf wrapped in whatever latest fashion the Turkish/Khaleeji soap operas were airing, with matching shoes/bag/nails, and a brightly-coloured outfit that said, “I can be bold and fashionable but also modest enough that you don’t feel ashamed showing a picture of me to your mom.”

“Why do you dress like a boy?” one girl asked me. I looked down at my outfit, a plain blue shirt and jeans. “Uhhh…” I was stuck. How do you explain the concept of unisex clothing, or non-gendered fashion, to a person who was raised to see the world in pink and blue? It wasn’t that I deliberately dressed androgynously, it was just that I didn’t care enough, and more importantly, I didn’t have the time. My life did not revolve around the eventuality of my marriage, and I didn’t feel the desire openly assert my femininity. It didn’t matter though, because the rumors started all the same. There’s something wrong with her. Where is her mother? She’s not normal. 

I might have been affected had I cared what people thought of me, but my own world of friends gave me that layer of protection against the inane gossip. But not everyone has this kind of support system, and it is hurting a generation of young Libyans who feel that they have to conform to these ridiculously narrow definitions, who put so much effort into fitting in that it comes at the expense of sacrificing who they are.

The problem of rigid gender norms isn’t just an issue for girls. Boys are drilled from a young age on what it means to be a man; you should be out on the street with your friends, you should control your women (mothers, sisters, etc.), there’s no room for emotions. It’s both comical and sad to watch 8-year old boys strut around with their chests puffed out and adult language warbling from their mouths, a caricature of how men should act displayed on them like an ill-fitting suit. It’s infuriating to see a 12-year old boy driving a car with his mother next to him, because “boys should drive”. The young boy who would rather stay inside and read with his sister, or the man who would rather pursue his dream of being an artist instead of making money as a “CEO” to get married, or even that guy in class who gestures as he talks and hates violence, they are all “abnormal”. He’s weak, he’s not a real man, aspersions are cast on his sexuality.

While bullying between girls can be insidious and underhanded, with boys its very much out in the open. Fist fights are, after all, part of ‘being a man’. Since Libya is far from being ready to talk about sexuality, those who would rather lead an alternative lifestyle have to instead repress any unorthodox feelings and conform to their parents’, and society’s, expectations.

These gender stereotypes plague us everywhere; in the workplace (teaching is a woman’s job, only men can be pilots), in our personal lives, and even in our politics (the dad should vote on behalf of the family). They feed the culture of oppression against women and gendered violence against both sexes, and validate bullying.

I recognize that gender roles are a construction of the society and culture we live in, but isn’t it time to re-examine that society and these norms? We need to come up with a new definition of the term “normal”, because the current one is excluding a substantial part of society and killing their creativity and self-expression. It is harrowing and exhausting to hide who you are, and I for one am sick of being told to lower my voice because women aren’t supposed to speak loudly, I’m tired of feeling pity for young boys who are humiliated because they’d rather hold a brush than a gun.

To the young Libyans who aren’t normal, like me, who feel pressured to act a certain way, who are afraid of being alone or attacked if they let their light shine, give society the middle finger and live the way you want. The alternative, or the double life, is not better, and those that will appreciate who you are will find you eventually. The stereotypes are outdated and if we don’t break them, who will?