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Once upon a time, I stood on the shores of North Africa in Morocco with the Atlas Mountains at my back, looking across to Europe while motes of sunlight chased each other across the Mediterranean waters. It was a windy day and flecks of foam blew from the rocks into my face — salty and bracing. And braced thus between mountains and sea I imagined this vista had changed little in the twelve millennia that the Berber people have called the western Maghreb their home. There was a time when the Mediterranean could truly have been considered the centre of the Earth and multitudes of people orbited round its rim.
One of the centres of that civilization was Libya, the birthplace according to much folklore, of the goddess called Athena by the Greeks, Tannit (Ta-Neith) by the Libyans, and Neith by the Egyptians. She was the great mother goddess of the ancient world, often depicted carrying a scepter, symbolizing her rule and power, and the ankh, symbolizing her generative, life-giving strength. She gave birth to time and its daily re-creation as the sun crosses the sky, and was the personification of primeval waters, perhaps of the Mediterranean itself. She was also goddess of weaving and wisdom.
Tannit was the guiding spirit worshiped by the Libyan Amazons on the shores of the legendary Lake Tritonis, mythical warrior priestesses who, contrary to patriarchal allegations, did not abandon their sons nor remove a breast to shoot arrows the straighter, but were simply women claiming empowerment. Although in the first century BC the Greek historian Diodorus claimed that the Libyan Amazons had vanished, I’ve come to learn that this is not so.
The Voice of Libyan Women
The Halifax International Security Forum (held in the Westin Nova Scotian hotel) is an unusual venue in which to delve into classical mythology. Now in it’s seventh year (and I’ve covered the event for the last four) it’s an ultra-high power think tank that annually draws 300+ delegates from over 60 countries to discuss security issues. It attracts a large number of hawkish attendees, from defence ministers and top military brass from virtually every NATO country, to some very conservative politicians. But also some exceedingly sharp and progressive activists.
And so it is with Alaa Murabit, a Canadian born-woman of Libyan heritage, brought up in sunny Saskatoon, the middle child of eleven siblings. At age 15 her parents moved back to their hometown of Zawiya, Libya and Alaa tagged along, eventually studying medicine at the University of Zawiya and becoming a physician. Enter the 2011 Libyan revolution. Murabit, then in her final year of medicine, was pressed into service treating the injured at various makeshift clinics.
Following the overthrow of the Gaddafi dictatorship she founded the Voice of Libyan Women (VLW), which advocates, “for inclusive peace processes and conflict mediation by shifting the paradigm around the role of women in society at both the grassroots and policy levels.” In the five years since its founding, VLW has undertaken groundbreaking work on behalf of women’s security, against gender violence and in training and motivating women to participate in government and to speak out for their rights. It has forged a network of hundreds of community groups from across the country including Ayadina Charity in Benghazi, Mothers for Martyrs, and the Southern Women’s Forum in over 35 cities and communities across Libya.
And it doesn’t stop there: Murabit has channeled what she has learned into the international community serving as an advisory board member for the German Marshall Fund’s MENA Partnership, the United Nations 1325 Advisory Board (which monitors the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security), as an advisory member to the United Nation’s Women’s Global Civil Society Advisory Group, and is a fellow of Ashoka Innovators for the Public. She has earned a sheaf of international honours, awards, and plaudits.
At the Halifax International Security Forum, Murabit participated in a panel discussion entitled “Breaking Tradition: Modern Muslims Advance.” Afterwards, I sat down for a conversation with this remarkable young Canadian woman, courageous physician, women’s advocate, and international leader.
Christopher G. Majka: Alaa Murabit, welcome to Halifax.
Alaa M. Murabit: Thank you.
CGM: You have often spoken about the importance of having women at the table, and here we are, in fact, sitting at a table … (laughter)
I don’t know how closely you have been following Canadian politics from your vantage in Libya, but our recently elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, turned some heads when he introduced his cabinet earlier this month, which had gender parity. When asked, in a press conference afterwards why this had been important to him, he famously replied, “Because it’s 2015.”
Canadian Green Party leader, Elizabeth May continued the point (see: “Why a gender-balanced cabinet matters“) saying, “Women in positions of power change a society. Gender roles and expectations shift in profound ways.” And she drew upon her experience working with the former Norwegian prime Gro Harlem Brundtland, who made dramatic changes to Norwegian society when she appointed 40 per cent women to her government in 1986. And the move to equal rights did not stop there; by law Norwegian women now comprise 40 per cent of corporate directors both in government-run enterprises and in the private sector.
