An Oil Boom, Women, and Changing Traditions

Fikry, Mona. 1978. “An Oil Boom, Women, and Changing Traditions: A study of Libyan women in Benghazi.” In Folklore in the Modern World, ed. R. Dorson. Mouton: The Hague, pp. 65–76. [PDF]

This is an article about the modernization of Libya after the discovery of oil and its effects on the lives and roles of women in Benghazi. The article discusses in particular the suppression of the social and cultural lives of women in connection with modernizing forces, such as mass media, and draws attention to the declining visibility of, and place for, folklore and oral literature–which except for traditional poetry was mostly transmitted and performed by women. Fikry notes, for example, that:

“Tale-telling, called khurrafat in Libya, used to be an essential part of family entertainment in towns, villages, and tents, but in the city it has now all but disappeared to be replaced by television. The time that young children spent listening to tales is now spent studying, reading magazines, or watching television. Rare are the occasions when tales are told and few are the young urban women who know any tales to tell. Even the special night devoted to tale-telling during the wedding celebration is now firmly linked with the past.”


Prolegomena to the study of the Libyan Isawiyya | معلومات تمهيدية لدراسة العيسوية الليبية

One of the few anthropologists to carry out work in Libya in the past decade, and the only one working on Libyan Sufis, Igor Cherstich is currently working on a book based on his fieldwork among the ‘Isawiyya order in Tripoli, Libya. Here is one of his earlier articles on the topic.

Igor Cherstich, “Struggling for a Framework: Prolegomena to the study of the Libyan ‘Isāwiyya”, Libyan Studies 42 (2011), 59–68.

Abstract: As a consequence of the importance of the Sanusiyya in Libyan history, the literature on Sufism has shown a scarce curiosity for other Libyan [Sufi] brotherhoods. One of the reasons for this is the fact that, being characterised by a lack of central authority, these orders were considered unorganised entities that could not sustain the comparison with the Sanusiyya. The article problematises this view by concentrating on the ‘Isawiyya, a Libyan brotherhood constituted by local leaders who do not recognise a common authority. In particular, the paper  relies heavily on the recent re-conceptualisation of the idea of ‘Sufi order’ put forward by Rachida Chih, who suggests that Sufi brotherhoods could be best understood as ensembles of different local patron relationships. The article discusses the weaknesses and strengths of Chih’s framework in an attempt to propose a set of preliminary conclusions for the study of the Libyan ‘Isawiyya.

“بحثا عن هيكل: معلومات تمهيدية لدراسة العيسوية الليبية”

نتيجة لأهمية السنوسية في تاريخ ليبيا أظهرت الأدبيات عن المذهب الصوفي فضولا نادر عن الصوفيات الليبية الأخرى. إحدى أسباب ذلك هو عدم وجود مرجعية مركزية لها واعتبرت هذه الصوفيات كيانات غير منظمة وغير قابلة للمقارنة مع السنوسية.   تتعامل المقالة مع هذه الظاهرة كمشكلة وذلك بالتركيز على العيسوية وهي صوفية ليبية شكلتها مجموعة من القادة المحليين الذين لا يعترفون بمرجعية مشتركة. تعتمد المقالة بثقل على إعادة تنظير تمت مؤخرا لفكرة الصوفية من قبل رشيدة شيح التي تقترح بان الصوفيات يمكن ان تعتبر مجاميع لعلاقات رعوية محلية مختلفة. تناقش المقالة نقاط الضعف القوة في الهيكل الذي وضعته شيح في محاولة لاقتراح مجموعة اولية من الإستنتاجات لدراسة العيسوية الليبية.

You can read a version of the article at this link.

The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980

Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980. Princeton University Press (1986).

Publisher’s blurb: The book traces growing state intervention in the rural areas of Tunisia and Libya in the middle 1800s and the diverging development of the two countries during the period of European rule. State formation accelerated in Tunisia under the French with the result that, with independence, interest-based policy brokerage became the principal form of political organization. For Libya, where the Italians dismantled the pre-colonial administration, independence brought with it the revival of kinship as the basis for politics.

