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Why can’t women go out for coffee in Libya?

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For years, coffee shops have been used as a venue for gatherings, relaxing, discussions, and hanging out with friends. People take the opportunity for time away from the routines of life and work. It’s a chance to take time off; to grab a minute of quality time in order to refresh yourself from the strain of dealing with the endless amount of tasks to be done during the day. Artists and poets meet in coffee shops and discuss art, love, and music. This is where social transformation happens. Access to public places like these is a foundational right for any citizen anywhere in this world. In Libya, normal is no longer normal. Normal is far from normal.

A group of women in Benghazi decided to meet up in a coffee shop called ‘Casa Café’  in Downtown Benghazi, launching an Arabic hashtag with the meaning ‘Twitter Girls Gathering’ to promote it. The plan was to interact and share ideas with each other. Many of the participants in this gathering had become friends on Twitter and just wanted to meet up in real life. The next thing they knew, the moral police were raiding the café. They made all the women leave and arrested all the male café workers.

How can gathering in a coffee shop be considered a punishable offense? Is the use of public places a crime in today’s modern world? Every citizen should have the right to use public spaces, the right to free assembly and association, and the right to enjoy their life like every other human being!

This repressive act was humiliating to the women involved. It shows how much Libyan society struggles with many human rights issues, especially those related to women. Neither our traditions nor Islam can justify this. Religion is frequently used to excuse certain actions, and it was explicitly used to excuse this action. The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that women had been gambling, when they had actually been playing commonplace card and board games.

The women raged about what happened on social media, and contacted the Libyan court in Benghazi in order to plead their innocence, and to point out that no crime had been committed in the first place. The humiliation and disrespect that they experienced, and the impact upon their reputations has caused them anguish on many levels, but no-one cares about these women’s feelings, and how harassing them for something which was not even remotely wrong in the first place would affect them.

Is this the beginning of a shift in perspective in Libya? Are we going to lose our most basic human rights? Could this mark the beginning of Saudi Arabia 2.0 in Libya? There are so many questions inside my mind. I don’t know if I have an answer for them, or if anyone else can give me a good answer. But I think that this could be the beginning of something worse ahead of us. I, and many other women, feel threatened in our society right now, more than we ever have been before. We feel that it is no longer safe for us.

I hope that civil society movements will demand justice in this case and call for a formal apology to every woman who attended the gathering from the Minister for Internal Affairs. This is not what Libyans revolted for. We revolted for justice, freedom, and decency and for all Libyans – including women – to enjoy their full rights.

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