The Libyan revolution, one year on

A former resident of Tripoli charts the country's new journalism, justice system and civil society.

It's exactly one year since the official start of the Libyan revolution and Amnesty International marked the occasion with a damning report into the widespread human rights abuses committed by armed militias in the country and the failure of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to hold these armed groups to account. "A year ago Libyans risked their lives to demand justice. Today their hopes are being jeopardised by lawless armed militias who trample human rights with impunity," Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser, Donatella Rovera, said.

It made me wonder: at what point can you call a revolution a failure? If a post-revolutionary regime shows no more respect for individual rights than the ousted dictatorship, this seriously calls into doubt whether the revolution can deliver on the hopes of ordinary people.

In darker moments, I have questioned whether the violence was all worth it. If the revolution hadn't ignited a year ago, many lives would have been saved, my friends would still have their jobs, Libya would still be a safe, stable country. If you had lost a child in the fight against the old regime, I have asked myself, would you still think that overthrowing Gaddafi was the right thing to do, or would this question -- the underlying assumption that a loved-one's death was in vain -- be too painful to ask?

In the UK, many have been quick to pronounce the revolution a failure, and some declared it a disaster before it even really began. Britain's military intervention has helped encourage this perspective, but the government's infamous hypocrisy when it comes to befriending or ousting dictators shouldn't obscure the fact that Gaddafi committed terrible crimes against his people. When commentators jump from pointing out the UK's tarnished record with authoritarian regimes to arguing that Gaddafi wasn't as bad as all that, they make an unjustifiable leap of logic.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, my painful re-reading of an argument along these lines -- Hugh Roberts' piece for the London Review of Books -- has reminded me of why, despite everything, Libya's revolution was not in vain. "It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was 'killing his own people'; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion," Roberts writes. But not every government in history guns down peaceful protestors. Not every government in history tortures and executes anyone guilty, or simply accused, of criticising public policy. When there was no other way to bring about change, Libya's revolutionaries chose to meet Gaddafi's violence with violence, not vice versa. Gaddafi didn't start "killing his own people" in 2011; he had maintained his power through the strategic use of violence against civilians for over 40 years. The question of the legitimacy of the British government's support for the revolution shouldn't be confused with the question of whether the revolution itself was right.

The violence has not yet completely subsided. Many Libyans are still scared today. They are scared to go out at night because of sporadic fighting and an increase in crime; scared that someone they know will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a gun battle erupts. But they were scared a year ago, too.

When you live in a police state, you live in constant fear. It may be a different type of fear from the more immediate threat of violence; you may sometimes forget it's even there. The constant niggling worry that you'll say or do something wrong and that the consequences will be huge become a part of your being. I know this, because whenever I left Libya, my sense of relief was physical. When I arrived in Heathrow after my first two months in Tripoli, my brother asked me "so, is Gaddafi as mad as people think he is?" and my first reaction was to look around in alarm to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. It's amazing how quickly such caution can become second nature, and how satisfying it can be to finally speak freely.

Libyans are relishing their new-found freedom of speech. I used to wonder, when I flicked through the sterile state news stories, how a free press would ever develop in Libya. Government propaganda seemed so pervasive that at times it felt like people had forgotten how to tell a story. Now independent media outlets are blossoming all over the country, and almost everyone I know is either starting a magazine or writing for one. Some magazines refuse to edit submissions -- not necessarily the best way to ensure quality journalism, my editor would undoubtedly retort -- but in the present atmosphere, editing seems too close to censorship. "You are most welcome to share your thoughts loudly," one of my friends said when inviting me to submit a piece to his new magazine. "Feel free to say the truth, even if it hurts the Libyan people to hear it." This is a truly monumental change.

Libyan civil society is flourishing too. Many of my friends are setting up or working for new NGOs: medical charities, reconciliation and women's rights groups that have emerged, seemingly from nowhere. I remember once commenting on how much rubbish littered the streets all over Libya, and a friend of mine answering with uncharacteristic frankness that "it's not just a question of educating people about dropping litter, it's because people have given up caring about public spaces a long time ago." Forty years into Gaddafi's rule, the whole country had retreated into their family units, but now they are developing a public spirit, a sense of ownership over their country, and a feeling of fellowship with their countrymen where once there was only distrust. This, too, is an amazing development.

Despite ongoing violence and instability, many Libyans are feeling positive for the future. When I asked Yusef Sawie, an old friend of mine now working as a news reporter and translator in Tripoli, about the mood in the country, he pointed not only to the joyful street parties, but to private ones. Many young couples have chosen to get married on the 17th -- the hairdressers he spoke to say they haven't been this busy for years, with some coiffing 25 brides in one day. And there's less anecdotal evidence of continued optimism, too. A survey by research company ORB of over 1,000 Libyans in Benghazi, Tripoli and Misrata has found that four out of five respondents agree that "the country is heading in the right direction".

I too believe that Libya is heading in the right direction. That is not to belittle Amnesty's report: action to protect the rights of suspected Gaddafi loyalists must be taken quickly and decisively. More than anything, the success of the revolution depends on the NTC's ability to establish the respect for human rights and individual freedom that was so lacking during Gaddafi's forty-year rule. Those responsible for human rights abuses, on both sides, must be brought to justice.

The challenges facing the revolution are immense, the war-torn country needs to be demilitarised and rebuilt, and a functioning justice system, police force, and the apparatus of democratic government will have to be built from nothing. But the revolution has not failed yet.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA