“Because I said so” is a phrase familiar to children around the world. It translates into every language and ensures that children understand that—no matter what they want, think, or believe—they are not getting their way. Growing up, I remember that regardless of how much I researched, how many facts I came up with, or how well I negotiated my stance, my childhood was defined by this simple rule: my parents were always right. There was only one exception to this rule—that their decisions must always be in accordance with Islamic teachings. I, of course used this exception to my advantage with my parents as I grew older, as well as with the organization I founded, the Voice of Libyan Women.
Initially founded in August 2011, VLW focuses on the political, economic, and social empowerment of women. Since then, the organization completed a national assessment focusing on women in security—the first and only of its kind in Libya—as well as conducted interviews with key stakeholders and organized our annual One Voice conference, which brings together the acting head of state, members of Parliament, international ambassadors, and more than 150 local activists to address women's role in the increasingly complex security situation in Libya.
In the course of holding national workshops and local seminars on women's roles in security, we realized we were asking the wrong questions. We found that many women vehemently opposed the idea of other women joining the police forces and in the Army—they said that females simply weren't “strong enough” for the job, or asked, "How do you expect her to guard the citizens of Libya if she cannot guard herself in her own home?” This rhetoric was used to justify women’s lack of participation in public life. So we began to focus more on the role of violence, be it domestic violence, harassment, or public slander, which makes women feel vulnerable in public or leadership roles.
Domestic violence is a global problem that crosses all religious, cultural, and societal lines, affecting the safety and security of women around the world. The gap between perceptions of domestic violence and subsequent policies to deal with it are often a result of a society's willingness to acknowledge the problem. In Libya, domestic violence has long been seen as a family matter and one that neither the state nor any organized body has any say in, or business being involved in. Worse, violence is commonly excused by the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of religion: “Men are able to hold leverage over their wives because our society maintains that its status quo is upheld when men are the dominant heads of a household, with the religious duty to keep 'authority' over their families,” says Aziza Khabbush, a Libyan university student. “However, that religious responsibility is abused and twisted into an authoritarian regime where, quite often, men exert their dominance and control, through fear or psychological manipulation, under the pretext of ‘religion.’”
Through numerous initiatives that focus in particular on young women, we attempted to address domestic violence. Despite having heated discussions and an interested audience during our seminars, the momentum would never last long enough to create sustainable impact on the culture, starting at home. Most of the girls shared the sentiment that, while the idea is nice, “we are an Islamic country”—not realizing that Islam could and should be used as a means to combat all forms of violence, rather than an excuse to allow it.
After trying unsuccessfully to broach the subject of domestic violence through other avenues and being hushed both formally and informally, we decided to use something that couldn't be hushed—people’s own belief systems and the religion they’re based upon. Following the success of International Purple Hijab Day, where we conducted seminars in high schools in over 25 cities in the country, we launched the Noor Campaign: Shedding Light on Women’s Security Concerns in Libya.
The Noor Campaign, launched only two weeks ago, is a national campaign that utilizes numerous mediums, including billboards, television, radio, and social media—with the hashtag #NoorLibya—as well as national seminars in universities, mosques, workplaces, and high schools. It has the single goal of shedding light on the proper treatment of women in Islam through Ayas (verses) from the holy Quran and Hadiths (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad). The major challenge in Libya is the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Islamic teachings and their influence on Libyan cultural norms, which has been abused as the most common justification for discrimination against women.
Noor, in its literal translation from Arabic, means “light,” and the symbolism of the word in Islam has long meant the enlightenment of an individual from a position of darkness and ignorance to a position of understanding and wisdom. One of the most basic principles of my childhood, and one that my religion backs up, was the importance of education in all manners and facets—which includes a thorough understanding of the religion practiced by most Libyans. Many aspects of Islam—such as the importance of peace and nonviolence, particularly within the family unit—are often overlooked. We needed to deal with these issues up front. Islam started as a religion that shed light on issues that were oftentimes seen as taboo—and the role and importance of women was no exception. With the Noor Campaign, we hope that the time has come for Libyans to begin dealing with issues that religion long ago addressed but culture has dictated are taboo.
Over the course of six months, my amazing team at VLW searched for Hadiths, spoke to local imams, and even garnered the support of Dar Al Ifta Libya (the Libyan Religious authority), which was a great aide, particularly in the authentication and citation of all religious content used. Their support in the Noor Campaign, on the rarely addressed issues that face women in Libya, has given us more credibility and has allowed for greater spread of the campaign, giving Noor greater legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan public and for the message to be heard—and valued—on a much wider scale.
Within hours of launching the Noor Campaign on July 5, we began to receive phone calls, messages, and emails from women and young girls who felt comfortable enough to speak to us about their situations at home. I don't deceive myself thinking that commercials, radio ads, and billboards will solve domestic violence in Libya—but I do believe that it has, and will continue to, open doors of communication and education in Libya. I believe that it will assist in researching and building the proper statistical foundation to push for legislative change and accountability, and more than anything I believe that until the power of religion is used as it was meant to be, as a tool of education and illumination rather than as an excuse for ignorance and prevalent cultural norms, we will never be able to ensure that women are treated as partners in the rebuilding of the new Libya. In the words of a Libyan mother, Manal Mansur, “I think the only way to get through to Libyans is through religion. Remind them how the Prophet peace be upon him treated his wives, children and grandchildren. It was with such patience and mercy that it would humble any parent.”