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Security and Justice Libya

Libyan feminist: ‘You can’t stop war by pressing the snooze button’

How can a young Libyan woman convince armed militia members to stop fighting? How can she help other women grab opportunities that weren’t there before the war? And why is political apathy in Europe causing mayhem in Libya?

28-year-old Asma Khalifa, a young Libyan feminist, answers these and other questions. Just like Rida Al TubulyShe is one of the courageous Libyan activists supported by Cordaid’s Women and Youth as Bridge builders program. We’re proud to share the portrait of a sharp and disarmingly open young leader. “I say no to your assumptions, no to your judgements, no to war, no to violence. That’s what I stand for.”

Asma Khalifa is an Amazigh, one of Libya’s ethnic minorities. “An oddity in Arab dominated Libya”, she says. By the age of 16 she took care of herself and raised her own income. “To free myself from my father, who was a dominant and abusive patriarch”, she explains.

‘I will still be an activist when my hair has turned completely white.’

Early on in the war, in 2011, after she volunteered as a field nurse and saw the atrocities committed by all sides, she joined civil society initiatives that promoted women’s and youth’s rights. In 2015 she co-founded Tamazight Women Movement. It was the first indigenous women’s movement in Libya. It still is one of the few feminist organisations in the country. She lived in Tripoli when it was besieged and bombed by NATO forces for 8 months. “Yes, I survived that”, she says with a faint smile.

What is your activism about?

It’s about resisting, about saying ‘no’. No to violence, no to war, no to exclusion, no to assumptions. It’s very much inspired by the Suffragette movement. I read about the suffragettes as a young teenager in the school library – in many ways I was raised by books, more than by my parents. The Suffragettes were both upper-class women and factory workers who joined hands. Women who, more than a century ago, couldn’t take the injustices anymore and said ‘no’. Who took responsibility for their actions, never gave up and went to prison for what they believed in.

What is it that you are saying ‘no’ to?

Mainly war. As a teenager I read a lot of books about the second world war. I had the image of war as dead bodies, loss of life, destruction. And it is all that. But no one ever speaks about the people who survive it. The ones who continue to love, marry, have children. Those who lose trust in each other, are torn apart, never feel safe. The ones who are not at home any longer. The children who pick up arms and kill. All these human beings and their experiences are not talked about. So, my resistance to war is not just resistance to destruction and killing. It is still trying to build up things, amid destruction and loss, that make life continue. Because life does continue. Even when we know the next neighbourhood in Tripoli could be bombed any time, we still go out and meet for coffee and pancakes. Or we watch a movie and turn up the volume to drown out the sounds of the blasts outside.

I want to resist war deeply. I seek structural transformation that creates societal structures that do not actively exclude certain groups, like women, indigenous people, people of colour. They live in oppressive structures. If we remove active warfare, but the structures that are anti-women, anti-indigenous people, anti-people of colour remain, then to me we haven’t stopped war. You just press the snooze button on a ticking bomb.

‘Not to compliment war, but one of its effects is that it enables women. I see more boldness, more women taking charge.’

This means that my resistance does not stop when the war is over. My activism will last for the rest of my life. I will still be doing this when my hair has turned completely white. I will still support young people to resist and to have constructive and well planned revolutions.

How does the society you envision look like?

I don’t think that my vision is the only correct one. It’s like a long-term relationship: for things to change, you must be ready to give up some of your position, so that others can come into the picture without having to fight for it. So, it’s not about my vision. In fact, transformation can only come from the combined efforts of all the people in Libya. Only then can we create a society where people, have the right to choose how they live their lives, whatever their ethnicity, sex, age or religion.

Have structures in Libya changed because of the conflict?

Very much. Not to compliment war, but one of its effects is that it enables women. You do lose your partner, your son, your father, your husband and at the end you need to rely on yourself. I see that now in Libya. I see more boldness, more women taking charge. They are not protected and shielded anymore. War exposed that. Not war itself is creating opportunities, but the lack of system, caused by war.

‘Life does continue. We watch a movie and turn up the volume to drown out the sounds of the blasts outside.’

But maybe people are not aware of it. Just like during and after WW1 and WW2 in Europe. These wars massively impacted the social structures. Women went out, joined the labour forces, even the military. But society still thought that a woman was this feminine delicate thing that should be a reproduction tool and return to the kitchen. In the case of today’s Libya, I want people to be aware that things are never going to be the same anymore.

Is this also the message you share with women in Libya?

Yes, I bring this in wherever I go. I always tell them things are never going to be the same. This is our opportunity. In terms of civil society activism, we did not inherit much from the 40 years of Qaddafi regime. We lived in an artificial state. Now the structure of the dictatorship is gone, new structures are very weak. This is the opportunity for us, civil society, to build something.

