This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Rawan Khalfallah.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer.
In December 2011, dozens of women gathered to demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Tripoli.
Some were chanting in unison, while others symbolically covered their mouths with tape. Women protesting… This was unheard of only months earlier. But these were the first signs of the Arab Spring in Libya.
Rawan Khalfallah Protesting was a big part of the change in Libya, starting from the revolution in 2011 up until the later years.
Melanne Verveer Rawan Khalfallah was a wide-eyed teenager when the uprising began.
She quickly grew disappointed as post Arab Spring elections and transitional governments failed to control growing infighting, which in 2014 led to a civil war and the arrival of foreign insurgents.
Rawan realised that protesting did not bring the change young people needed. She felt like her life was on hold… indefinitely.
Rawan Khalfallah To give you an example for this, I’m in my last year in dentistry school. I was supposed to graduate two years ago. Whenever the students want to talk to the administration or talk to our professors to resume our studies, they propose protesting. Sometimes people showed up, other times people did not show up.
Melanne Verveer In today’s story, produced in collaboration with UN Women, we will hear about Rawan’s work to advance peace and security at all levels of women’s lives. Rawan starts by empowering girls at home and in school, so they can lift up their voices in politics and at the peace table. Our producer Caro Rolando has more.
Caro Rolando A family of four is watching the nightly news. The daughter is hyper focused on the TV, as she clutches her pillow to her chest. She watches as, the male news anchor says to his female co host:
Male news anchor People like you don’t understand anything and they belong in the yard.
Caro Rolando Her brother agrees with the male anchor.
Brother These women think they know and they have no idea…
Caro Rolando This could be a typical scene in Libya, except for what happens next. The daughter stands up, goes to her room and comes back transformed… into a superhero. She confronts her brother.
Daughter Shame on you! This is a civilized discussion! Just because he is a man doesn’t mean he is better than her or gives him the right to attack her! Who is he to determine how smart she is? If she wasn’t successful and smart she wouldn’t be on TV!
Caro Rolando That’s one of the stories from “Super Nsaween”, or Superwomen in Libyan Arabic. It’s a comic strip series that Rawan Khalfalla helped create to challenge gender stereotypes, starting at home.
Rawan Khalfallah We were also thinking “what would make people listen?” What would be something that’s attractive, provocative, that would make people look twice and start a conversation.
Caro Rolando When Rawan says “we”, she’s talking about her colleagues at Together We Build It. It’s a non-profit in Libya where she works as a project manager. At just 23 years old, Rawan plans and implements campaigns to show why women’s voices are essential to building and sustaining a peaceful society. For her, as for many women in Libya, peace doesn’t just mean an end to armed conflict, it also means working towards equality and freedom in all parts of women’s lives.
Rawan Khalfallah And we thought that people always associate the word violence to physical violence. And based on our surveys and based on our research the gender based violence in Libya, it’s not only physical, it’s much more deeper than that. We heard stories about economic violence, political violence and social violence.
Caro Rolando The comics are designed to showcase how scenarios that many Libyans still view as “normal” are actually detrimental to women’s rights. These superwomen fight violence and oppression in the home.
Rawan Khalfallah The superpowers that these women have is that they can recognize violence because when you talk about these things, people don’t even recognize it. We don’t admit that there is a problem in the first place.
Caro Rolando The stories are ones most Libyan girls and women can relate to like not being taken seriously at school, or not being seen as intelligent as their male counterparts. There’s one comic that particularly resonated with Rawan: a group of girls is expected to clean up their classroom after school but the boys are given a pass, because cleaning is seen as a “girls’ duty”. Rawan had experienced this herself.
Rawan Khalfallah I remember how I faced that in school and I never really had that much of a voice. I was always the quiet girl who would just witness something and stand still.
Caro Rolando But Rawan wasn’t the quiet girl for long.
Rawan Khalfallah The way I describe my life. It’s one part before 2011 and then another thing completely after 2011.
Caro Rolando Before 2011, women’s representation in formal politics was almost non-existent. In fact, just before the revolution, Libya ranked 91st out of 102 countries for gender equality, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Then the revolt against Gaddafi began. During that time, Rawan managed to finish high school, and even travel to the U.S. for a few months as part of a program focused on youth and civil society. This was a major turning point for her.
Rawan Khalfallah I went to this exchange program in 2013 and I came back. It’s like a person who got actually reborn.
Caro Rolando Rawan returned to Libya energized, determined to fight toxic gender norms and to work hard so that other girls and women could have the same opportunities she had, even during a conflict that seemed to have no end. She learned about Together We Build It and decided to start volunteering for them.
Rawan Khalfallah The organization has been established since 2011. It was initially established to basically support a peaceful political transition through empowering young people and women. The organization works through three main approaches, which are advocacy, consultation and awareness.
Caro Rolando Beyond empowering girls in their homes, these activists also elevate women’s voices in politics. They do something that has never been done before in Libya: they gather women from different regions to discuss policy recommendations for the future of their country.
