Transcript – Alaa Murabit, The Voice of Libyan Women Founder, discusses what Islam really says about women at TED conference…
Alaa Murabit – The Voice of Libyan Women Founder, Ashoka Fellow, UN SCR 1325 Global Study Advisor, UN Women GCSAG Advisor
So on my way here, the passenger next to me and I had a very interesting conversation during my flight. He told me, “It seems like the United States has run out of jobs, because they’re just making some up: cat psychologist, dog whisperer, tornado chaser.”
A couple of seconds later, he asked me, “So what do you do?”
And I was like, “Peacebuilder?”
Every day, I work to amplify the voices of women and to highlight their experiences and their participation in peace processes and conflict resolution. And because of my work, I recognize that the only way to ensure the full participation of women globally is by reclaiming religion.
Now, this matter is vitally important to me. As a young Muslim woman, I am very proud of my faith. It gives me the strength and conviction to do my work every day. It’s the reason I can be here in front of you. But I can’t overlook the damage that has been done in the name of religion, not just my own, but all of the world’s major faiths. The misrepresentation and misuse and manipulation of religious scripture has influenced our social and cultural norms, our laws, our daily lives, to a point where we sometimes don’t recognize it.
My parents moved from Libya, North Africa, to Canada in the early 1980s, and I am the middle child of 11 children. Yes, 11. But growing up, I saw my parents, both religiously devout and spiritual people, pray and praise God for their blessings, namely me of course, but among others. They were kind and funny and patient, limitlessly patient, the kind of patience that having 11 kids forces you to have. And they were fair. I was never subjected to religion through a cultural lens. I was treated the same, the same was expected of me. I was never taught that God judged differently based on gender. And my parents’ understanding of God as a merciful and beneficial friend and provider shaped the way I looked at the world.
Now, of course, my upbringing had additional benefits. Being one of 11 children is Diplomacy 101. To this day, I am asked where I went to school, like, “Did you go to Kennedy School of Government?” and I look at them and I’m like, “No, I went to the Murabit School of International Affairs.” It’s extremely exclusive. You would have to talk to my mom to get in. Lucky for you, she’s here. But being one of 11 children and having 10 siblings teaches you a lot about power structures and alliances. It teaches you focus; you have to talk fast or say less, because you will always get cut off. It teaches you the importance of messaging. You have to ask questions in the right way to get the answers you know you want, and you have to say no in the right way to keep the peace.
But the most important lesson I learned growing up was the importance of being at the table. When my mom’s favorite lamp broke, I had to be there when she was trying to find out how and by who, because I had to defend myself, because if you’re not, then the finger is pointed at you, and before you know it, you will be grounded. I am not speaking from experience, of course.
When I was 15 in 2005, I completed high school and I moved from Canada — Saskatoon — to Zawiya, my parents’ hometown in Libya, a very traditional city. Mind you, I had only ever been to Libya before on vacation, and as a seven-year-old girl, it was magic. It was ice cream and trips to the beach and really excited relatives.
Turns out it’s not the same as a 15-year-old young lady. I very quickly became introduced to the cultural aspect of religion. The words haram — meaning religiously prohibited — and aib — meaning culturally inappropriate — were exchanged carelessly, as if they meant the same thing and had the same consequences. And I found myself in conversation after conversation with classmates and colleagues, professors, friends, even relatives, beginning to question my own rule and my own aspirations. And even with the foundation my parents had provided for me, I found myself questioning the role of women in my faith.
So at the Murabit School of International Affairs, we go very heavy on the debate, and rule number one is do your research, so that’s what I did. And it surprised me how easy it was to find women in my faith who were leaders, who were innovative, who were strong — politically, economically, even militarily. Khadija financed the Islamic movement in its infancy. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. So why weren’t we learning about her? Why weren’t we learning about these women? Why were women being relegated to positions which predated the teachings of our faith? And why, if we are equal in the eyes of God, are we not equal in the eyes of men?
To me, it all came back to the lessons I had learned as a child. The decision maker, the person who gets to control the message, is sitting at the table, and unfortunately, in every single world faith, they are not women. Religious institutions are dominated by men and driven by male leadership, and they create policies in their likeness, and until we can change the system entirely, then we can’t realistically expect to have full economic and political participation of women. Our foundation is broken. My mom actually says, you can’t build a straight house on a crooked foundation.
In 2011, the Libyan revolution broke out, and my family was on the front lines. And there’s this amazing thing that happens in war, a cultural shift almost, very temporary. And it was the first time that I felt it was not only acceptable for me to be involved, but it was encouraged. It was demanded. Myself and other women had a seat at the table. We weren’t holding hands or a medium. We were part of decision making. We were information sharing. We were crucial. And I wanted and needed for that change to be permanent.
Turns out, that’s not that easy. It only took a few weeks before the women that I had previously worked with were returning back to their previous roles, and most of them were driven by words of encouragement from religious and political leaders, most of whom cited religious scripture as their defense. It’s how they gained popular support for their opinions.
So initially, I focused on the economic and political empowerment of women. I thought that would lead to cultural and social change. It turns out, it does a little, but not a lot. I decided to use their defense as my offense, and I began to cite and highlight Islamic scripture as well.
In 2012 and 2013, my organization led the single largest and most widespread campaign in Libya. We entered homes and schools and universities, even mosques. We spoke to 50,000 people directly, and hundreds of thousands more through billboards and television commercials, radio commercials and posters.
And you’re probably wondering how a women’s rights organization was able to do this in communities which had previously opposed our sheer existence. I used scripture. I used verses from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet, Hadiths, his sayings which are, for example, “The best of you is the best to their family.” “Do not let your brother oppress another.”
For the first time, Friday sermons led by local community imams promoted the rights of women. They discussed taboo issues, like domestic violence. Policies were changed. In certain communities, we actually had to go as far as saying the International Human Rights Declaration, which you opposed because it wasn’t written by religious scholars, well, those same principles are in our book. So really, the United Nations just copied us.
By changing the message, we were able to provide an alternative narrative which promoted the rights of women in Libya. It’s something that has now been replicated internationally, and while I am not saying it’s easy — believe me, it’s not. Liberals will say you’re using religion and call you a bad conservative. Conservatives will call you a lot of colorful things. I’ve heard everything from, “Your parents must be extremely ashamed of you” — false; they’re my biggest fans — to “You will not make it to your next birthday” — again wrong, because I did.
And I remain a very strong believer that women’s rights and religion are not mutually exclusive. But we have to be at the table. We have to stop giving up our position, because by remaining silent, we allow for the continued persecution and abuse of women worldwide. By saying that we’re going to fight for women’s rights and fight extremism with bombs and warfare, we completely cripple local societies which need to address these issues so that they’re sustainable.
It is not easy, challenging distorted religious messaging. You will have your fair share of insults and ridicule and threats. But we have to do it. We have no other option than to reclaim the message of human rights, the principles of our faith, not for us, not for the women in your families, not for the women in this room, not even for the women out there, but for societies that would be transformed with the participation of women. And the only way we can do that, our only option, is to be, and remain, at the table.