Such changes are difficult enough to achieve, and may encounter considerable resistance, in relatively liberal countries like Norway and Canada. How difficult is it to move in such directions in more conservative states in the Islamic world, for example Libya?
AMM: I completely agree with you: it’s difficult in any society. Unfortunately we live in societies that have been based on a patriarchal system, and that is the case in Canada and Libya — it’s universal. The difference is in the institutions. What we have in Canada and Norway are institutions that enable equal opportunity if you are able to get your foot in the door — and obviously women are at a disadvantage because they do not have the same economic and social resources, and also societally because they have a higher sense of responsibility for their communities and their own families that usually limits their ability to enter into public life at the same level and to the same degree as men. And the public perception of women who are involved in public life is also different than that of men.
But the greatest difference is in the institutions that exist here in Canada. They enable women to participate more, whereas in in Libya we don’t have many institutions. It’s a new democracy; 2011 was not so long ago. And it’s currently in the middle of a civil war. Given those two factors it becomes exceptionally difficult to ensure the inclusion of women in democracy.
People say, we have priorities; there are more important things than women’s rights. But these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. The future stability and security in the country are not exclusive of women’s rights, but (rather) stability and security are dependent on the inclusion of women. Once women are involved then you can be assured that you will have peace and security. And that has been demonstrated through empirical and anecdotal evidence.
My personal work in Libya focuses on changing the cultural narrative. The reason we need to do that is because when I first started The Voice of Libyan Women in 2011, my focus was on utilizing international conventions and norms to create a new conversation. What I recognized early on was that we were involving the same women who were already from families that supported their economic (freedom), and I really wanted to reach out women for whom (engagement) was impermissible or unacceptable. And the way to do that we felt was by changing the whole cultural dynamic. So we used both religious and cultural rhetoric. What we wanted to do was to force a cultural conversation about why women are excluded? What are the fundamental reasons? Knowing that, then we can genuinely [change] them.
CGM: A century ago in Russia there was a discussion launched by feminists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai, who argued that the first order of business in transforming a society was the emancipation of women, a feminist revolution so that women would be equal partners in society. Then, with their full participation one could embark upon a class revolution that could restructure the economic basis of society. Lenin disagreed and argued that once a proletarian revolution had taken place, everyone would be equal and so there would be no need for a feminist revolution. Historically, Lenin’s view prevailed, and we see how that worked out: one patriarchal structure was replaced by another.
AMM: It’s true. So much of our, I want to say, “old school” system exists in a very patriarchal structure that diminishes the role of women. When we talk about “traditional” politics, or even terms like “hard” politics — for example that men are good at “hard” politics” and women are good at “soft” politics — there is a real diminishment. Women are always being put in care-giving positions; human resources, secretaries, advisors. “Let’s get a gender advisor.” Far be it that the actual minister should be a woman. No, no, no. Rather, the male minister should have a “gender advisor.” There is almost a schizophrenia when we talk about women’s rights in the world. We say we want women’s rights and we need women in public roles, but then we limit them to public roles that we find acceptable. And we claim it’s because of women’s “inherent” qualities — but its not. It’s because of what society “perceives” women’s qualities to be.
CGM: Centuries ago, during the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic world was renowned as a sphere of great religious tolerance and of the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Yet in recent decades this legacy has too often been overshadowed by the highly intolerant, ultra-conservative influences of Wahabism and various salafist tendencies. How has this come to pass? How has this unrepresentative and doctrinaire mode of thinking come to have such a disproportionate influence on the Muslim community? And how can it be changed?
AMM: It came to pass because there was a lot of money and political backing (for it). In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s there was a large spread of Wahabi ideology, largely exploited and exported by the Saudi Arabian government, for example through satellite television which was really big at the time, which is a reason that many dictators tried to put a halt to it. Also, through the education of religious scholars who were then sent back to their home countries. The ideology spread.
What disappoints me most is not that has it spread, but that we continue to see countries funding terrorist groups that use Wahabism as their ideological platform. There are proxy wars going on around the world by non-state actors who are funded by such countries — countries that are supported by the United States and Canada, that are their allies.
We talk here (at the Halifax International Security Forum) about our values, about women’s rights and how important they are, and say that the Middle East is not a beacon for women’s rights. But at the same time we’re funding the very organizations and countries that make it impossible for women to speak up. That makes it impossible for civil society to play any role or to take any action. So we have to decide: either our values are universal or else we should just stop talking about them. Because, clearly they don’t mean much.
