A young Libyan human rights activist and law student, Hajer Sharief was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Although she did not receive the award, the five-member Norwegian Nobel committee had highly favored her. The 26-year-old graduate of Tripoli Law School in Libya and war survivor became a prominent fighter for peace after her country descended into civil conflict in 2011.
The Libyan civil war is at an impasse, as armed groups do not want to compromise. Militant factions in the east and west of the country continue to fight. The hope for peace remains elusive. The violence that started since the ouster of the former longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has shattered the country’s governmental institutions, fractured the society, decimated the oil-based economy, and given rise to smuggling of thousands of Libyan and African migrants to Europe. Thousands of people died during the war, and women and children have borne the brunt of it. Like many, if not all wars, the Libyan war was started and is fought by men. While this conflict has further decreased the role of women in peace-building and decision-making in the interest of their country, Sharief is working to change that.
While her activism emphasizes an active role for women in peace-making, she believes that standing up to extremism requires empowerment of the entire civil society.
Sharief saw her peaceful neighborhood in Tripoli fall into bloody chaos within 24 hours. Having witnessed the horrors of the war, she launched her own non-profit organization, called Together We Build It, when she was 19 years old to help bring peace to Libya. Since its inception, the organization has been advocating for political participation and economic empowerment of women, raising awareness about gender discrimination, improvement of human rights, and capacity building for women and youth in Libya. In 2013, she started the “1325 Network in Libya,” which is a network of civic groups and activists from across the country that promotes the role of women in peace-building and prevention of violence. While her activism emphasizes an active role for women in peace-making, she believes that standing up to extremism requires empowerment of the entire civil society.
“The biggest challenge for women and girls in Libya currently is the absence of personal security, which means they cannot access education, work, and a normal life in general . . . . With the organization I co-founded, “Together We Build it,” we regularly conduct public surveys about violence against women. We get hundreds of terrifying stories about violence that women and girls are facing,” said Sharief last year at the UN.
Her advocacy work on women in Libya has borne some fruit since 2011 and more people began accepting the idea of participation of women in politics. Her organization helped start a dialogue with national leaders about women’s role in peace and security. She has also helped Libyan women launch their own initiatives and organizations.
Sharief’s activism caught the eye of the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who included her along with nine other young activists from around the globe in his initiative known as “Extremely Together,” which aims to fight violent extremism. Current UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon appointed her a member of an advisory committee that monitors youth’s positive contribution to peace processes and conflict resolution.
Political participation starts within a family unit. The family is a microcosm of decision-making and politics of a country, where one cannot afford but to participate.
Sharief’s extraordinary journey from war-torn Libya to leading world activist has everything to do with her courage, grit, and determination. Her awareness about the importance of civic participation and activism takes root in her upbringing. As she recounts in her popular TED speech, political participation starts within a family unit. The family is a microcosm of decision-making and politics of a country, where one cannot afford but to participate.
When she was a small child, her parents introduced the concept of “Friday Democracy Meetings,” where everyone in the family gathered to discuss current personal affairs. The family even had a note taker. Everyone had the chance to criticize anyone in the family, including parents, in these meetings. They encouraged open and free discussion of everything from what food they wanted to eat to how to solve family disputes. Sharief says that she had mastered politics by age six by learning how to negotiate, compromise, and build alliances with other political actors. When she tried to boycott the family meetings, in hopes that the system would change or collapse if she walked away, they continued to take place without her presence.
Sharief became an ardent believer in political participation when some of her family’s decisions went against her wishes. But, as she emphasizes, she could not challenge or complain about them because she did not go to the Friday family meetings. She managed to change some of her family’s resolutions after she began attending the meetings again. To influence politics beyond one’s family, Sharief believes that people must learn about decision-making and political participation from a young age within family units.
This lesson of participation and having a say in the decision-making illuminated and translated to Sharief’s path toward activism in her country and beyond. “We need to teach people that political, national and global affairs are as relevant to them as personal and family affairs,” she says.
However, her message goes beyond Libya. Sharief seeks to question, challenge, and change the systems where political decision-making has been reserved to a small group of people, almost exclusively to men, who have left the people out of being represented, a notion that resonates with so many around the world.
She is slowly winning the war of ideas and changing misogynistic attitudes in her country by establishing a dialogue with various stakeholders on the role of women in peace-building and reconstruction.
Sharief’s ideas are transformative and important to all of us. She is slowly winning the war of ideas and changing misogynistic attitudes in her country by establishing a dialogue with various stakeholders on the role of women in peace-building and reconstruction.
“Women are building peace on the ground in many ways in Libya. We are, for instance, increasing their capacity to be involved and raising awareness on the importance of non-violent activism and conflict resolution,” she said earlier this year. But rebuilding Libya will not be possible if the men inciting and fighting the war do not stop the bloodshed and do not give peace a chance.
Giving peace and dialogue a chance is one important reason for us all to participate in national political discourse and involve young children in familial affairs and negotiations early on. Sharief’s message inspired this author with plans to hold similar Friday democracy meetings with her own family.