What are the main opportunities for women in war-torn Libya?

To be able to implement without having anyone oppressing us. Of course, we have the militias, the violence and the targeting to deal with. But in a way, as women we have opportunities. Men take us lightly. They don’t think of us as serious.  When we’re implementing projects they probably think we’re dealing with women’s health care – not that that is not an important topic. Them taking us lightly is very stupid, but it’s a huge advantage.

‘We are challenging their ideas of war. I ask them ‘What are you going to do after the war? Even if by then you are 30, 40, 50, 60?’

Don’t get me wrong, I do see the effect of war on young people and women. I see them fed up with war, up to a point that the suicide rate among women has gone up. I see the restrictions of movement forced upon women because of the war, the constant fear something will happen to you or, worse, your loved ones.

But I also see more and more women who become entrepreneurs. They create businesses, jobs, stimulate commerce. In catering, in the healthcare sector, as hair dressers, as interpreters, as consultants. They contribute to society with their own money. One woman started as a hair dresser in Tripoli. Now she has a chain of these shops all over Libya. She was able to finance the rebuilding of an entire hospital surgery section in Tripoli. They are not just empowering themselves, they contribute socially. As economic structures have collapsed in Libya, women and young people are creating a parallel informal economic structure. And they are doing that on a much bigger scale than before the war.

How do you resist the war, I mean the actual warfare?

I work on so many programs of non-violence, with many other civil society activists. I put a lot of emphasis on disarmament. But you need to work on different things at the same time. You can’t work on one thing and wait for the other to be resolved, because issues and root causes are connected.

‘Allowing armed militia’s to participate politically is giving them an opportunity to stop using violence.’

What we are seeing now, especially in the western part of Libya, is a military fatigue among young men and armed groups. They have lost many of their friends and see the political process going nowhere. Young men still pick up arms and join militias, but they are less willing to fight. In a way, this is what I try to encourage, with the ones who are willing to listen and to talk to me. In many of our civil society projects we invite young members of the militias. They help us in discussing how integration of militia members into society after leaving the armed struggle can be done. A lot of them don’t want to leave the militias, especially the heads, the older ones, because they feel responsible for the younger ones. They don’t want to have them sucked up by another bigger militia that would abuse them in a worse way.

How can you convince a young man to disarm and return as a civilian to a society that is in ruins?

We are challenging their ideas of war. I ask them ‘What are you going to do after the war? Even if by then you are 30, 40, 50, 60? Because one day the war will end. And I challenge them about their children, if they have any. Do you want your children to face what you are facing now? And they don’t. No one wants that. They are very responsive to that argument. As an activist, I try to see entry points. I never judge or condemn.

‘Members of militias sometimes react aggressively. I understand their defensive position. We need to remember that they too are traumatized. Just like ourselves.’

At the same time, I know we need a good strategy of collecting guns. That we need good policies to make sure that truth seeking missions are carried out and that those who committed violations will be prosecuted. That reconciliations can take place with people they can reconcile with. And I think the people who took and take part in the fighting, need to be involved in the new political system of Libya. You might say that is dangerous – just look at what happened in Lebanon. But one of their main arguments to stay with the armed groups, is because they’re not sure what will happen to them in the next structure of the country if they leave their guns. Allowing them to participate politically is giving them an opportunity to stop using violence.

Do people sometimes oppose you aggressively because of what you do or say?

Yes. Members of militias sometimes react aggressively. And I understand their defensive position. We always need to remember that they too are traumatized. Sometimes we, civil society activists, forget that. Yes, they have attacked us, they kidnapped our family members and fellow activists. But they are traumatized humans, just like ourselves. Sometimes you must absorb their anger, knowing that the anger is not directed at you, but at war. Once I realize that, I don’t mind if they get aggressive.

Do you have the space to work as a civil society activist?

No, the opportunities are minimal. That’s why I grab all opportunities, however small. Sometimes I drive around the city and when I spot a check point with armed men who look very young, I stop and talk to them. I ask them if they also go to school, what they do in their free time. I want them to speak about themselves, not as soldiers, but as young human beings. You can’t measure that kind of action, I don’t know how successful that is. But I do know that the most successful trajectory in a lot of intervention work, especially with extremist groups – groups often labelled as ‘terrorists’ – is the human contact. Recognizing someone as a human being.

Are you also working with extremist groups?

That’s very difficult, as I am a young woman. Maybe in the future they could see that I don’t look at them as the enemy, that I view them differently.

‘They see us as these westernized young people with their crazy ideologies, as foreign agents.’

But as a young, independent woman you probably stand for everything they reject?

