Abuse of religion - Libya's women's major challenge
In February, a small, purple revolution swept across Libya. All shades and patterns of purple were adorned in the headscarves of the women, and shops put up purple signs in their windows. Men, both young and old, wore purple ties or draped purple scarves over their shoulders to show their support for the campaign, known as Purple Hijab Day. This campaign took up the fight against gender-based violence, and even managed to get the prime minister wearing a purple scarf. Alaa Murabit, founder of the organisation behind the campaign, is in no doubt as to why it was such a great success.
“We used the Koran as an argument against people beating their daughters. By pointing out that Mohammed would never hit his own daughters, we used religion as an argument against gender-related violence. This meant that we achieved support from a previously unseen source, and it led to the prime minister, for the first time, publically supporting a campaign against domestic violence”, she explains.
Violence – a natural part of Libyan life
Alaa Murabit is herself a dedicated Muslim and she is proud of her religion. She is frustrated by how many people use Islam as a tool to repress women within society. Gender-based violence is a part of everyday life for many girls and women in Libya, and something they do not even bother to question. When Alaa Murabit is out visiting schools educating women about their rights, she often asks the girls how many of them have been on the receiving end of violence in the home or on the street. Usually, the majority of the girls’ hands go up into the air. And it is precisely because this violence is such an integrated aspect of society that makes fighting against it so very difficult. So having your religious arguments in order is crucial, explains Murabit:
“If you want to change anything, you have to answer back with the same logic that they use. You have to be able to give a religious ‘no’; that’s the only way you can get women to fight for their cause. By doing this, you let women have religion on their side, which is an extremely powerful tool.”
"We used the Koran as an argument against people beating their daughters. By pointing out that Mohammed would never hit his own daughters, we used religion as an argument against gender-related violence(...)"
Gender-related violence manifests itself in many different ways in Libyan society: from the harassment from young boys on the streets to the husband who beats his wife and daughters. And even though it is easy to criticize the male half of the population – i.e. the perpetrators – Alaa Murabit emphasises the importance of looking at the bigger picture. As she sees it, this violence is linked to the political conditions Libyans have been living under for the past many years. The government has shown little respect for the people, who to a great extent have lost control of their own existence. At the same time, violence has become a cultural norm, and if a brother controls his sister by means of psychological persecution, many would argue that he is merely doing it out of love for her, she explains.
Torn from her secure bubble
23-year-old Alaa herself grew up in a family with 10 siblings, where violence was always out of the question. Her family lived in Canada until she was 14 years old, when they moved to Libya to be reunited with the rest of the family. The young teenager found moving to Libya to be a complete culture chock, but it also opened her eyes and gave her a new perspective on life. From having lived in a secure bubble where her only worry was whether or not she would be in time for the bus, she now found herself in a country where there were no busses at all.
"If you want to change anything, you have to answer back with the same logic that they use. You have to be able to give a religious ‘no’; that’s the only way you can get women to fight for their cause. "
She quickly realised that the world she had known (and in which she had felt secure) was a million miles away from the reality she now was facing. Her Libyan family expected her to be a good Libyan girl, and little consideration was given to the fact that she had grown up in a Western country. But looking back, she is grateful for the fact that she has experienced two very different realities as the experience has afforded her a different perspective on life.
“When you’re a young girl in Canada, you think that everyone else’s lives are like your own: getting an education, having clean water, being able to moan if you don’t get the toys that you want. But then you move to Libya and discover just how lucky you’ve been – and realise just how difficult the coming years are going to be.”
The revolution that changed nothing
On 15 February 2011, the first disturbances and protests broke out in Libya, which for the next eight months found itself trapped in the middle of the struggle between Gaddafi’s forces and the revolutionaries. When Alaa Murabit first heard about the demonstrations she was certain that they would quickly be quelled; not for one second did she believe that there would be a revolution in Libya. But living in the town of Zawiya close to Tripoli, the battle quickly became a visible reality when the tanks came rolling into town. Slowly, she began assisting by transporting things for the rebels, and her father was arrested several times. When her own name appeared on a list of wanted women, she retreated back into her home out of fear of arrest. She herself guesses that it was her outspoken opinions that earned her her place on the list.
"When you’re a young girl in Canada, you think that everyone else’s lives are like your own: getting an education, having clean water, being able to moan if you don’t get the toys that you want. But then you move to Libya and discover just how lucky you’ve been – and realise just how difficult the coming years are going to be."
In the wake of the revolution, it has become far less dangerous to speak one’s mind, and many use this fact to argue that the situation is better now. But Alaa Murabit does not see it like this. She believes that it makes no difference that people can say what they want if no one is actually listening – a situation that is a reality for the women of Libya after the revolution, where the transitional government has shown no signs that women will be playing a larger role than before.
“In political terms, women are no better off at all. Some people say that because now there is no dictator, things are automatically better, but I don’t agree. That shouldn’t be how things are measured. Instead, we have to look at what the next step ought to be. What can we do to ensure the economic security for women and how can we secure them more influence?”
The Voice of Libya organisation fights for the political and economic influence of women in Libya, as well as campaigning for the abolition of gender-based violence throughout the country. When Alaa Murabit first decided to set up the organisation she had no idea how highly charged the area that she was entering actually was. She had been educated as a doctor and had a naïve approach to women’s rights, which for her primarily revolved around reducing the widespread violence against women. But she quickly realised that things were by no means that simple.
"In political terms, women are no better off at all. Some people say that because now there is no dictator, things are automatically better, but I don’t agree(...)"
When she encouraged women to divorce their husbands if they hit them, she was confronted with a completely different reality than that she had expected. The women asked her how they should support their families, and soon she realised that it is not possible to discuss women’s rights without it becoming a political issue.
“I’ve realised that first of all legislative, political and economic changes need to be made. I thought I could simply open a couple of clinics and a hotline. This was a very medical approach to women’s rights. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by all these things that I’m not sure I’m at all good at.”
Things moving in the wrong direction
She continues to follow with concern the development that Libya is moving towards. The country’s poor security situation is being used as an excuse to keep women in the home, and corruption among politicians is so widespread that only the fewest women really see any point of entering into politics. Alaa Murabit predicts that things will only start changing when the young women who have experienced the revolution begin to come out of the education system. They will have the courage and the desire to throw themselves into politics because they have seen that women, despite the odds being against them, can make a difference if they stand united.
"I thought I could simply open a couple of clinics and a hotline. This was a very medical approach to women’s rights. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by all these things that I’m not sure I’m at all good at."
Today, there are many women who are speaking their minds, but they are not necessarily being heard in the right places – places where what they are saying can lead to change. The current situation in Libya is far too unstable for women’s rights to find a footing on the political agenda. Looking positively into the future, she envisages a society where women are represented in all spheres of society. If no one else steps forward, then perhaps she herself will end up becoming politically active, although she would prefer not to have to. She predicts that history will repeat itself somewhat, but nevertheless believes that the hope that the revolution has given people – particularly the women – remains of crucial importance.
“Right now, too little time has passed to really see how much the revolution has changed things, but in a couple of years we will see it. The true effect of all of the Arab revolutions will become apparent over the next couple of years. We shouldn’t begin expecting too much too soon or believing so much could happen in such a short period of time; these things have taken hundreds of years for other countries to achieve. And that’s the way it should be. It takes time for those sorts of things to grow.”