Introduction

Alaa is shifting the paradigm around the role of women in Libyan society. She uses religious discourse, which historically perpetuated the problem, to positively reinforce social, economic, and political rights for women.

Alaa is creating a society that values the fundamental rights of all citizens, and is inclusive of women in all spheres. Within tribal communities of the North African region, starting with Libya, the citizen sector is in its infancy and there is a prevalent attitude surrounding the marginalization of women from mainstream social activity. Alaa is at the forefront of reversing this issue by using context specific approaches to address the underlying philosophy and mindset of the community. Alaa is changing the religious discourse regarding women’s position in society and participation in different aspects of public life by utilizing positive references in the religious teaching to make a strong case for women equality in the society. By doing this, Alaa is not only mobilizing community members to critically analyze their own social and cultural traditions, but is also using the same vehicles which have led to the denial of women’s social, economic and political rights to reverse the situation.

Critical to Alaa’s work is creating an inclusive community movement on the national level through policy change and advocacy, and on the local level through awareness, network establishment and mobilization.  To reach a national scale, Alaa targets policy makers and the media to create a public opinion supportive of women’s rights. Locally, Alaa engages religious leaders (Imams), schools, universities, and community members, mobilizing them to publicly cite and display Quranic verses and other religious teachings which imply a positive understanding of women’s roles and rights. Alaa’s community movement involves gathering statistical data on the different challenges women face to enhance her media and policy efforts, carrying out awareness campaigns and critical thinking classes in schools as well as university debates around contentious women’s issues; and uniting women’s voices within spaces that empower them.

Women represent 56% of the Libyan population, but they have been historically left out of social progression and consistently are denied rights and equal opportunities. The majority of Libyan women are homemakers and stay at home mothers—primarily because those are the expectations that are placed upon them. In the tribal context of the Libyan community where 99% of Libyans are Muslim, religious quotes are misused to create a pseudo-justification for families and society to manipulate and exclude women from opportunities outside of the home. In the past, religious manipulation and misinterpretation led communities to believe myths about Islam and women’s subordinate role in society. Unfortunately, these notions have preserved and since worsened, having an influence on Libyan culture that has brought harmful effects including the justification of domestic violence, the harassment of women in public spaces, and the denial of women’s economic and political participation.

The current situation is escalated by the lack of existing legal and judicial structures which would serve to protect women’s rights. Because women feel even more vulnerable in public, there are very few female social, political, economic, or religious leaders.

Further, in a country closed off from much of the world for decades, foreign and especially western influence is viewed with strong suspicion. The Libyan civil society, with a history of four decades of monopolization by the pre-revolution regime, has only recently started to develop. The lack of experience and influence of the nascent Libyan civil society, the lack of functioning networks, as well as the lack of general awareness, leads to little to no statistics, research or accurate information regarding the status of women’s problems. This negatively affects the likelihood of policy changes. Additionally the civil society’s lack of experience leads to the inability of the sector to adequately reach citizens, hindering the establishment of a united women’s front. Moreover, the media sector in Libya, much like civil society, is immature and misguided. It keeps Libyan women ignorant of their rights rather than educating them and shedding light on their important role and opportunities.

Although there are several citizen sector organizations in Libya that are addressing women’s rights, they primarily focus on aid and policy, failing to address the unspoken root causes of cultural taboos and religious misinterpretations.

Following the Libyan Revolution, in September 2011, Alaa founded The Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) as a citizen sector organization to create an organized front representing Libyan women who want to challenge the status quo. To gain insight and identify the root cause behind denying Libyan women their rights, Alaa conducted several focus groups and in-depth primary research. Due to the tribal system and family relationships in Libya, Alaa invited women to tea sessions in her house so they could talk freely about their needs, challenges and aspirations.

Based on her learnings from these conversations, Alaa addresses women’s rights from several angles. In order to unite women’s voices and needs, Alaa addresses the adequate representation of women on the political level and pressures policy makers’ to create the necessary framework for women’s political, economic and social participation. To change the conversations, Alaa carried out two inter-linked initiatives: “One Voice”, a series of annual conferences to create a national dialogue on women’s rights and a strong national lobbying mechanism, and “Women’s Charter,” which uses the aforementioned lobbying body to shape women’s representation in the Libyan constitution.

To create a society where women are recognized as equal partners, Alaa recognized that she needed to address social and cultural taboos represented in religious discourse that hinder women’s engagement in public life by  addressing citizens, media, civil society organizations, schools and universities at the grassroots level. Throughout each initiative, she gains support from key players—many of whom are men. She works with local Imams, other religious leaders, and local city leaders, involving them in the conversations, conferences, presentations, and movements.

Through workshops, plenary discussions, and annual conferences, Alas is getting men and women to discuss topics that affect women such as participation in the political arena, religious taboos, personal status laws, security, gender based violence, economic empowerment, media’s portrayal of women, and women’s rights. The annual conferences, which she started in November 2011, have resulted in 42 collaborative entrepreneurship initiatives, 13 of which have been implemented by the state after campaigns to pressure the media were carried out by Alaa and her team. Examples of initiatives implemented by the state include the establishment of a Ministry of Media with a female Deputy Minister and an increase in allotted hours for women based programming. There is now increased promotion of enlightened religious dialogue on the role of women in society according to Islamic law. Additionally, as a result of Alaa’s One Voice conference series, the Libyan Ministry of Culture and Civil Society is working on creating mechanisms for gathering relevant statistical information regarding women.

