Tapping the table for emphasis, Alaa Murabit, Libyan women’s rights campaigner and former revolutionary, speaks passionately about the need for Islamic law in the country she’s lived in since the age of 15.
“It’s extremely important for the (Libyan) constitution to use Islam as one of the sources – not the sole source, but one of the sources. We have to have a constitution which speaks to the people, which is indigenous to us,” she said in an interview on the sidelines of last week’s Trust Women Conference in London.
Murabit, now in her early 20s, is one of Libya’s leading voices on women’s rights and is the founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, an NGO working to help women shape the future of their society.
Because Libyans are very devout, they wouldn’t abide by Western-style secular laws, she said. “People will think you’re kidding them.”
Her words may surprise some human rights experts who view with concern the growing demand for sharia in Arab Spring countries now drafting their constitutions.
She said Islam gives women their rights, but people have manipulated it to suit themselves. The form of sharia that’s understood by most Muslims and the international community is actually culture, so it’s crucial that sharia is interpreted correctly, she added. “Islamically I don’t have to cover my face, culturally in a lot of countries you do.”
Murabit was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, to Libyan parents. When she graduated from high school aged 15, she moved to Libya with her family to study medicine at the University of Zawia.
She says women are used as political tools, regardless of their nationality or religion. She gives the example of attitudes towards women’s clothing, saying women will always be told to put more clothes on or take more clothes off.
“When I sit in a café in Britain, I get told to take my head cover off. By the same token, when I’m in my country I feel comfortable (with it on).”
Women in Libya need more access to information that will enable them to challenge the behaviour of their male relatives – and they need more financial independence so they don’t have to depend on them, she added.
“Then when someone comes and falsely says ‘You can’t do this because it's against Islam,’ she can research the claim and refute it using religious texts.”
REMEMBER YOUTHS WITH GUNS
It’s important to find solutions for the whole of society, not just for women, she says. Better access to information means “women can’t be taken advantage of, society can’t, youth can’t”.
“You had youth carrying this revolution and now we have mainly an older generation who are wearing the suits and sitting in parliament. The youth have been completely sidelined and understandably they are the ones with guns. Youth have to be considered in this as well.”
Murabit’s home town was one of the first to take up arms against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in 2011 and her family – encouraged by her mother – sided with the rebels.
“My dad was arrested three times and my brothers were fighting. I was talking a lot … and we were transporting medicines and weapons,” she said. When she discovered her name was on the government’s black list, her mother made her stay at home.
In August 2011, just months after the revolution began, she founded The Voice of Libyan Women.
The rising power of Islamists in some Arab Spring countries has alarmed some women’s rights experts. But Murabit says women in Libya don’t need to be too concerned - partly because the country does not have a well rooted “extremist machine”, partly because it’s such a devout society.
In the July elections, many said they didn’t want a political party to teach Libyans their faith because they were already devout, she said, and this limited the appeal of Islamist parties.
When U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi in a Sept. 11, 2012 attack by suspected Islamist armed groups, crowds of people drove out the Ansar al-Sharia Islamist militant group and other militias from Benghazi and from the nearby Islamist stronghold of Derna.
“Unlike Egypt where maybe it’s a minority who are extremists but the vast majority are indifferent, in Libya it’s a minority who are extremists and the vast majority are angry when they cross the line.
“Which is what happened in Benghazi, and the whole world saw it.”