Alaa Murabit, founder of The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW), a women’s empowerment organization based in Libya, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss the founding of VLW, the growth of the organization, and the challenges that continue to confront women in Libyan society.
GJIA: How did you initially come to be a leader of women’s rights in Libya, and what circumstances brought about the founding of the Voice of Libyan Women?
AM: Although I personally don’t see myself as a leader in the women’s movement, I did not ever intend to be one either. The Voice of Libyan Women was founded following the 2011 Libyan Revolution. I was in my final year of medical school at the time, and found out that there was a window of opportunity for women in Libya. I, and others, felt that we had to take that window of opportunity to ensure that women were able to truly advocate and demand their rights. It happened almost accidentally, [but also] out of necessity.
GJIA: How does Voice of Libyan Women operate, and what is the current scale of its operations? Where do you see it going in the future?
AM: The Voice of Libyan Women operates nationally within Libya, where it has three major offices. The head office is in Zawiya, which is about thirty minutes away from the capital. But the main way that we disseminate information on a national level is through local teams. We have gone through the process of building up local teams, which are made up of individuals and local organizations, not only women’s rights organizations but men and women business professionals as well. These teams are really the way that we can best ensure that the message is heard on a local level because it comes from people those we’re trying to reach can trust. We have also recently been requested to replicate our Noor Campaign, which focuses on redirecting the conversation about women’s rights when it comes to the misrepresentation and misuse of religion to negate those rights, in both Palestine and Jordan.
GJIA: What are the greatest challenges and opportunities that Voices of Libyan Women has encountered in its efforts to effect cultural change?
AM: Effecting cultural change is a challenge in and of itself, and we have come to understand that sometimes there are obstacles. Initially, for the first year and a half of our operation, we focused specifically on political and economic empowerment, on working within the political and economic spheres to ensure that women could attain the highest position or push women who didn’t necessarily know they wanted to be involved into those fields and show them our support. What we learned early on was that the results we were getting felt insufficient simply because there are barriers. There is always going to be a boundary to what somebody can reach in their public life because their personal life has these social and cultural barriers. Those barriers are really, I would say, the greatest obstacles to women’s rights in Libya and have been the biggest challenge for us. So a year and a half into our operations we strongly shifted our focus onto social change and redirecting the conversation about women’s rights. [We want to] ensure that we can have a conversation about women’s rights that is realistic and that will result in sustainable change, because once you change the foundation you can change where that conversation is going. But as long as the foundation is crooked, as my mom used to say, you can’t build a house.
GJIA: What is the root of discrimination and violence against women in Libya? How does that affect the Voice of Libyan Women’s work?
AM: I think it’s the same as any other country in the world. For the majority, it’s the lack of education. For those in positions of power, it’s the fear that power will become more widespread. But for the general population it is genuinely just the lack of knowledge. No one is having a conversation with the people. Even we as women’s rights organizations are at fault, because we go in expecting people to understand what the conversation is about and we go in saying we want women’s rights. Even if you look at the United States, for example, “women’s rights” is a term not a lot of people understand. People might even think of it negatively the first time they hear it. It really comes on us to have conversations to educate people, to ensure that we’re bringing everyone into the conversation.
GJIA: What is your long-term vision for Libyan society and the role of women in it?
AM: When I look at Libyan society, my long-term vision is probably similar to any citizen of any country and any citizen of the world: that people can live equally and peacefully. That people have the right to respect. That people have their civic responsibilities and that they fulfill those. That they can ensure peace and security for themselves, their children, and their communities. And that they feel as though they want to work to benefit the country they’re living in. We’re ending on a very broad and hopeful note, but I think it can get there. With the right governance, the right international relations, the right support, and the right national effort from citizens, I think it has a very good chance of getting there.
Dr. Alaa Murabit was born and raised in Saskatoon, Canada. After graduating from high school at age 15, she studied at the College of Medicine at the University of Zawia in Libya, and worked at Zawia Teaching Hospital and makeshift clinics during the 2011 civil war. In April 2011, Murabit was listed by the Gaddafi regime as one of the “most wanted” women in Zawia. She founded The Voice of Libyan Women four months later. Dr. Murabit’s role in the Libyan Revolution and subsequent women’s rights activities has been commended by former NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Newseek, and al Jazeera. She was selected as a 2012 Trust Women Hero Award finalist, awarded the 2013 Marisa Bellisario International Award by the High Patronage of the President of the Italian Republic, and named the 2013 Trust Women Hero by The International New York Times. She also serves as an Advisory Board member for The German Marshall Fund's MENA Partnership.
Alaa Murabit was interviewed by Catie Burleson on 8 April 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.