Rawan Khalfallah So it’s really making them aware of their rights and their capabilities and highlighting that and emphasize the essential role that they should really take the lead on. While doing that, we also try to advocate and lobby on a national level, but also on an international level.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: TOGETHER WE BUILT IT AT 39th SESSION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL SIDE EVENT] “We are here today in Geneva to take part in the side event of the 39th session of the human rights council …”
Caro Rolando Recently, they shared some of these recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: TOGETHER WE BUILT IT AT 39th SESSION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL SIDE EVENT] …also to draw attention to the lack of meaningful participation of Libyan women…
Caro Rolando They are also working with activists from all over Libya to push the country to adopt a National Action Plan in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325. That resolution calls for – quote – “an increase in the participation of women at decision-making levels in conflict resolution, and peace”.
Rawan and her colleagues carry out all of this important work amidst a whole host of other conflict-related challenges. Years of infighting have wrecked infrastructure… electricity and safe transit between cities can be highly unreliable. Rawan and I recently exchanged voice notes about these issues.
Rawan Khalfallah So the issue with electricity is that every day we witness…um…I don’t know, like from 10 to 14 or 16 hours of power cut, which really depends on the street you’re at or the city you’re at…
Caro Rolando The most sobering thing about Rawan’s voice note was the parallel she drew between the power outages and bombings.
Rawan Khalfallah …power cuts — they’re not nearly as frustrating as hearing bombs because, again, it’s the mental pressure that they cause…
Caro Rolando Rawan’s work is clearly difficult. But these kinds of efforts are necessary to build lasting peace in Libya.
Saskia Binet Numerous data shows that having women as part of the peace process really will ensure that the peace is more sustainable.
Caro Rolando UN Programme Analyst Saskia Binet works with women peacebuilders in Libya. Saskia and her colleagues at UN Women work to support people like Rawan. Their “Libya Women Peace Building Network” encourages women from across the country to use their phones to connect, discuss and overcome their differences in the interest of peace.
Saskia Binet So for example, we would receive a call saying, you know, we’ve heard about this. There’s been an incident in this area. What can we do about it? In a theoretical way, an early warning system. And we take this information and we say, look, through our women’s networks, we have been receiving trends and patterns that demonstrate that “X” has been happening here. “Y” has been happening here. And this shows a kind of conflict analysis from a gender perspective that is impossible to find in any other way.
Caro Rolando The latest round of UN-sponsored peace talks have been stilted. But Saskia and her colleagues remain hopeful for the inclusion of women whenever negotiations continue. Especially because earlier this year, there were some signs that their inclusion — and expertise — were finally gaining recognition.
Saskia Binet There was a political dialogue earlier this year and 11 women were issued invitations. Ten women participated in the deliberations. And following the dialogue– putting aside whether it was successful or not – one of the main points of the former special representative of the Secretary-General commented on the tenacity and the extremely important interventions done by the Libyan women. We were just overjoyed that suddenly, you know, everything that we had been fighting for to get these women at the table and suddenly they were finally recognised for their incredible inputs.
Caro Rolando COVID-19 has further complicated women’s participation in the peace process. They have suffered the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on Libya. But Saskia has also seen how women have come together to help one another.
Saskia Binet We’ve had women at the community level, if you look at the Covid response, who have been acting — before there were many of the official guidelines — were creating their own WhatsApp groups, sending out PSA is and sharing that the people in their communities had the correct information. These women have been experts in their communities and in the public arena for a really long time. And I think it’s really about time that we sit down and that we all listen to them. And that we support them and accompany them to ensure that their expertise is well-known and utilized as effectively as possible.
Caro Rolando Ultimately, Rawan’s goal is aligned with the work UN Women does in Libya: removing obstacles that hold women back at home, in school, at work, and in politics.
They also offer them safe spaces so they can have a part in building a brighter future for everyone. As Rawan says, Libyan women have always had a vital role in managing conflicts and making peace in their own families and communities.
Rawan Khalfallah We directly find women with capabilities right in front of us to include and to be honest, in Libya’s case, its women are out there. We do have a lot of capacities that women obtain. We have a lot of amazing women politicians. We have a lot of amazing women activists. But it’s also essential to have more, you know, for women to demand more spaces.
Caro Rolando At the time of this recording, rival political leaders in Libya announced an immediate cease-fire and called for peace talks.
Rawan and all the super women that work with her are determined to have a place at the table.
Melanne Verveer Libya currently ranks 157 out of the 167 countries on the Women, Peace, and Security Index that the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security publishes yearly. The Georgetown Index takes a comprehensive look at the condition of women’s well-being. And as Rawan knows, the condition of women and the condition of nations goes hand in hand.
This story was produced by Caro Rolando in collaboration with UN Women.
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In our next episode, we’ll interview UNESCO Press Freedom Laureate and investigative journalist Jineth Bedoya. We’ll hear about her fight to secure justice for survivors of sexual violence, and about the challenges that women journalists face in Colombia to this day.
Jineth Bedoya La fe de estas mujeres…
Translation Voiceover The faith of these women is what I believe allows those of us who work for peace to still stand today. What I can tell you today is that not even a war or a pandemic can stop them; these women are invincible.
Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
Melanne Verveer The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and Adonde Media, in collaboration with UN Women and Our Secure Feature. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the interviewees and participants and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.