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Voices Women’s WorldWide Web interviews Alaa Murabit, Founder and Executive Director of Voice of Libyan Women

March 2014


W4 interviews pioneering, award-winning Alaa Murabit, Founder of Voice of Libyan Women, about her work to defend women’s rights in Libya

Alaa Murabit received the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Women Hero Award last December © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

W4 You’ve described yourself as “an accidental activist”. Professionally, you’re trained as a doctor. What prompted you to establish The Voice of Libyan Women and move into advocacy work for women’s rights? Alaa Murabit The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) came to life as a direct result of my activities during the February 17th Revolution in 2011. In an effort to ensure the success of the Revolution, many women were taking on new roles and making decisions, which they had never done before. Moreover, men tended not to contest this shift, partly owing to their absence in certain cities (my own included), but more importantly because men and

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well as their responsibilities, and we wanted to ensure that the positive changes didn’t lose momentum. continued to focus heavily on humanitarian work. Our work then, most notably our “One Voice” 2011 conference and The Libyan Women’s Charter, created a turning point for the women’s movement - ultimately redirecting it from a focus on immediate, humanitarian needs, to a sustainable future, based on women’s empowerment at all levels.

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Alaa Murabit conducting a seminar in Zawia to mark International Purple Hijab Day, a grassroots movement against domestic violence among Muslim communities © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

W4 You’ve said that we need to be cautious about referring to the “Arab Spring”. Can you elaborate? A. M. Using “Arab Spring” as a blanket term is both reductive and counterproductive; it’s unrealistic to group countries or a region this way. Our expectations of a country’s political path have to be based on understanding that each country has a unique social context and faces its

W4 Yes, and, as the NY Times journalist Souad Mekhennet has said, the term “Arab Spring” is a misnomer because it implies something extremely optimistic and positive, and we’re perhaps getting too excited before people’s rights have actually been won. A. M. Exactly. The Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja expressed it well when she said that Egyptian activists have said the same. In Libya, for example, we underwent a very long struggle to

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Al Jazeera’s show «The Stream» supported International Purple Hijab Day

© 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

affairs and underestimating how much still needs to be achieved.

W4 How is VLW working to increase the political participation of women? A. M. From the outset, members of VLW took white boards to events throughout Libya and asked women and men to write down their goals and aspirations for Libyan women. This aspirations of Libyans themselves. A lot of women expressed their desire to assume leadership positions, whether political or economic, locally and nationally. That’s why we decided that political empowerment would be one of our main focus areas.

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women following the revolution, with seminars focusing on the political empowerment of Libyan women. The event was attended by over 200 women’s rights activists from around the country, various stakeholders such as the Chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jaleel, the former Prime Ministers Mahmoud Jibril and Abdurrahim El-Keib, as well as Ian Martin UNSMIL SRSG and Catherine Ashton of the European Union, all of whom gave speeches and shared their insights about women’s greater political participation, as well as women’s roles in

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open-panel discussions with local councils, and exploring practical and realistic ways to get more women involved in politics, particularly on a community and local level. Next came our Women’s Charter project, which also took us across the country. We asked women from different cities and backgrounds what their needs and goals were and incorporated their responses into a women’s charter which could serve as an instrument for the Constitution. As the elections drew near, we hosted a lot of “voter awareness and education workshops” and conducted “candidate training” for all the registered individual candidates, approximately 40. We’ve also been holding many more general “democracy and political awareness raising” campaigns and workshops. Throughout the year, we continue to address the needs of Libyan women; on a general, public

on policymakers on a national and international level as well as addressing the most pressing issues for Libyan women on a high-level platform.

W4 Could you tell us a bit more about the Women’s Charter and the

key reforms and policies you’re hoping it will help to achieve?

A. M. The Women’s Charter was created in order to achieve parity in the drafting of the upcoming Constitution. We wanted to represent the opinions of women from across Libya’s different regions, political ideologies, and ethnic and educational backgrounds. VLW

We’re trying to change the foundations of tradition, culture, religious misinterpretation and manipulation, all of which have long hindered and negated women’s roles as active partners in change.

led initiatives, and local community leaders worked to consult women on issues ranging from their healthcare needs to their aspirations for and expectations of the Constitution in terms of women’s rights and personal status laws. Women were very open with us about the challenges they face and their hopes and needs for the future.

Our goal has been to ensure an inclusive Constitution, but we have to be realistic. Libya is over 50% female, but the 60-member body that drafts the Constitution will probably have far from a fair and representative number of women.

W4 What key indicators are you using to track the impact of your

advocacy work?

A. M. We are realistic, rather than optimistic, which is important because it enables us to adjust our expectations and not be too preoccupied with seeing immediate results. We trust that our work will yield powerful change in the long term. There are incredible highlights. For example, during International Purple Hijab Day in 2012,

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which we launched to lobby against domestic violence, Prime Minister El Kieb stated: “Domestic violence is an issue and yes, our society, in general, excuses it for the wrong reasons, and we should stand up and support women who face violence in their lives”. When the Prime Minister announces this, publicly, in a country where domestic violence has long been either ignored or excused, then of course it is a great moment! But the high points of achievement are rare, and at other times our work can be so frustrating, we sometimes wonder, “Why are we doing this?” Honestly, I suspect that if I sat down to list the and question why society is not changing faster. But we’re trying to change the foundations of tradition, culture, religious misinterpretation and manipulation, all of which have long hindered and negated women’s roles as active partners in change. These are long-standing, deeply-ingrained issues, and we’re trying to do this in a way that is authentic, to ensure sustainability. There is no

W4 What keeps you going when you see that the pace is so slow? What

is it that really drives you?

A. M. As VLW’s vice-president says, we’re trying to bring about change “because nobody else will do it!” If we don’t take action, we could be sitting here in 20 or 30 years wondering, “How did society get this way?” We don’t want to end up regretting that we didn’t open up opportunities for ourselves, our daughters, and future generations. A lot of female politicians asked themselves: “Why bother running for election? I know that, after independence, it will be nearly impossible for any of us to win.” At the end of the day, though, those women their political ideology. And this has opened doors for

Young women now understand that they have a window of opportunity to take action and that it’s not wrong to make your face public.

6 Alaa Murabit conducting a Noor Campaign Workshop in Gatron, a city in Libya’s farthest South, to male and female high school students. The Noor Campaign is a national campaign aiming to shed light on the treatment of women in Islam © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

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Young men at a Noor Campaign Seminar in Benghazi. Voice of Libyan Women heavily focuses on educating men and boys on women’s rights © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

from seeking political leadership positions in the future. I remember during the GNC elections, some female candidates’ posters were ripped down or painted over. But this sparked protest, with many members of society, male and female, insisting it was wrong. Arguably, the backlash against those who initially opposed women in politics gave rise to a situation today in which women really know where they stand in terms of politics. Young women now understand that they have a window of opportunity to take action and that it’s not wrong to make your position public.

W4 What is your view of the role of Libyan men in achieving positive social change, and economic and political freedoms for women? And what’s the best way to engage them? A. M. As in any society, if it’s solely about empowering women, it just won’t work. Men are half of society. Moreover, Libya is a patriarchal society, and the majority of decision-makers are men, both in public and private life. For example, if a young woman wants to study abroad, the

The same is true of politics: some women who are interested in becoming formally involved in politics or the media worry about the impact it would have on their family; will their husbands, fathers, and brothers support them or disapprove? We have to be realistic about this context, about the personal “red lines” that limit women’s desire to become involved in public life.

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I don’t think men oppose women’s rights because they “hate” women; most men who oppose women’s rights do so because they genuinely don’t know what “women’s rights” means. We have a society in which many people unfortunately lack the adequate education and awareness, and would never have established VLW without the support of my father and brothers, nor would exemplary and we need to spotlight the exemplary men. Equally, we have to be careful not to be overdemanding of women. It’s unrealistic to expect that a woman will work to become more economically independent or empowered if she doesn’t have the private familial support or is in a situation familial commitments.

To empower women, we want and need men to be our partners. If we’re to succeed, we need all members of society, women and men, to say: “Yes, we should be equal”.

Instead of it being such a painful dilemma, we need to create a social environment in which a woman’s family and community encourage her. To do that, we have to convey the truth that economic empowerment for women brings economic gains for the whole country and promotes happier homes and an increase in the wellbeing of everyone. We want to empower women, but we want and need men to be our partners in achieving this. In short, if we’re to succeed, we need all members of society, women and men, to say: “Yes, we should be equal”

W4 How have you been engaging men in your work so far? A. M. My own father is the biggest supporter of VLW; he’s on our advisory committee and is a very well-known doctor and community leader in our city. From the beginning, his support our work. Since then, we’ve had a series of male participants at our “One Voice” conferences. In our society, hearing men voice their support of women can sometimes be more powerful than and decision-makers say that they need women to participate in political life, that they need the different opinions, perspectives, and ideas that women offer, can be very effective. are predominantly male. Needless to say, a lot of our programs embrace the viewpoints of men; otherwise, they wouldn’t work. Frankly, it’s indispensable to have male advisors and supporters to term accomplishments and longer-term objectives that will take more time to come to fruition. Most recently, our “Noor Campaign” was launched, and it has been unparalleled in the involvement of men and women at a grassroots level; through over 35 city teams, we’ve been able to reach students in middle and high schools, men in the workplace, universities, and even mosques.

