Alaa Murabit was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, but moved to Zawia, Libya at 15 to study at the College of Medicine at the University of Zawia, where she became the first and only female member of the student council. She is the founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, a women’s empowerment and development NGO. She received the Thomson Reuters Foundation's Trust Women Hero Award in 2013.
Al-Madina: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in women’s rights?
Alaa Murabit: Growing up, I can honestly say I never had an interest (probably because I felt I had no reason) for women's rights. I was born and raised in Canada until 15, when I moved to Libya, my home country. Despite the geographical change my "nurture" was the same - my parents, both devout Muslims, always created an environment that promoted and supported their eleven children - five sons and six daughters - equally. Both in and out of the home we shared responsibilities and priority was always given to education.
They were also instrumental in my understanding of women's rights and roles in Islam, as they felt the only way as to truly value our faith was to discuss Islamic teachings. Family dinners and camping trips were defined by heated debates on the role of women in Islam, and the purpose of prayer and Eid sacrifice. My upbringing, devoid of the societal and cultural limitations placed on women that were apparent to me once I moved to Libya, was also fortified by a religious foundation which supported, encouraged and empowered women, that my parents had engrained in me at a young age.
It was at 15, during my first year of medical school in my home city of Zawia, which, despite being only 40 KM away from the Libyan capital Tripoli, is known for being conservative and traditional city that I began to feel my gender limited me. Society, regardless of logic, reason and common sense, valued my male classmates opinions and presence, more than my own and my female counterparts.
Walk us through how you founded The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW)? What is the vision and mission of VLW? What are the challenges you are trying to address?
Founded due to my activities during the Libyan Revolution, The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) initially focused on the political and economic empowerment of women as a means to social development. In the early weeks and months following liberation the women's movement continued to focus heavily on humanitarian work. Our work at that time, most notably our One Voice conference and The Libyan Women's Charter, were the turning point for the women's movement - ultimately redirecting the course from one focused on the immediate humanitarian needs to one based in women's empowerment on all levels.
Through numerous workshops, campaigns, and conferences, we addressed women's roles in Libya. Despite the interest, heated discussions, and initiatives, sustainable impact was inadequate as decades of tradition and religious misinformation provided a social construct, which made women's empowerment without religious re-education impossible.
After attempts to broach the subject of women's cultural and social empowerment, I chose to exercise a basic principle of my childhood by approaching the debate with religious teachings. This began with VLW's first national campaign, "International Purple Hijab Day", which included seminars in schools, mosques, and universities which has reached over 30 cities. The thousands of surveys collected resulted in the Libyan Prime Minister publicly speaking out against domestic violence and supporting legislative change and accountability in sexual violence crimes.
With this, the inspiration for the "Noor Campaign" was planted— a national campaign utilizing media and seminars to shed light on the proper treatment of women in Islam through Ayas from the Quran and Hadiths. As "Noor" in Islam has long meant the enlightenment of an individual from a position of darkness and ignorance to a position of understanding and wisdom, the Noor Campaign provided a platform reviving dialogue regarding culturally dictated “taboo” issues.
What are the challenges Libyan women are facing today? What is the current state of affairs in Libya and the challenges in the country?
Unfortunately, to the majority of the Libyan population, women's rights are not seen as a priority because they feel there are more severe issues plaguing the country. Only recently Libyans, albeit a very small percentage, voted for the Constitutional Drafting Body. This comes at a time where many Libyans feel that the existing governing, security and media structures and institutions have lead to a deterioration of the state.
Due to the country's historical foundation, and a lack of civic and political understanding, Libya is internally fragmented. This is amplified by a lack of transparency and accountability, leading to the prioritization of personal or local gain over the overall benefit. People work together in small groups that they identify with such as their tribe or city, rather than as a whole.
This has lead to the strengthening of local militias, and the politicization of private media, which is not monitored and leads to greater societal disintegration.
The lack of experience and influence of the very young Libyan civil society, as well as lack of general political awareness makes this worse, most apparent in our elected officials, who treat politics as a zero-sum game and feel that one faction has to dominate everything, and "winner takes all".
This state of instability has resulted in apathy from Libyan citizens because they feel as though those who are pursuing their own interests at the cost of the country have overshadowed their voice and rights. This is reflected in the women's movement, which has lost the support of citizens who previously worked for women's rights. It further loses credibility among the people, when politicians attempt to use it as a platform to stand on rather than a goal to work towards.
Is there any solution to this crisis in Libya? What are the short and long term steps towards a solution?
I do feel as though there is a solution, however I feel that the situation will deteriorate more before it is realized.
