Dr. Lina Abirafeh has served as the Executive Director of Arab Institute for Women, AiW since 2015. She is based in New York and Lebanon. Lina brings a strong feminist activist orientation to the Institute, promoting education and research to advance social change and policy change – and ultimately to improve the lives of women and girls in the Arab region.
Prior to joining AiW, Lina spent over 20 years in development and humanitarian contexts, working with the United Nations and other international organizations in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, and others. Her specific expertise is in gender-based violence prevention and response, summarized by her TEDx talk, Women Deliver PowerTalk, keynote address for Swedish International Development Agency annual meeting, and podcast interview, amongst others.
In 2018, Lina was listed as one of the Gender Equality Top 100: The Most Influential People in Global Policy – one of only two Arabs to make the list. She received this honor again in 2019 from over 9000 nominations.
Lina completed her doctoral work from the London School of Economics and published “Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention” based on her research. She speaks and publishes frequently on a range of gender issues such as gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, what’s holding Arab women back from equality, bodily integrity and autonomy, female humanitarian aid workers, women in conflict – for instance in Sudan and Yemen, and so on. Recently, Lina has been focused on the need for a feminist response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on Arab women and girls.
She believes women’s leadership is the strongest vehicle for peace and sustainable development.
Lina is a board member of various organizations including SheDecides, Forced Migration Review, Society of Gender Professionals, and Greenpeace MENA, amongst others.
Lina had an in-depth and deep conversation with Swagata Sen about her career, work, and views on women’s rights and safety.
Lina, what motivated you to have a career in women’s rights and safety?
I’m a Lebanese and Palestinian. I grew up in conflict. When I was just 14 years old when I took a course called Comparative Women’s History in my high school. This class showed me what I had not been seeing as a young girl, that the world was filled with stories of violence against women, and that the world is fundamentally unequal.
I was just appalled by the types of violence I was learning about as a 14-year-old. I learned about female genital mutilation, intimate partner violence, and about women who mutilate their bodies to appease the latest beauty norms that change all the time.
All of these left a really big mark on me. I woke up to this realization that violence against women was the greatest crime, not just of our time, but of all time. Once that is eradicated, all of these other rights that we are working towards, for instance, access to public space, public life and leadership, decision making and economic opportunity, and everything else will be available, accessible, and achievable. That was my calling. That was my entry point into equality.
I realized this is what I needed to do for the rest of my life. At that moment, I knew that’s what I would do and I would find a way to do it. I wanted to be in the field. I saw the bigger battle being in countries that needed the most help and countries that were in poverty, countries that were experiencing humanitarian emergencies. I spent two decades of my career working in that context, specifically on violence against women.
I decided that women’s safety should be the barometer by which I would measure my work. If women are not safe, no one is safe. We take up so much of our time thinking about our own safety, and worrying about how to make ourselves safe. If something happens, society believes that it’s our fault because we didn’t take the necessary precautions to make ourselves safe.
Even with equal participation in politics, in economic life, in education, anywhere, it is meaningless without bodily autonomy. If we don’t have rights to our own bodies, in our own ability to be safe in our homes, in our communities, at every hour, every place, every time, wearing whatever we want, going wherever we want, then what’s the point?
At which point did you decide to transition from the field to academia?
I spent nearly two decades working mostly in humanitarian emergencies and mostly on sexual violence. After all these years and all these countries, I thought to myself ‘there has to be something I can do that is longer-term, and more sustainable.’ I kept responding, responding and responding to emergencies that seemed to never end.
So I started to think of how I could do the same type of work from a different angle. And I landed a job in academia where I now still sit. I am the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women, which was very appealing to me because this institute was the first of its kind in the Arab region, covering the 22 Arab states. It was an extraordinary little place that always operated at the intersection of academia and activism. So it really has a feminist, activist grounding with academic credibility. I said, well, this is the cause I would love to take on because it needed a champion.
I wanted to bring recognition to this place – an institute that is now forty-seven years old, the first in the region, one of the first in the world, and yet relatively unknown. So I decided to fight for this place. I thought that I could do something valuable here. It’s now been five years and I’m still fighting for this institute, despite so many setbacks and so many challenges.
The institute is based in Lebanon. Lebanon now is going down the drain in terms of a total economic crisis, political instability, a long-running refugee crisis, and Covid on top of all of that. Right now, it is the perfect storm – one disaster on top of another. So I’m fighting for the survival of this place.
What are some of the most profound moments of your career?
The moments when I felt like I did the right thing were when I was actually listening to the people I was there to serve. There’s a lot of that comes with this line of work that can be patronizing or dismissive, like a colonial legacy of ‘I’ve come here to fix you and save you, women’. There’s a lot of that superhero language that we use which I think is very damaging. I don’t subscribe to this kind of stuff at all. I think people will save themselves.