The only way for us to really dislodge the influence of Wahabism is to create an incentive, an alternative that is more powerful. Because Wahabism won’t go away. But an ideology loses power when another more powerful ideology emerges. And a huge weakness in the Islamic community, and particularly in the leadership — and I say that word lightly because I don’t think there really has been much leadership — has been the lack of reform.
Currently, because of what is happening in the Middle East, because of Daesh (i.e., the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS or ISIL), I think we are finally getting to the point where the Muslim community is talking about reform. They’ve been forced to. There’s blood now. Phenomenal events have happened that have forced them to start talking about reforms that only a few years ago they said were blasphemous. So I think this is the perfect opportunity for an alternative to Wahabism (to emerge). A discourse we can create within our own faith that says, “Listen, this is wrong. Not only is it wrong, and these are the reasons why, but we can present you with something that is better.” That’s what we need to do.
CGM: Has that Wahabi ideology put down roots in Libya, and are they deep ones?
AMM: I think they’ve put down roots everywhere. I think you can find them in Canada or anywhere. It’s the same as evangelical Christianity. And it’s fine to strike roots; it’s fine to have your own personal beliefs. The difference is when: a) it becomes violent; and b) when it becomes institutionally supported. That is the problem. We don’t have the institutional support for Wahabism in Libya in the way that it exists in Da’esh, and in Saudi Arabia in particular. The reason that (Wahabism) has been so detrimental in the Gulf region and Syria is because they have been receiving political and economic support. Using Wahabism has been a mechanism of the state to retain power and that’s what makes it dangerous.
CGM: In March 2011 a NATO-led military intervention began in Libya in response to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to implement an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the attacks against civilians that the resolution said might constitute crimes against humanity. At the time, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were advancing on Benghazi where the Libyan National Transitional Council was based and it appeared that a horrific bloodbath would soon ensue.
Now, four years after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Libya, seems to be mired in an ongoing crisis characterized by violence and political and social instability. Was the NATO intervention a mistake? Could there have been a better way through the 2011 Libyan Civil War? And what should be a future path be to restore Libya to security, stability, and civil society?
AMM: I’m not one to look back at things that I can’t change. I personally don’t think it was a mistake. It could have gone one of two ways for Libyan society. One was that (people) could have been murdered by a dictator, and the other is what is happening now. Libyans are now going through the growing pains of what it takes to be a democracy. They are going to have to build institutions. They are going to have to learn to compromise. Unfortunately it’s happening in a very violent way but [Libyan society] was going to have to do this either way.
I think that the alternative [in the absence of a NATO intervention] would have been that there would have been a very repressive response, which would have resulted in a lot of murders by the dictator, Gaddafi. And that would have been very troubling, not only for Libyans, but also for the international community which has praised itself on being a beacon of democracy. And I think that would have been more detrimental in the long run to the historical and moral narrative and the relationship between the two regions [Libya and the west]. So, I don’t think it was a mistake.
What I do think was a mistake was the lack of support for security institutions following the revolution. The reason I say that is because you cannot remove the security apparatus [in a country] and expect that [the void] will not be filled by someone else. What we needed to do was to provide the “somebody else” who would fill that security vacuum, and ensure that it wasn’t a terrorist group or that the country didn’t become — as it is now — mired in civil war and conflict. Had there been more of a push for building institutions, for building a strong army and security force … that should have been a priority and focus.
And lastly, ensuring that there is an environment in which civil society is capable of being able to respond. We have so many expectations that civil society will handle all these different things. And what we’re asking civil society to do — a very immature civil society because it wasn’t allowed to exist before 2011, people who have never worked in this field before — is to take on all the responsibilities and facets of a full government. And after a war and in a conflict situation. Most governments can’t handle [such challenges], and so [to expect] civil society to do so is very shortsighted. What we needed to do, and what we still need to do — and there is still ample opportunity for doing it now — is to focus on building institutions. That’s the key.
What we (western countries) are doing now is sitting down with leaders of militias and people who have made phenomenal amounts of money from war and we’re asking them to compromise for the sake of peace. I think it’s backwards, because people who make money off of war will very rarely want to talk to you about how they can cut off their own economic roots. Whereas if we were to sit down with civil society, with women, with youth, with people who every day have to suffer, who have to live 21 hours a day without electricity and whose kids go to schools that are being bombed — those are the people we should be sitting down with. Those are the people we need to put our heads together with and discuss how we can end this situation. Unfortunately we’re not.
