Alaa Murabit is an award-winning medical doctor, global health and inclusive security strategist, social entrepreneur, and UN High Commissioner for Health, Employment, and Economic Growth. Ashoka’s Zeynep Meydanoglu spoke with her at the end of 2020 about what this pandemic year is teaching us about women’s rights.
Alaa Murabit, UN High Commissioner on Health, Employment & Economic Growth, says: “Patriarchy has … [+]
Zeynep Meydanoglu: Alaa, what is at the top of your agenda these days?
Alaa Murabit: My main concern now is how do we create a women’s movement that recognizes the unique challenges that women face in times of crises? How do we create an ecosystem where women can continue to lead in their communities, and ensure the needs of their families are met? How do we address gender-based violence at scale? Finding legitimate answers to these questions has been the bulk of my focus these past couple of months.
Meydanoglu: You say women are facing unique challenges. What are you referring to exactly?
Murabit: 2020 has been such an unusual year. In the past 10 months alone, we’ve reversed almost fifty years of women’s rights advances. Gender-based violence is through the roof and women are dropping out of the workforce at an accelerated pace, and these impacts have a uniquely devastating impact on women of color and minority women. Our lack of social systems that support families and our lack of effective primary health care has meant that women have taken on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities. That thwarts their ability to excel in other spaces.
Meydanoglu: What can be done?
Murabit: Until we intentionally resource and institutionalize the ecosystems around women and provide things like subsidized child care, family planning, and health care access, it is unrealistic – no matter where we are in the world – to say to women: where are you in the workforce, or where are you in political leadership?
We are committed to being in positions of power, but for that to be possible, we must invest much more in their leadership for the 20 years before that. We talk about supporting women’s right to choose but our laws still make it so difficult virtually everywhere. We talk about supporting women’s economic empowerment around the world, but the lack of childcare options excludes most women from that possibility.
We must stop tokenizing women’s leadership and back it up with action. It is one thing to celebrate and champion women and a complete other to put the resources behind that in your company, your government, or your university.
Meydanoglu: There’s a growing sense of outrage at these inequalities. Is that helping?
Murabit: Outrage is mobilizing. But hope is sustaining. That is the piece we’re often missing. People have every right to be outraged at the current system and the existing sexism and racism in the system. They’re outraged, they march, they mobilize, and they engage. To sustain that, we need the hope that this is a system that can be changed. Patriarchy has existed for centuries. It’s not going to be dismantled and replaced in ten years. That’s where hope comes in. I am reassured when I look at where our moms were 20 years ago. My grandmother was illiterate, my mom got married when she was a teenager. In a generation, there has been a shift. We have to continue on that path; maintain our passion and commitment and be strategic but also be sustained through hope and recognize it will take time.
We also need to be able to say this system is inherently not working for us. Patriarchy, white supremacy: not working for us. We need to reimagine these systems, with diverse women leading the way, but also with men taking responsibility to address how they have benefitted from these systems of power.
Meydanoglu: In other words, we all have a role to play?
Murabit: Yes. When it comes to any change, if there isn’t a publicly perceived power-sharing from those at the top then it will be difficult to change things. When we talk about women’s rights, we need strong male leadership (not just allyship) saying, “Yes, we are 100 percent part of this. We support this. We champion this. We also want to dismantle sexism and patriarchy.”
Meydanoglu: Power-sharing was at the core of your campaigns in Libya a few years ago. Can you tell us about that?
Murabit: After the Libyan revolution in 2011, I founded The Voice of Libyan Women to change the public discourse about women, and I used the Koran to do that. We focused on institutionalized religion, because organized religion is very effective at manipulating and misusing faith, scripture, and people’s trust in God to exclude women. And I say that as a very proud Muslim and someone who has strong personal faith, but that does not negate the reality that religion is a political, economic, and social tool. The three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) are dominated by men, scripture has been entirely interpreted by men, and our existing laws have extended from that interpretation, so the policies have been heavily shaped by these realities.
In 2011, we set out to change the way women’s rights were understood by the public, specifically when it related to women’s security and leadership. We launched the “Noor” Campaign which means “enlightenment” in Arabic, with the explicit purpose of talking about women’s leadership leveraging examples through faith. We used religious quotes and teachings to provide a counter-narrative about women and their role in society. We went to the existing power holder, which was the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and negotiated with them to work with us. Having the logo of the Ministry of Religious Affairs on our campaigns gave us religious legitimacy and allowed us to be effective. We reached hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of women across Libya this way. We couldn’t have done that as a women’s rights organization without the publicly perceived endorsement from those at the top.
Meydanoglu: You said earlier that patriarchy isn’t working. What should it be replaced with?
Murabit: I think the new system needs to be inherently rooted and centered in inclusivity. Ninety percent of peace processes fail within five years. Ninety percent! When you imagine how long it takes to put together a peace process… that’s devastating! Yet, when you include women from the agenda-setting phase, it’s thirty-five percent more likely to last fifteen years. That’s a significant difference.
Meydanoglu: Some people say it’s because women are better leaders, but is that really the reason?
Murabit: If it were only women negotiating peace processes, that wouldn’t work either. It’s more effective when women are there because the agreements are more representative of their communities.
Unless leadership looks like the communities it serves – from the perspectives of gender, race, and religion, etc – it is always going to cause injustice for a group. I want us to build systems where every single person can look at their political, economic, and community leaders and feel seen, heard, and represented. I want everyone to think: “I can be in that position.” This will help people realize that they themselves are architects of power, change, and equality. Leadership is still seen as the privilege of a select few based on their gender or the color of their skin. And that’s where we go very wrong.
Meydanoglu: What is your advice to people who don’t know where to start?
Murabit: Ask yourself: What in my life can I do? Who in my workplace, in my family, or my community can I uplift? Can I amplify their agency? If there’s a woman at work who is never heard, bring her into the room with you. If you have a niece or a nephew who does not understand the complexities of women’s rights, talk to them about how to treat young women. Ask yourself: where do I hold power but do not share it with others? If we take on more individual responsibility for the way we talk about women, the way we treat women, the way we teach leadership to our kids, our societies, our companies, our governments will look very different.
Alaa Murabit is an award-winning medical doctor, global health security strategist, women’s rights advocate, and United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health, Employment & Economic Growth. She is the 2020-2021 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for the Advanced Study at Harvard University. She became an Ashoka Fellow in 2014 for her work as the founder of Voice of Libyan Women.
Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Country Co-Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the field leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER, and Purple Roof Foundation.
Next Now: Ashoka’s Next Now highlights innovations in areas ripe for transformation, including Tech & Humanity, Aging and Longevity, Gender, and Planet & Climate. This series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders creating an equal world for people of all genders. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.