Dr. Alaa Murabit founded Voices for Libyan Women in August 2011 in the aftermath of the february revolution to focus on the political participation and the economic empowerment of women. It is a primarily youth based organization and has grown considerably and undertaken a number of projects as part of the struggle for human rights. Dr Murabit is a medical doctor.
Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland interviewed her about Voices for Lbiyan Women and her personal story.
Clarion Project: What happened in the February 17th Revolution that pushed you to form Voices for Libyan Women?
Dr Alaa Murabit: I don't think I can isolate it solely to what happened during the Revolution. 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 which 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.
The Revolution proved to be a turning point in the general mentality – I felt as though for the first time since I had moved to Libya years earlier, my input, my contribution and my presence were as important, beneficial and influential as anyone else. The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) was founded as a direct result of my activities during the Libyan Revolution, and the desire to rebuild a Libya in which all citizens had the right to fulfill their goals and ambitions.
Clarion: Tell us about the Purple Hijab day project? How has it spread? Why purple? What other projects do you feel most proud of?
Murabit: Well our team 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. I feel as though 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 and conversation an impossibility.
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". The deep purple, which unlike black it is not strictly a color of mourning, but also alludes to hope and possibility, is a means of creating greater awareness and interest in the campaign, which includes seminars in schools, mosques, and universities which has, in its second year, reached over 30 Libyan 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.
Clarion: What is the single greatest challenge facing Libyan women today?
Murabit: There is no "single greatest challenge" facing Libyan women – the challenges which face Libyan women are a direct reflection of the challenges which face Libyan society, government and media as a whole.
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. It was only last month that a very small percentage of Libyans, relative to those who voted for our parliament, 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 led to a deterioration of the state.
Due to the country's historical foundation, along with a lack of civic and political understanding, Libya is internally fragmented. This has been amplified by a lack of transparency and accountability, which has led to the prioritization of personal or local gain over the overall benefit, and citizens choosing to work together in small groups that they identify with, such as their tribe or city, rather than as a whole. Ultimately, this is resulting in the strengthening of local militias, and the politicization of private media, which is not monitored and leads to even greater societal disintegration.
This is made worse by the lack of experience and influence of the very young Libyan civil society, as well as lack of general political awareness – most apparent in our elected officials, who approach politics as a zero-sum game as though 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 their voice and rights have been overshadowed by those who are pursuing their own interests at the cost of the country. This lack of leadership and capacity is reflected within the women's movement as well, and has led to an increasingly negative perception. Support has lessened from the very women and men who previously worked towards greater rights for women. With the increasingly negative perceptions of women in Libyan media, as well as the political manoeuvring and manipulation (on both ends of the spectrum) which use "women's rights" as a platform to attain votes and support, our credibility among the Libyan people continues to be challenged.
Clarion: You said at the Women of the World panel discussion with Jon Stewart that "every boy with a gun in Libya has a mother." How can women become agents for change?
Murabit: I love this question because it brings up a range of points. There is this expectation (which I think is unrealistic) that women who have never really been educated about civic rights or politics or economy will suddenly wake up and want to become involved in public life. Now, when I think about the traditional roles and life paths that we as women are taught about, from a young age, such a motherhood and marriage, I find that women have a strong voice in those areas. Despite their relative absence in the public sphere in Libya, women are active and at many times dominant in their home and private life, as they have been taught that it is their responsibility and right.
Added to that is that women are different and the way we approach change is different. There is not a universal path for women's rights – it is 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.
We also have to ensure that the community is aware of the added benefits of women leaders – over the course of the coming years and decades Libya will face many challenges. In both the long and short term, the involvement of women is essential. Despite their current 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. The very important role they will play in the promotion and development of the attitudes and approach is essential in this transitional phase and the years to come, and this is something which must be brought to the forefront of every conversation about women's rights in Libya.
Clarion:How did your faith influence your work over the years?
Murabit: 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 – 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 influence it plays in women's rights in Libya.
It is impossible for our voices to be heard if we are not even part of the conversation.
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 our new democracy.
Clarion: How can non-Muslims be engaged in a productive way that will benefit Muslim women?
Murabit: I don't think there is any correlation between being a person's ability to be productively engaged and their religion, gender, nationality, race or anything else.
Regardless of all those factors, my advice is to always listen. Most organizations working on women's rights here will be the first to identify their needs and wants – be it capacity building and training, project implementation, even if it is a shoulder to lean on or nothing at all.
Listening to the people on the ground and working with them to actively search for possible solutions to their challenges would be my advice.