“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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