People will liberate themselves in the way that they want. You just have to be behind them with the tools and resources. There’s a lot of humility in this. There’s a lot of sense that, if you want to help, you have to do it the way that people ask you to do it, not the way that you want to do it. You are not coming to impose your own world view. Feminisms exist in many forms.
Afghan women were a great teacher for me because they had a lot to say about what we thought was important. So they basically sat me down and told me, ‘ you’re here to help us, then help us. Here’s what you should do.’ They gave me a list, and I said, this is a great lesson.
Once I was having a conversation with young people about what they thought of women’s issues and all this big language of liberation we’re throwing around. One young man said to me ‘the world thought they could bring freedom to Afghan women, but freedom is only one from the inside.’ I get chills still when I say that line, although it’s been almost 20 years. Even today, I’m so guided by this one line that I heard two decades back but never forgot.
I said, ‘thank you very much. Yes, freedom is only one from the inside. Now tell me how I can help you achieve that?’ That was how I learned a little bit about how to do this work better.
So the times when I felt like I had taken a step back and let the population that I was there to serve completely drive the work and create the kind of vision that they wanted of the future, were very profound for me.
Another profound moment of my life was having the courage at a certain point to leave my humanitarian life. Even though I was at the top of my game professionally and felt I still had a lot to offer, I wanted to do something that was meaningful and sustainable. I chose to apply all these wonderful experiences to a place where I would make some lasting changes. I think the idea that there isn’t one way to do this kind of work, was a very important lesson for me because up until that point, I had truly thought ‘it’s the field or nothing.’
What motivates you to keep fighting?
My anger. I was angry and am still am angry because we’ve allowed violence against women to continue for as long as we have, accepting a life that is fundamentally unequal. And we’ve not solved this. There are so many other fractures, fissures, divisions, discriminations and isms in the world. But for me, this is the oldest and the biggest, and at the very core. How have we not fixed it yet? I ask myself all the time, where, when and how will it end? How much do we have to do to end it? This is centuries overdue. Impossible that we’re still discussing this. That’s the anger that keeps me going.
I think it is important that we recognize the value that we bring. We need to believe that, even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, changes are happening slowly, because if we don’t remind ourselves of that, it is far too easy to get discouraged.
How do you measure success?
That’s a difficult question. It’s really hard to measure. How do you measure your success in this work? Do you even have any success? How am I still fighting for this? How are we still arguing for this same stuff?
I wish I could say, “I spent four years in Afghanistan and I ended sexual violence there, then I move on to another country.” There’s no job satisfaction in this work because we never finish the job! I look forward to the day when I’ll be out of a job. I’m not sure that’s going to happen in our lifetimes. I wish for it, though, because I would love to say. “I did something, and I finished the job. I made the world a better place for women.” And then I can retire.
It’s frustrating to not be able to accomplish very much. You look at yourself and think, “What have I done here?” you have to find a system to measure what it is that you’re doing and believe that you are making a difference.
What would you suggest to the young activists and leaders who want to work in gender-based violence or women’s empowerment?
I would say, first of all, recognize that there are so many ways to do this work. I think it’s important to start where you stand, as I’ve said in many of my talks.
Unfortunately, violence against women is all around us, in our homes, on the streets and in our schools and communities. If you want to do something, you can do it without even leaving the house, in your own sphere of influence.
I know the real work is in your house and in your life and with your children or your parents or your partners. Believe me, if everybody sees that, if everybody does that, that would be a contagious kind of movement.
In the end, you also have to remember that you cannot fast-track social change. No country in the world has achieved zero violence against women. You need to recognize that you have to be committed for the long haul because it’s a long fight and to be patient with the process and with yourself. You’re fighting a big battle that is going to take generations – and we’re doing it for future generations.
I keep telling my team ‘dig me from the grave and let me know how we’re doing. Give me periodic updates!’
At some point you have to look across the generations and say, over the long term every generation of women are stronger, better, healthier, more educated, more articulate about what they want. You have to compare across generations rather than day to day, to keep yourself motivated.
Are there opportunities for activists, researchers or students to get involved with your work or volunteer with your institute?
Absolutely! People can get in touch with me.
We take volunteers any time, anywhere for anything. People write to me for doing research or getting their research published, we always find ways to engage people that are mutually beneficial. Right now I’d love some help with social media, with writing, with communications – anything, really! I would love to see people who are looking for a challenge.
We need to keep sharing information with people in a range of formats so they are accessible to everyone. Fighting for rights, equality, justice, for dignity is everyone’s responsibility. There is room for us all. And it’s the only way we will ever succeed.