This is one of the few books (along with this one) about Libyan history to be based on extensive research with primary sources in Libyan, Ottoman, and European archives.

A sketch of the life of Ramadan al-Swayhli | مختصر حياة رمضان السويحلي

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Ramadan al-Swayhli (رمضان السويحلي) was a major figure of the early Libyan resistance to Italian colonization, and played a role in the formation of the first Arab republic to declare its independence from the Ottoman Empire, but he is practically unknown outside of Libya. In this sketch, Lisa Anderson provides the first (and so far only) overview of his life in a Western language. Although several books about al-Suwayhli have been written in Arabic, she rightly notes that “it is a reflection of the fate of leaders of unsuccessful efforts to resist European imperialism that there is no account of his life in a Western language.”

Lisa Anderson, “Ramadan al-Suwayhli: Hero of the Libyan Resistance”, in Struggle and Survival in the Middle East, ed. E. Burke (1993), pp. 114-128.

The Arab city and municipal administrative modernity: Tripoli (Libya)

For those who read French, here is another essay by Nora Lafi about the history of Tripoli. It is freely available online.

Nora Lafi, “Ville arabe et modernité administrative municipale : Tripoli (Libye actuelle), 1795-1911.” [The Arab city and municipal administrative modernity: Tripoli (Libya), 1795-1911] Histoire urbaine 1, no. 3 (2001), pp. 149-167.

Abstract: This paper aims both at presenting a short bibliographical essay on Arab towns and, from the case of Tripoli (Libya), at examining the matter of the administrative modernity of such towns. The role in this process of modernization of the various traditional institutions of urban government is studied with the help of new archives, mostly local. A presentation of the machîkha al-bilâd – the cheikh albilâd (chief of the town) and its jamâ’a al-bilâd (town council) – as an organization of municipal kind is proposed in this paper, and the forms of a possible comparatism with Ancien Régime European towns are explored. The 1867 Ottoman municipal reforms (tanzimât) are then studied in the context of the inheritance of traditional forms of urban government.

Gender and state-building in Libya

Although this blog shies away from contributing even more noise to the (often incoherent) Western din that is writing on politics in modern Libya, it is important to draw attention to less common but absolutely necessary approaches to any topic within Libyan studies. Here is a recent article on the politics of gender and inclusion by the well-known scholar and activist, Zahra’ Langhi (whom we’ve already mentioned here), co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace.

Zahra’ Langhi. “Gender and state-building in Libya: towards a politics of inclusion.” Journal of North African Studies 19/2 (2014), pp. 200-210.

Abstract: The Libyan Revolution marks a watershed moment in Libyan history and more specifically in the history of women’s participation in the public space. Women were at the forefront of the demonstrations as protesters, medical workers, and aid providers, as well as organising behind the scenes and in the diaspora calling for political change and a just inclusive transition to democracy. However, they have been systematically excluded from the public sphere facing intense de-politicisation and silencing at a crucial moment in their national political transformation process. The Libyan Revolution appears here, similar to other Arab revolutions, to present a ‘gender paradox’. On one hand, women are the politically empowered agents of the Revolution and change. On the other hand, they are the victims of a new kind of political violence and exclusion. Thus, there is a need to address women’s participation in the public sphere from a different approach than the usual ‘women’s empowerment’ approach. The suggested approach here is a more inclusive participatory integrated one of political and normative frameworks. Women’s role should not be limited to defending women’s rights issues or just their formal numerical representation in decision-making bodies. Rather they should struggle to become influential shapers of a new discourse of politics of inclusion which rests upon inclusive state-building, gender-equitable institutional reform, inclusive social transformation, demilitarisation and peace-building.

*For an electronic version of the article, contact me.