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W4 What projects are you working on at the moment? A. M. We’re in the midst of several projects. As I mentioned, VLW initially focused on the political and economic empowerment of women as a means to social development. Through

© 2014, Women’s WorldWide Web


experience of family life and domestic violence

Khaled and Zied, about two boys’ contrasting © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

numerous workshops, campaigns, and conferences, we’ve addressed women’s roles in Libya. hard to achieve because decades of tradition and religious misinformation have created a social construct that makes women’s empowerment without social development and religious re-education an impossibility.

It is women who care for families, bond communities, and truly reconcile a country, and it is only by investing in them that Libya will realize its true potential.

In late 2012, we developed our focus on women’s security and security provisions in Libya.

This was the inspiration for the “Noor Campaign” — a national campaign, across 35 Libyan cities, using media and seminars to shed light on the treatment of women in Islam through Ayas from the Quran and Hadiths. “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 an invaluable platform to revive dialogue about culturally dictated “taboo” issues. The Noor Campaign has resulted in tens of thousands of surveys, and

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One of many hard-hitting Noor Campaign billboards against domestic violence © 2014, Voice of Libyan Women

“Shin Nagsik” (“What are you missing?”), a component of the Noor Campaign, focuses on live debates in universities across Libya, creating an environment where students are encouraged to listen to one another and explore culturally sensitive subjects openly, in the spirit of tolerance we’re currently running a Women’s Center and NGO hub in Zawia. It is very accessible to women, offering a center for economic education and empowerment, including free English classes, computer classes, and book clubs. We can’t expect women to get involved in politics immediately; we need to create an community, through community-based projects such as cooking classes and sewing classes.

The work we’re doing means a 7-year old girl today may become Libya’s President in a few decades’ time. This is enough to inspire me.

Finally, we’re working with the United Nations in Libya to ensure the greater dissemination and

women’s rights in the Libyan constitution: it is women who care for families, bond communities, potential.

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W4 Could you tell us more about the Women’s Center? A. M. The Center, located at the heart of Zawia, serves hundreds of women from 13 cities and towns. On a daily basis we use the space for education - social, political, and economic. Three

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classrooms are dedicated to education and training, including English classes, civic awareness and responsibilities, political awareness, social debates and personal status discussions, plus frequent the center are mothers, and they aren’t always able to arrange for childcare. We encourage women to read more, both for leisure and work, through our library. This has and value of reading, so women have limited resources in that regard. We consider IT classes crucial because IT is such a huge information gateway: unfortunately, many women currently lack even a basic understanding or knowledge of computers and the magnitude of what they can internet access, and a basic working space. Finally, the Center hosts regular guests, such as local council members, business leaders, members of the National Government and Parliament, as well as international ambassadors, who discuss current issues.

W4 How can the public, whether in Libya or abroad, support your work? A. M. and initiatives. On an international level, I think it is essential that stakeholders listen to the local needs and wants of Libyan society. As much as we appreciate the experiences of other locally implement, because society doesn’t identify with them. Worse still, those results are unsustainable, because the local cultural and social limitations have not been addressed. Ultimately, I have one message: please continue to support women’s participation in Libya, particularly through international encouragement on a governmental level, but also through necessary work in Libya.

W4 You’ve said, “I tend not to be optimistic.” Given the work you’re

doing, which is so courageous and laudable, this could sound contradictory. When you look to the future, are you optimistic about the prospects for women’s rights in Libya? A. M. Naturally, we have to be optimistic about the future in order to do this kind of work. realistic about the changes we can expect to see in the near future. Sometimes I hear people say we’ll be able to change things within 2-5 years, and I say, “No, no! It will probably take 20 to 25 years, or longer.” We have to remember that we’re trying to change a system, a tradition, and a We remind ourselves that we’ll see the greatest changes further down the line. The work we’re doing means a 7-year old girl today may become Libya’s President in a few decades’ time. This is enough to inspire me.

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W4 interviews Alaa Murabit March 2014  

W4 interviews pioneering, award-winning Alaa Murabit, Founder of Voice of Libyan Women, about her work to defend women’s rights in Libya

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