I say this because the solution is dependent entirely on the Libyan people. In the long term, we will have to cultivate a culture of education; both in the traditional sense, and more importantly the self-driven initiative to learn about the changing dynamic in Libya - be it social, political, or economic. We will have to value justice; work ethic and the collective gain above our own individual needs and wants. Structures of transparency and accountability, which can be given a foundation in our upcoming constitution, will have to be apparent to every citizen, and politicians will have to approach their work with honesty, humility, selflessness, accountability and forethought. Ultimately it is only through greater personal effort, leadership and cohesion that Libya will create strong state institutions, which will lead to greater democratic stability.
In the short term we need to focus heavily on inclusive security and rule of law. We need to create economic opportunities and alternatives for youth, and we need to create incentives for work until work ethic becomes a learned character again.
In both the long and short term, the involvement of women is essential. Despite their lack of formal political authority, their community credibility and networks make them crucial to sustainable local, regional and national dialogue and cohesion. Women also outnumber men in the education sector, both as students in universities throughout the country, and as educators. They play a very important role in the promotion and development of the attitude and approach, which is essential in this transitional phase.
How are the roles and treatment of women in Libya now different from the past?
Only years ago it would have been impossible for women to take on a leading role in political and public life - with the support and encouragement of her family and community. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest indication of possible success not only for women, but also for society as a whole, is a change of mentality. We now have not only women, but Libyan men as well who are pushing for greater roles for women, which in and of itself is a sign of progression.
Unfortunately the international media is quick to claim that women's rights in the time of Gaddafi were greater than they are now. They are quick to disregard input from activists on the ground, such as myself, who have traveled the country safely numerous times and done work in regards to women’s political, social and economic rights. This has been done not only with the blessing of the local communities but also more importantly with the active and enthusiastic support of the women and men in these communities.
Do you ever get discouraged? What are the biggest challenges you face?
I am constantly discouraged. My mother tells me this is a good sign, because it means I am creating change!
As a Muslim, do you feel that religion or spirituality has played a role in your work over the years?
My own upbringing has always been affirmation to me of the rights and the elevation of women in Islam, and as my faith strongly influences all parts of my life, it naturally gives me purpose, confidence and encouragement for my work. I have always looked to women in Islam, the Mothers of our faith, who were pioneers in education, economy, politics and even security, for inspiration.
However what pushed me to incorporate religious foundations into VLW programs wasn't my personal belief, but rather because of the perceived influence it plays in women's rights in Libya.
Islam is the constant scapegoat for the state of women's rights in Libya and in the region - but rather than Islam, it is our own man-made culture and traditions, as well as recently imported ideals, which hinder our growth not only as women, but Libyans as a whole.
The manipulation of Islam for personal or political advantage has created a society where the dominance of men is guised through religion and where religion is used as a tool for fear and psychological manipulation, this is further exacerbated by the general public's lack of Islamic knowledge.
In a time where the status of Muslim women has the greatest potential for change as constitutions are being drafted and laws altered (with Islam at the forefront) it is imperative that we demand our God given rights.
I don't deceive myself into thinking that a greater understanding of Islam will solve the cultural disparities in the application of religion in Libya; however, I do believe that it will open the doors of communication and education. I believe that we have the opportunity to ensure that Islam is used as it was meant to be, for education and illumination, rather than as an excuse for ignorance and prevalent cultural norms. The proper understanding of Islam is essential to ensure that women are treated as partners in the rebuilding of new democracies.
How do you think we can improve women’s rights around the world?
I don't think there is a universal solution to women's rights. Women's rights are dependent on the particular society, level of education and mentality and it is closely tied to culture and tradition.
The solution for women's rights can only be found once the underlying basis is identified, which is specific to each community.
What I do think is universal however is education - not just for women and girls, but men and boys as well. Once societies are empowered through education and through knowledge you also give them the confidence, skills and tools to create whatever change is necessary in their own communities, and you ensure that change is sustainable because it has been due to a shift in mentality.
What can the international community do to help women’s rights in Libya?
First and foremost would be to listen to the local needs and wants of Libyan society.
It is wonderful and encouraging to hear learned lessons from other communities and countries. It gives us a much more realistic understanding of what we may be able to accomplish, what potential obstacles may come up, etc.
At times the international community comes with "cut and paste" strategies, which worked previously in other countries. Not only is it difficult to get people to locally implement these strategies because they don't identify with them, but the results are very difficult to sustain, because the root cultural and social limitations have not been addressed.
What words of inspiration can you give our young readers who are inspired by your leadership as an activist?
One of my greatest struggles was that I always felt like I had to apologize for my outspokenness and my opinions, and when I was in university I tried to stifle them. But the thing is our gifts come in different forms – don’t apologize for them. It took me a while to appreciate some of my own traits, and to learn that Allah (SWT) gives us gifts. He gives us opportunities and challenges and at the end of the day what is meant to be yours will be yours so be honest, be kind, work hard. Use the gifts God gave you to show thanks and respect to Him, in a way which exemplifies His message. Oh and never allow for yourself to be so absorbed by something that you forget to be thankful.
By ImanWire , 29 May 2014