CGM: In your TED talk, you spoke about acknowledging the damage that religious faiths have done, over the centuries to the social and cultural norms of society.
“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.”
Despite the fact that there are common principles in those religious faiths, of peace, love, tolerance, and doing good, a reverence for life, brotherhood and sisterhood — yet it would be difficult to find a force that has exerted as much damage in the world as organized religion. Somehow, the identification of my faith equals right, therefore your faith equals wrong, has repeatedly lead to disastrous consequences.
This is one reason why in western societies the understanding has developed that while people are free to hold whatever religious views they like — or to hold no religious views at all — that the key to developing a secular, pluralist, tolerant, and democratic society is to firmly separate church from state.
As a person of faith, navigating through these personal and political waters and working to reclaim the Muslim faith for women in the pursuance of a civil and pluralistic society, how to you reconcile these imperatives?
AMM: I reconcile them very easily, to be honest. I was raised in a religious family, a family where we would have conversations and where we were taught to think. My dad’s priority was education. Every day at dinner we discussed a different topic; current events, our own faith, we challenged one another. That was exceptionally important and I think that that is lacking in many religious spheres. In most organized religious institutions there is no critical thinking because that would be dangerous to the powers that be. And unfortunately there is no reform for that reason. And if there is no reform the faith is not current. If you are trying to govern a society with rules that existed a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago, it becomes very difficult for contemporary society to accept, respond, and appreciate those rules. That’s one of the major difficulties.
I make a very clear distinction between faith and organized religion. And the reason I do that is that my personal faith acts as a great support to me. But I have no doubts that organized religion is a political and economic tool. The moment something gives you power it can become dangerous to others, and organized religion is one of those things. The moment organized religious institutions become part of the political and economic sphere I don’t view them as religious institutions anymore. I don’t think they have the right to be called that. If you want to go to a mosque, a synagogue, or a church to pray and to feel a connection with God, that is absolutely wonderful. That is what faith should be. The moment that places of worship make money from — I want to say the disadvantages of society, from conflict — that to me is misplaced. We have to make a very clear distinction between bodies of faith and organized religious institutions, which occupy a political and economic space and [thereby] gain advantage.
CGM: A key distinction.
AMM: It is. Someone asked me, after all that I’ve seen and experienced, “How do you still believe in God?” I’m a medical doctor and so I give the example of the hospital. When you are in a hospital — and I think this is a universal experience, even if you don’t believe in God — if something has happened to someone you love, you pray. You say, “If there’s a God out there, please let this be OK.” You pray to the spirits, you pray to the wall, you cry, get on your knees…you pray. And that’s the kind of desperation you see during conflict. A day in the hospital for a person in Canada, worrying about a loved one is the daily reality for many families in conflict situations.
CGM: Simply praying that you can make it through the day…
AMM: Exactly. And so you can see why God becomes such an important ally; (faith) is your only hope. In a society where everything else is broken around you, in a society where you are not sure if your kids will come home at the end of the day, if you are not sure the lights will be on or whether there will be water or food, God becomes your only ally. And so I think if we vilify faith, for example in the media, it becomes very detrimental. Because many people don’t make the distinction between faith and organized religion, and many politicians haven’t made that distinction either. And so people of that faith who find God to be their only ally in times of great crisis feel as if they are being attacked. So I think we all have to make a very clear distinction between politically motivated scholars and people who just have faith.
CGM: As a Canadian of Libyan descent — a child of refugees — now living and working in Libya …
AMM: My parents were actually immigrants. If you have nothing to go back to, if you will be murdered if you return, then you are a refugee.
CGM: An important distinction. My parents were actually refugees. Indeed they arrived in Canada right here, behind this very building (the Westin Nova Scotian) at Pier 21.
AMM: Oh, really? They were actually refugees. So, why were they fleeing?
CGM: They were both young people in Poland when the Second World War broke out. My father first fought the Nazis in September 1939 as a member of the short-lived Polish army before the country was defeated by the Germans. He then joined the Polish underground, the Armija Krajowa, the pro-Western, pro-democratic underground that opposed both the Nazis who occupied the western half of the country, and the Soviets who occupied the east. After the collapse of the Third Reich and the conquest of Poland by Stalin’s forces, he was forced to flee, barely escaping with his life across the Polish and then Czech frontiers (see: Today I remember my father).