Yes. But still I want to bridge the gap between us. Because I say no. I say no to your assumptions, no to your judgements, no to war, no to violence. That’s what I stand for. And I think, in some way, they respect that. Of course, most of them were raised by a lot of women. That’s an entry point for me.

You sound very optimistic in a lot of what you say. But what has the war meant for you? The war broke out when you were 21. How did you cope?

Really badly! I do sound like I am a strong and stable person. But I had my ups and downs. It goes in cycles. During 2011 I volunteered as a field nurse. And I lost my best friend in that year. By the end of that year I started to work in a psycho-social centre for youth.

Was that worse than what’s going on today?

Different kind of worse. I think I am still a bit shell-shocked by how fast it went from curbing protests to bombs. The sound of bombs. I am still very alert to sounds, wherever I go. Like fireworks.

‘As an activist, I try to see entry points. I never judge or condemn.’

By the end of 2012 I was very much burned out. I had lost almost half of my weight and couldn’t sleep. I still don’t sleep very well. For a while, I threw myself at work. Not healthy! But then again, I had been working since I was 16.

To raise your own income?

Yes. I had to. If I chose to say no to the patriarchal structure I was born in, I had to do it on my own. Which is what I did. I took responsibility for it. I earned my income by teaching English and chemistry to other kids.

You were 21, burned-out, and war raged on. How did you keep going?

Libyan society isn’t welcoming civil society activists very much. They see us as these westernized young people with their crazy ideologies, as foreign agents. So, you get disheartened. But the biggest disappointment was the revolution. By September 2011 I was disillusioned by the whole thing, because I saw the revolutionaries committing worse atrocities than what Qaddafi did. That was heart breaking. I suffered from heartbreak until 2016. I continued to work, with less faith in the people around me. The trust was broken. Still today, If I walk around Tripoli or reach the airport, and see only men around, I get stressed. I look for exit points, always make sure I have some sharp item in my bag, knowing I might be sexually violated or attacked. There’s not a moment in daily life in Libya, in Tripoli, without suspicion or fear. That’s what ‘unsafe’ means.

‘What scares me a lot in Europe is youth’s political apathy.’

Students graduating at Benghazi University, 2017 (© Asma Khalifa)

I’m doing much better now. I still have my downs, like last year when I thought about stopping my work in Libya. But then my friend shared the pictures of their graduation in Benghazi. The students had gone to their old campus, which was completely bombed. For two years they had studied in primary schools, in the evenings, after the children had left. When they graduated they went back and celebrated in the bombed campus. When you look at these pictures, when you look at that kind of will, to live and to continue, you can’t allow yourself to give up. So I continue for the few who want to change things and for the future generation. I don’t want another young woman in the future to come to me and say ‘Why didn’t women do anything in Libya before?’. Because that was the position we, as young women from Tamazight Women Movement, found ourselves in. We saw that not much was done before us.

What is the main message you want to people outside Libya, to the international community?

I can’t disconnect the war in Libya from what’s happening around the world. It’s not one country going to war, everything is related, globalized. What I see in Europe, is increased polarization, a lost compass when it comes to truth and values, less common ground between human beings. What scares me a lot in Europe is youth’s political apathy. This leads to war mongers being elected and that affects us directly. A lot of youth groups, unions, civil society organizations I connect with say they have a hard time in recruiting more people. Especially in northern Europe there is this sense that life is fine. We’re fine with our world, nothing will happen. It’s very consumerist, very capitalist. People have no need to engage and inform themselves about what politicians decide and do. This leaves so much room for politicians who want to do harm, who are exclusionary, narrow minded and have a limited view of the world.

‘So please, Europe, resist fear.’

But if your apathy contributes to your tax money going to arms being exported to Libya which is what happens – if your apathy is contributing to the war in Libya, then this war is also your problem, not only ours. So, my message to people outside of Libya would be: any democracy or any political structure that wants to be inclusive, needs the participation of everyone. I am a huge fan of Rosa Luxemburg. She puts it beautifully. We all need to be revolutionaries. We all need to say ‘no’. And, whenever we can, we all need to celebrate our common humanity.

What should young people in northern Europe resist or say ‘no’ to?

I think fear. Without realizing it, people in Europe are quite afraid. Afraid of people who speak a different language, have a different colour, a different background, a different religion. That fear is dividing. It is a fear of losing their lifestyle. Which is completely ridiculous, when you know that human history is based on migration. No lifestyle is constant, no nation state is constant, no empire is constant. They all fall. We do have a common land, a common sky. There is our connection, our common experience. Only that is constant. Everything else is changeable. So please, Europe, resist fear.

Read more about Cordaid’s Security and Justice program.