TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Majdah al-Fallah flashes a broad smile and pumps the hands of shoppers in downtown Tripoli as she works potential voters on the campaign trail ahead of Libya’s landmark national assembly elections on Saturday.
A doctor by trade who lived in Ireland for years, Fallah is running for the Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood which is tipped to do well. But her small team of election helpers often find the going tough.
“Sometimes when I give out the flyer some people reject it or take it and then rip it up in front of me because there are women on it,” said Huthaifa al-Harram, a 20-year-old male backer of Fallah and another female candidate on the same ticket.
“People say, ‘I don’t think women should play a role in the government - they don’t know what to do’,” Harram added.
Coming less than a year after an uprising ended four decades of autocratic rule by Muammar Gaddafi, the vote will be the North African state’s first nationwide exercise in democracy in 60 years.
The election will determine the make-up of a national assembly that will in turn appoint a prime minister and cabinet ahead of full general elections under a newly drafted constitution to be staged next year.
Yet while election rules mean that Fallah and other female candidates have guaranteed places on party lists, a strong current of social and religious conservatism means their role in politics is still questioned by many Libyans.
In both Tripoli and Benghazi, the second city that was the launch pad of the uprising, the faces of female candidates on dozens of posters have even been slashed or spray-painted out.
Gaddafi’s famed appearances at foreign summits flanked by female bodyguards may have projected an image of empowered women as pillars of his rule. But in reality women have a fragile place in a Libyan society that is resolutely patriarchal.
“The women I work with tell me they wouldn’t vote for a woman, that a man will lead better,” said Fatima Gleidan, a 47-year-old woman and teacher who came to hear Fallah campaign.
Attitudes like that suggest Libya may emulate other “Arab Spring” countries, where women who marched side-by-side with men to oust entrenched dictators have since been sidelined.
In Egypt, the percentage of female parliamentarians even fell from 12 percent before the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak to two percent after the last parliamentary elections, a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found.
In Tunisia, the picture for women is more mixed. Quotas mean that 30 percent of assembly members are female, but local rights groups complain that women ended up with less than a handful of posts in a transitional cabinet of over 40 ministers.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union report estimates that women make up just 10.7 percent of all parliamentarians in the Arab region as a whole last year - making it the only region in the world where female representation was less than 30 percent.
But Fallah the Libyan candidate is undeterred and says the requirement for parties to alternate the genders on their election lists will allow women to get a crucial first foot in the door of local politics.
“Certainly there will be women added to lists just to meet the criteria. But there are those of us who are running because we believe in the work and it will fall on our shoulders to prove we can do politics,” she said.
Yet the question remains whether Libya’s new crop of female politicians will substantially change women’s lives. In Tunisia, many of the female parliamentarians were on Islamist tickets and so did not prioritize reforms sought by women’s groups.
“We really need an overhaul of our rights especially in issues of divorce, child custody and inheritance,” Amani Benzeitoun, a shopper in Tripoli’s Girgaresh neighborhood, said of areas in which many women say they face discrimination.
Others say the sheer novelty of democracy in Libya - where elections and political parties were deemed bourgeois by Gaddafi - means at least that women will be entering the political fray with no less experience than their equally novice male rivals.
“Politics is a new field for men and women in Libya,” said Lamia Busidra, 38, a leading candidate for the al-Wattan party in Benghazi. “The qualifications are there, women can do it, they just need the confidence in themselves to do it.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich