Interview with Dr. Lina AbiRafeh

Executive Director of The Arab Institute for Women

We sat down for a chat with our panelist and partner, Dr. Lina AbiRafeh. Get to know her and the AiW with this quick Q&A:

What inspired you to get involved in the humanitarian sector, specifically in the field of preventing and addressing violence against women and girls?

When you are born in two conflicts (I’m  Lebanese & Palestinian), you inherit a lot of that baggage already.  I was raised in a pretty progressive bubble, with my parents being different nationalities and different religions, but with a very nascent feminism even though they didn’t acknowledge it as such. I also grew up in Saudi Arabia, so it presented a great foundation for thinking about gender issues. I didn’t understand why I was bothered until I was about 14 years old. We had moved to the states already and when I was in high school, I took a class called “Comparative Women’s History.” And that was the class that opened my eyes and blew my mind, because it was really a history of violence against women, and I wasn’t prepared for that. I knew from then on that this was the work I was going to do for the rest of my life, and over 30 years later, I’m still doing that one thing.

Whether it’s emergencies or not, this country or that, that’s completely peripheral. I just want to focus on women. I want to focus on the adult woman, more specifically, the adult biological female. If we can’t get that right, we can do nothing else. I’ve done other things, and I’ve run other organizations that focus on political empowerment and economic participation, etc., and those are important––but all of those rights, and skills, and strengths and opportunities don’t matter if there is violence against women. That is the greatest impediment to women accessing any of those rights. We have every single right to be safe in and outside of our homes. Without that, there is no right that you can give me that makes up for the loss of bodily autonomy and integrity. Until we solve that, what’s the point of anything else?!

What are you most excited about in all of your work with AiW? 

I really enjoy the times that I get to be creative; when I get to work with young people and work with them in ways that surprise not just me, but them as well. We joke about creating “accidental activists” sometimes. In my first year at the institute we were coming up with something for the 16 days of Activism against GBV (Nov 25 – Dec 10). We did an art competition for people in the region, and invited them to portray a world without violence against women through art. That first year we had a male winner, an Armenian filmmaker who knew nothing about violence against women, and he just started to research and ended up with a 30-second video on intimate partner violence, using his mother. He went from zero knowledge, just a kid who makes films, to becoming this art activist who changed the way he thought, the way his community thought… he just became our poster boy! That first year, in the end we had over 100 entries, and by the third year we had over 400 entries. We now have hundreds of pieces of art, and virtually no bandwidth to showcase it all. The Arab region has a lot of young people who are pissed off, and rightly so. They are stifled and they feel like they can’t do what other people do, can’t access the same opportunities, don’t have the same choices. This is due to economic and political insecurities, protracted crises, and much more. All that to say, people are still alive there. They want to do stuff. Especially young people. And tapping into their creative energy just brought us so much joy. We have so much beauty and so much rich material to showcase. We just need the world to see it!

What do you think will be the most prominent issues facing Arab women in the next ten years, and how do you think we can work globally to address these issues?

When it comes to Arab women– let’s use Lebanon as an example–it’s really a question of how do you continue to withstand the shock? And how do you have any hope? That’s the first thing that dies. As insecurities continue, people say “it’s not time for women’s rights yet… we have bigger issues to solve”. But while we keep waiting for stability, we still need to fight for women, include women. Women will make a difference. Because there’s no peace, no justice, no stability, no prosperity without them!

Of course, if we have a way to build a sustainable region that is less susceptible to catastrophic crises and collapses, then let us try to do that. There’s a saying from Afghanistan, “put your head against the wall and push. You either break the wall or break your head.” And it sounds funny, but the message is keep pushing, fighting, moving forward. What other choice do we have? 

When it comes to [the humanitarian aid sector], people need to put Arab countries back on the map, and not park them in the “too hard” region. It’s hard, but give the region its rightful geographic space. Know that it’s there, know that it needs attention. Right now, we just don’t exist. If we’re talking about amplifying voices — then do that. If people have an event, a panel, a conference, or resources — give space to the Arab region. I feel like the lone Arab voice in many conversations. But I’d rather be the door-opener – bringing other Arab voices in. We have something to say – and it deserves to be heard.

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