Two months ago, while sitting next to leading activists in Johannesburg, I answered the (then simple) question “what pushes you?” The older gentleman sitting next to me began to cry and said “Nothing. I am not pushed anymore. I am tired.” I was confused by his response & when it was my turn I quickly replied, “My faith, my family.”
I find myself now, still with the amazing family I have always had and faith in Allah (swt) who believes I deserve enough to have them, losing my patience; I am slowly becoming the cynic I was once confused by. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the line my drive disappeared, every meeting became a waste of time and the ideas which use to drive me to act have lost all urgency.
I should start at the beginning. My name is Alaa Murabit and I am the founder and president of a Women’s empowerment organization based in Zawia, Libya called “The Voice of Libyan Women” (VLW). In the 18 months since its founding, VLW has managed to have the Libyan Prime Minister publicly speak up against domestic violence during our International Purple Hijab Day Campaign, to run a women’s center which serves more than 500 Libyan women and numerous local CSOs.
VLW has been the only organization to actively research women and security in Libya through our 10 city security assessment, and the only organization which has twice brought together over 150 women’s rights activists with policy makers to create recommendations in our “One Voice” conference.
VLW members have publicly spoken up, time and again, for what we believe in and for what we believe women in Libya are capable of accomplishing. Yet, our center, our names, our belongings, our reputations and our families are attacked daily. Many assume this is directed to us by Libyans and because we are addressing women’s rights in a culturally sensitive country such as Libya – it is not. It is fellow civil society activists, Libyan politicians and the international community which are so quick to offend. By the international community I have been told I am too young to be knowledgeable, by the Libyan politicians too female to be so opinionated and by local civil society activists, too blunt and harsh to be truly effective.
Now, for my age I have no argument: I am 23. I have never thought that it would minimize my knowledge, or the fact that VLW has accomplished so much. I believe that my age, and the age of other VLW members, all under 30, has allowed us greater freedom in exploring Libya and ensuring that the opinions we hear are of all Libyan women, not only those in our own circles.
Every time I am overlooked because of my age, or told not to mention my age, I smile and proudly state that I was born in 1989, that I graduated from high school at 15 and that I founded the most prominent and effective women’s empowerment organization in Libya at the age of 21. I have never felt that it is something I should be ashamed of.
As for being blunt – as you may be able to tell, I am. I am the middle child of 11, growing up in the Murabit family meant you had to be able to logically, succinctly and quickly formulate and state your opinion. It did not help that I was always 2-3 years younger than my classmates, which meant that I had to fight for my opinions to be heard. I have found though, that in a country where people have been lied to and deceived for over 42 years, being blunt is an appreciated quality.
Which brings me to being a woman; had you grown up with me you would know that I was never one to champion women’s rights – I was raised in a family where they had always been given to me, and I assumed the same for all others. Upon moving to Libya at the age of 15, I enrolled in medical school. It was there where I first realized that regardless of what I believed, I was not equal in the eyes of society.
Within the first year of medical school I lobbied our administration to ensure that women could be elected to the student council and I became the first female member of the Zawia Medical College Student Council later that year (entirely symbolic – they gave me no authority). In the years leading up to the revolution I became more cautious of voicing my opinions and less optimistic about the role of women. It was the February 17th Revolution which renewed my hopes.
Over the course of the eight months two of my brothers would see the front-line, and my father would be arrested three times for his public speaking and acting against Gaddafi (Dr. M of Sky News with Alex Crawford). My classmates and I spoke up and acted against the regime. For the first time since I had moved to Libya, I felt as though my being a woman did not limit me. I was seen as equally responsible for the success of the revolution. And in April 2011, when it became public that my name was the first on the Wanted Women list in Zawia, I was not admonished for my activities, not by the men and not by the women.
Over the course of the past 18 months I can honestly say I do not regret what VLW has done, what we have accomplished and how we have changed the path of the women’s movement. If it had not been for our first One Voice Conference in November 2011, only weeks after Liberation, the women’s movement would have continued to focus predominately on humanitarian issues, and would not be as strong, organized or effective in regards to political, economic and social advocacy. At a time when it is difficult to have one Libyan policy maker meet with you we have been able to make sure that year after year we can bring together over 30 at once, including our own NTC Chairman, all three Libyan Prime Ministers since liberation, Ministers and our first elected Members of Parliament.
I can honestly say that I am not worried for women’s rights in particular in Libya; I am worried for the rights of every citizen; man or woman. There is no transparency or accountability and with daily threat to our already unstable security situation, I am strongly discouraged, disappointed and wary of where the road we are on will lead us. Our media is weak and quick to fabricate, our Parliament despite their given word, are unable to accomplish what they were elected to do and the culture of civil society is too inexperienced and at many times too internally negative to inspire change or actively compete with many of the more experienced political parties with their own agendas.
The solutions here are not simple; they will involve a complete re-shift of each Libyan’s mindset (my own included). On the part of each Libyan citizen it will have to involve justice, patience, trust and a self-driven initiative to learn about the changing political, economic and social dynamic in Libya. It will involve humility and transparency, honesty and selflessness, accountability and forethought on the part of the Libyan politicians.
But most importantly, for stability to be sustainable, for it to be all encompassing and for Libya to truly be democratic and effective, it will have to involve the women. Women will have to be sitting at negotiation tables; they will have to be included in economic deals, in peace building, and in political apparatuses at the highest level.
Alaa Murabit is founder and president of a women’s empowerment organization based in Zawia, Libya called “The Voice of Libyan Women.” VLW has recently wrapped up their annual One Voice Conference and is also gearing up for International Purple Hijab Day on February 13th 2103. International Purple Hijab Day 2012 was quite successful last year and led to our Prime Minister to publicly speak against Violence against Women, as well as many embassies and we received pictures from as far as India and Canada. Please view our latest video advocating against Gender Based Violence. Join us this year in wearing a purple ribbon, scarf, tie or shirt on February 13th to combat domestic violence. Please visit our Facebook page and event page to see supporters from Libya and the world send in their pictures! If possible please post your picture to the wall as well!