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Libya's universities: Pulling them apart

by M.F. | DERNA

THE concrete wall cutting across the small campus of Derna university separates male and female students. A stark warning is painted in red on a nearby building: “The mixing of genders is forbidden”. Photos of the wall flooded Libyan social media when it was erected in April, raising eyebrows in a country where men and women have long attended university together. But religious hardliners and their allied militias are increasingly pushing for more conservative social values.

The wall in Derna resulted from a deal between the university and the Abu Salim Martyrs, a powerful local Islamist militia named after those who died in a notorious prison massacre in 1996. Derna, an eastern city where the state is almost completely absent, is plagued by insecurity and flourishing extremist groups. Its university has shut several times over the past two years due to clashes. The militia, which was formed during the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, the former ruler, offered to provide security but on the condition that men and women would not mix in outdoor areas.

The push for gender segregation in educational institutions is not limited to Derna, one of Libya’s most conservative cities. In Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace, efforts to prevent male and female students from mixing at the university are also under way. A new dress code advocates modest clothing for women. Locals say it is no coincidence that Sirte is home to a branch of Ansar al-Sharia, the radical militia designated a terrorist organisation by America in January. Social media and leafleting campaigns, some led by students themselves, have urged similar measures at campuses in the eastern city of Benghazi and the capital, Tripoli, home to the country’s biggest universities.

Libya’s top religious authority, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, the grand mufti, often leads the call for keeping men and women apart, in the workplace as well as university. His rulings are not legally binding but are influential, particularly among Islamists who wield considerable clout within the country’s nascent political and security apparatus.

Last year Mr Ghariani said he had received complaints about “the deterioration of morals and the widespread phenomena of free mixing between sexes, with no restrictions or regulations, in all state institutions”. He declared such behavious “immoral” and called for it to be banned. The mufti also issued a fatwa telling a newly married man that it was not permissible for his wife to continue her studies at a mixed university.

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