As Libya struggles to end an armed conflict that has only widened this year, it should turn to a hidden resource: the traditional peacemaking roles of its women. As in many countries facing warfare, women have long played a key role in negotiating or mediating conflicts within families, clans and local communities—but are overlooked by official institutions and peace processes. Amid Libya’s crisis, one such “hidden” peacemaker is Aisha al-Bakoush, a hospital nursing director who has expanded her healing mission from medical illnesses to armed conflict.

Women in Benghazi pass armed police and soldiers in a city street. Urban women include civic activists, and rural women include traditional tribal mediators, who work to halt fighting. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)
Women in Benghazi pass armed police and soldiers in a city street. Urban women include civic activists, and rural women include traditional tribal mediators, who work to halt fighting. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)

Bakoush is a daughter of Sebha, the main city in Libya’s southwestern region of Fezzan. The oases and towns dotted among sand dunes and rocky landscapes of the Sahara are peopled by tribes and ethnic communities such as the Warfalla, Gadhafa, Tuaregs and Tebu. Bakoush, from a Warfalla family in Bani Walid, moved to Sebha after getting married at the age of 16, studied nursing there and then worked in city’s main hospital.

When Libyans rose up against the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, fighting erupted in Sebha among his supporters, including members of his Gadhafa tribe, and other groups. Since then, communal clashes have broken out several time as various groups—some more favored by the state under Qaddafi’s rule—have struggled to control Fezzan’s resources, including oil fields and smuggling routes. The instability in Sebha weakens all governance in the region, complicating efforts to oppose extremist groups and reduce the smuggling across the Sahara of refugees fleeing from Africa or Asia toward Europe, and of weapons to conflicts in Africa’s Sahel region.

A Nurse Turns Negotiator

In 2013, fighting broke out in Sebha. Young men of the Awlad Suleiman and Tebu communities battled with rifles and heavy weapons in the city streets. Bloodied casualties soon arrived at the city’s hospital and came under Bakoush’s care. Not long after, tribal militiamen arrived and announced their plan to enter the hospital to kill their wounded foes. Bakoush defied the men’s order for the staff to evacuate, telling them she would personally guard her patients. Her strong personality and membership in a powerful neutral tribe hindered the attackers and gave time for the threat to be defused.

Bakoush then expanded her defense of the hospital to the entire community, again invoking her mission as a nurse and insisting that it was her job to preserve life. She sent word to leaders of the warring groups urging a cease-fire and offering to mediate. “My prime motive was to stop the bloodshed and preserve the lives of our youth,” she said. “Our city was being destroyed. Someone had to move.”

Mediation was potentially dangerous: a reconciliation meeting the year before had erupted into a gun battle. And Bakoush’s initiative was unprecedented in Fezzan’s conservative society. While women customarily have mediated within their tribes, they have not intervened in wider, inter-tribal fights. But Bakoush’s membership in a tribe uninvolved in that conflict, her respected position as a nurse who had served all communities, and her bold initiative all helped establish her as a credible mediator. The Tebu elders decided to break the old rule, inviting Bakoush to meet them in the town of Murzuq. She recruited a friend to help her and the two women took a car down the 80-mile desert road—a hazardous drive amid the conflict.

Aisha Bakoush, nurse and mediator in Sebha, Libya.
Aisha Bakoush, nurse and mediator in Sebha, Libya.

“We sat with the Tebu leaders for six hours, Bakoush said. “At first, they were extremely tense.” But “we listened to their claims and demands and then went to the Awlad Suleiman elders and persuaded them to sit at the table with the Tebu.” The two were clearly seen as neutral mediators who were driven as sisters and mothers to step out and call for ending the bloodshed. Negotiations began and the two sides halted violent attacks. A few weeks later, they reached a peace accord.

Bakoush’s unprecedented initiative was driven by both her modern role as a medical professional and by her traditional, tribal identity. In negotiating for peace and demanding that she be heard by warring men, Bakoush was building on the legacy of an old wise woman known in the Warfalla tribe as Hajja Zohra.

Among Sebha’s Warfalla, Hajja Zohra filled a deeply traditional role as a sheikha—a respected elder woman. “People saw her as wise, with good judgment, and patient,” Bakoush recalled. By custom, such women mediated from home. “She would not take part in public meetings,” according to Bakoush, but “the parties to a conflict would come to her house to present their claims. Her word was listened to and her decisions were observed.”

Libya’s Sheikhas as Mediators

A piece of good news for Libya is that many women like Bakoush are expanding the scope and impact of mediation by Libya’s traditional sheikhas. “Their role is organic to Libyan culture, it is informal and it does not involve any kind of official or state institutions. As a result, this is invisible to outsiders,” said Zahra’ Langhi, an Islamic history scholar and peacebuilding specialist who heads a non-government organization called Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace.

Ending Libya’s civil warfare requires a multi-layered approach, said Nate Wilson, who manages USIP’s peacebuilding efforts in the country. “The different countries involved in fueling the conflict with arms and funds need to stop,” he said. “Libyans need to have a national political dialogue, and local efforts to mediate conflict will be crucial to breathe life into that and ensure local buy-in to a national process.” In Sebha, USIP has worked with a local civic group, the Fezzan Libya Organization, to advance a city-wide dialogue aimed at ending the dangerous tradition in which men fire guns into the air to announce and celebrate family weddings. Getting rival groups to work together in such “problem-solving” dialogues can open paths for local peace processes, Wilson noted.

Libya’s traditional women mediators, such as Bakoush, have role models, “often from their families and often their grandmothers,” said Langhi, who has interviewed 20 such women while researching their roles for USIP. “The mediating roles of women have not been documented in written histories or scholarship about Libya,” Langhi said. “But it lives in the local cultures as oral history” that Libyans hear and learn as children.

“Traditionally, these women don’t even call their practice ‘mediation,’ because that word feels too formal and political to them,” said Langhi. “They say instead that they are just ‘working things out’ to take care of their communities.”

The tradition of women’s mediation is stronger in Libya’s south, far from the more modernized coastal cities. “We imagine that rural or remote areas are more conservative, but the space allocated for sheikhas to mediate is bigger” than in coastal areas, Langhi said.

At the same time, she says, no single model of women activists, including mediators, applies. “Libya is a hybrid. Some of our case studies are of women from cities, including women who are lawyers and who work through formal mechanisms. And some women work in a gray zone that mixes customary and formal processes.”

Indeed, civil society activism by urban women was central to the 2011 uprising that toppled Qaddafi. After an uprising and massacre of detainees at one of Libya’s main prisons, women relatives of those killed held regular protest demonstrations in Benghazi—and their movement helped trigger the revolt.

What has pushed women to expand their old roles is the combination of their education and the most destructive warfare that Libya has seen in generations. Even as they are more often mediating across broader conflicts that are more overtly political, the women’s roles remain largely invisible.

A Resource for Peacemaking in Libya

As the international community, led by United Nations officials, tries to end Libya’s warfare, Langhi urges that policymakers and organizations step back to examine the role of the country’s women mediators. The United Nations works with a 19-year-old mandate—U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325—to increase the roles of women in peace processes. Processes that include women in major roles more often achieve peace accords, and such agreements are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.

In her research, Langhi said, “Many of these women mediators have never heard of the United Nations’ resolution or its Women, Peace and Security agenda.” With her Libyan interlocutors, she said, she does not emphasize the international push to include women, but rather raises the importance of including women as a reflection of Libyan national traditions. “National ownership of the process is important,” she said.

Libyan women’s contributions to peace efforts do not guarantee success. In Sebha and its region, fighting has broken out several times since Bakoush helped to stop it in 2014—including a new round of fighting as recently as August in Murzuq, where Bakoush conducted her first mediation session. Bakoush has been working on a new peace initiative this year, continuing to play the role that she began as a nurse protecting her patients, and trying to establish a network of Werfali women mediators to play a central role in local reconciliation.

For more on women peacebuilders around the world, see below:

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