My mother was a schoolgirl caught up in the collapsing Reich, cast adrift in Nazi Germany, narrowly avoided the firebombing of Dresden, and death in bombing and strafing raids on a number of occasions. She eventually found herself an exile in Austria where she met my father at medical school in Innsbruck. After they completed their medical studies they had to emigrate and chose Canada where they arrived in 1950 on the General R.M. Blatchford. Directly behind this building, at Pier 21, they spent their first several days in Canada.
I must tell you a story. In the mid-1960’s when I was perhaps 12 years old, my family returned here and booked a room in this hotel, on the seventh floor. My parents gazed through the window and looked down on Pier 21 where they had stood fifteen years before, waiting for a train, not knowing the language or their future, with no home or job and with $20 in their pocket, the clothes on their back, and a suitcase in each hand — and tears rolled down their faces. They had closed a circle and become Canadians. They had found a new home in their adoptive country. They had succeeded. And much of what propelled my mother, Mary Majka (see: Mary Majka: Ninety years of conservation and environmentalism) for the rest of her life — she become a renowned naturalist, educator, historian, author, and television host, received the Order of Canada and Order of New Brunswick — was a sense of giving back, of gratitude to the country that had taken her in when she had no home and was a penniless refugee.
AMM: And did they ever return to Poland?
CGM: They lived long and productive lives, and travelled the world…but they never returned to Poland, even after the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In large measure I think it was because their “home” country had vanished. Pre-war Poland, with its parliamentary democracy, multi-ethnic mix, culture, even parts of its geography, disappeared during and after the Second World War. Many of their friends and relatives fled or died. The society that developed under communism was foreign to them. They could never go home again, because there was no “home” remaining for them to return to.
AMM: That’s a phenomenal story. You should write that down.
CGM: Thank you. It suddenly struck me that here we were, the children of immigrants, discussing immigration, in this building that backs on the very heart of the immigrant experience in Canada, Pier 21, where during the span of a half century over a million immigrant stories unfolded.
On that note, I’m wondering how you view the Canadian part of your history and heritage? Do you still feel connected to your “home” country? And, most importantly, what do you think that having grown up in Canada has given you that is of use in your other “home” country of Libya?
AMM: Everything. Being born and raised in Canada taught me a phenomenal amount. It taught me about tolerance, respect, and human rights. I owe my upbringing here, first and foremost, to my parents, but second to my environment, and society, schools, and teachers. They always taught me that my voice was important and that if I had an opinion I should voice it. There’s a history of self-actualization that is so powerful in Canada. Half my family still lives in Saskatoon, and my sister lives in Vancouver, so I get to come to Canada and see my niece and nephew. I joke with my sister that her daughter will be the first, or rather the second, female Prime Minister of Canada. [laughter]
CGM: Why not?
AMM: Canada to me represents where I hope we could get to in Libya. Working in Libya is very exhausting; it’s daunting at times. It’s difficult to see a finish line. For me Canada provides a finishing line. It provides an example of where we could be. How will we get there in Libya? How long will it take? I genuinely don’t know. I pray it’s before the end of my lifetime. Canada has been a great foundation for me, and every time I come home I feel very privileged, and very grateful, that my parents came here and raised me here.
CGM: I feel the same way, and I’ve had many conversations with the children of emigrants and refugees about what we, as a generation brought up on these shores, could do for the countries of our origins. How we could use the experience of growing up in a tolerant, pluralistic, open, and democratic society and convey some of the values and understandings that we were privileged to absorb through our upbringing, in a way that could benefit the societies from whence our parents emigrated or fled.
AMM: Exactly. And provide that to other people. But there’s a huge bridge that you have to cross, because some things just seem so inherent and logical here [in Canada], because that’s the way institutions have developed for decades. In trying to transform that knowledge so that it works somewhere else, for example tolerance and institution building in a country like Libya, that can be much more daunting.
CGM: Thank you very much for your time. It’s been a great pleasure speaking with you.
My conversation with Alaa Murabit made clear to me that the Libyan Amazons never really vanished. From Ghat, deep in the southern Saharan desert, to Tobruk and Bayda in ancient Cyrenaica on the Egyptian frontier, to Nalut and Ghadamis on the Tunisian and Algerian borders, to Tripoli and Zawiya on the Mediterranean Sea, they continue their work, bringing justice, peace, security, prosperity, and wisdom to their people.
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