By using the network created from the One Voice conferences, Alaa started the Women’s Charter Initiative, travelling to 35 cities throughout Libya, to compensate for the lack of communication due to inadequate internet coverage. During her travels, Alaa gathered women’s opinions on their constitutional needs through workshops, town hall meetings, roundtables and seminars, carried out by Alaa and her local city networks in schools, mosques, local municipalities and citizen sector organizations. To ensure a full representation of all Libyan women, questions and results were translated into signs for the few illiterate women. The unified women’s charter was produced to be used as a tool in the upcoming Libyan constitution.

Alaa’s organization, VLW, established two women centers as safe and common spaces for women to provide psychological support, training on religious rights as well as economic and political participation. Due to the tribal system of Libya, the centers act as a very important tool to create credibility among women in Libyan cities. They also serve as a measurement for women’s social progress. Over 1400 women, ranging in age from 15-60, use the center at least four times a week.

To address the underlying social and cultural taboos, Alaa directs attention to the use of religion as a guise for demeaning women. To achieve this, Alaa created the Noor Campaign in February 2013, Noor in Arabic means “the enlightenment of an individual from ignorance to wisdom.” The campaign uses religious quotes and teachings to contest, contrast and promote the true treatment of women in Islam in opposition to the manipulation and misuse of religious teachings by society that lead to a severely patriarchal society. To gain legitimacy, credibility and community support for the campaign, Alaa involved the Ministries of Culture, Education, Social Affairs, Media and Interior, in addition to the Libyan business council and 35 municipal councils. Moreover, Alaa collaborated with the highest Libyan religious institution (Dar Al Ifta) to prepare religious citations that promote women’s equal rights.

Alaa’s Noor campaign disseminates positive religious messages, supportive of women rights, via TV shows, promotional videos, outdoor billboards, social media and local radio commercials. This media buzz helps to desensitize communities to talking about cultural and religious taboos. The media campaign is followed by visits conducted by Alaa and her team to middle and high schools as well as homes to educate men and women about females’ rights. To compensate for the absence of reliable data in Libyan society, schools and door-to-door campaigns are conducted and women fill out surveys used to provide information and data on religious manipulations in disempowering women. The Noor campaign has so far reached and educated more than 50,000 Libyan women and men, visiting over 300 middle and high schools in 30 cities and communities. Further, Alaa introduced International Purple Hijab Day to Libya, an annual public campaign to promote action against domestic and public violence against women, a major factor which dissuades them from going into public life. More than 20,000 women and men from 17 cities participated in the purple hijab day.

On the university level, Alaa, creates debating clubs in collaboration with the student unions and Libyan businessmen, where students for the first time are given a platform to publicly debate issues related to women’s rights and the use of religion to negate these rights. Debates are held within the four biggest Libyan universities, some have been televised and each was attended by an average of 400 students with 6 student debaters. One result was the Libyan Minister of Justice, for the first time, recognizing victims of sexual violence as soldiers of war; admitting the existence of sexual violence, and giving victims recognition fully covering their education and healthcare expenses.

Since its founding in 2011, VLW has assisted 37 women in their selection as political leaders and four women, former members of VLW, have been elected to municipal councils. Having a united women front through Alaa’s holistic approach allows for the women’s movement to have a focused and persistent approach to push for overall system change. Regionally Alaa’s approach and expertise has been requested to be replicated in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

To financially cover her operations, Alaa has mobilized funding from several international actors such as the British and Finnish embassies and the German foreign office. However, the biggest portion of her funding was raised on the local level from local businessmen and community donations, while the government provided services such as greater access to media and subsidized property. The role of the local funds was crucial in Alaa’s credibility. Alaa has a team of 17 staff members and 700 volunteers across 35 cities in Libya who form local city teams from all facets of society.

In her short term plans, Alaa plans on consolidating her model and mobilizing volunteers and media to carry out national cohesive social change by educating women and their surrounding communities on female rights and roles, and correct religious misconceptions. Furthermore, she will be open-sourcing her model, transferring her knowledge and monitoring other organizations to encourage greater effort in changing the religious discourse about women.

Born and raised in Canada, Alaa led a comfortable life—brought up in a Muslim family that treated her as an equal to her brothers. At the age of 15, Alaa and her family moved to their home country of Libya. This transition came with major culture shock as she experienced how women were viewed and treated and moreover how this societal perception encompassed misinterpretation and misuse of religion.

Alaa enrolled in medical school in Libya but became very frustrated by the gender discrimination from her university professors who consistently gave opportunities to males even though some of the female students were more qualified. Alaa decided to run for the student union because of her belief that women in her university deserved equal representation on a policy and administration level. It was due to her entrepreneurial and persistent character that Alaa was elected as the only female on the board of the university student union, during which time her classmates recognized the importance of an inclusive approach in policy. She was afterwards chosen by the Dean of her school as the “student of greatest impact”.

When the Libyan revolution broke out in 2011, Alaa was in her fifth year as a medical student. During  this time she tended to the injured and supported victim survivors of sexual violence during the clashes. There, she saw the real power of Libyan women, who went out to participate in the demonstrations and who protected their homes and children when their husbands were fighting on the front lines. A turning point, however, in Alaa’s personal journey was when the women with whom she collaborated during the revolution held back their potential and went to their homes to resume their ordinary daily roles after the revolution subsided. They had no ambition in further participating in the community or public life.

Alaa decided that she wanted to completely change the discourse of women’s position in Libyan society. With the support of her family, Alaa founded the Voice of Libyan Women in 2011. In 2013, Alaa received the Trust Women Hero Award, awarded by The New York Times, and the Marisa Bellisario International Award for “activities in favor of human rights,” awarded by Foreign Minister and selected by the High Patronage of the President of the Italian Republic. She was additionally chosen as one of 25 Under 25 Young Women to Watch by Women in The World and Newsweek.