Welcome to Part 1 of our March 2023 Inspirational Interview with Dr Lina AbiRafeh, an international women’s rights expert and gender equality advocate from Lebanon who is based in the USA.
Lina AbiRafeh, PhD, is a global women’s rights expert and humanitarian aid worker with 25 years of experience in over 20 countries. She also advises a range of organisations, including the Arab Institute for Women, where she served as Executive Director for seven years. Dr AbiRafeh speaks on global stages and publishes frequently. Her third book will be released in 2023. She has received awards for her work including the Gender Equality Top 100, a Vital Voices fellowship, and a Women in Power fellowship, amongst others.
Part two of Dr AbiRafeh’s interview will be published 6 March 2023.
All photos are courtesy of Dr Lina AbiRafeh.
1. As an internationally renowned global women’s rights expert and gender equality advocate with a 25-year track record, how and why did you join the movement to end violence against women (VAW)?
Violence against women is the greatest human rights violation of our time. I learned this at a very young age and decided that I had to do something about it. Once you see these things, you cannot unsee them. And once we see them, we have a duty to act. How can anyone NOT be angry at how the world treats women and girls?! I believe that in order for this injustice to end, we all have to collectively do our part to change things. I want to end violence against women in my lifetime. My latest blog speaks to this.
2. You have worked in three very different roles as an activist, academic, and aid worker which each bring a different perspective and approach to the fight for women’s rights. How have your experiences in each role informed and influenced your overall approach to the fight to end VAW?
There are so many ways to end VAW. I have always been a feminist and activist and my role is to find any possible way to make a difference – through academia or aid work or anything. There are roles we can all play in schools, business, and government and, of course, at home. I often say we must “start where we stand” and make change wherever we are. I built my TEDx talk around this theme. We all have a responsibility to do something, and we can take whatever spaces we occupy and make them feminist. We do not have to go far to do good!
3. You were the longtime Executive Director – and currently serve in a senior advisory capacity – at the Arab Institute for Women (AiW) which is the first institute of its kind in the Arab world and also one of the first globally. How did you come to be the Executive Director of AiW and what sort of impact has AiW’s work had on Lebanon and the wider Arab world’s approach and attitudes towards VAW since it was founded in 1973?
AiW is an academic and activist institute that covers the 22 Arab states and addresses the full range of women’s rights and gender equality. I was attracted to this institute because it is a pioneer in the region. My role was to position it as a global player. The Institute is a hub for activists, a voice for – and from – the Arab region, and a source of knowledge and inspiration. To end VAW, the Institute has organised campaigns, advocated for policy change, conducted research, galvanised youth, and even used art and music to ignite change. While the Arab region has a long way to go, change is happening. Laws are being reformed and attitudes are shifting. Still, much work remains, and we need to sustain pressure from grassroots to government in order to end VAW.
4. What would your advice be to other feminists and anti-violence against women activists in academia in other parts of the world – especially those in very conservative and patriarchal countries and cultures – who wish to start a similar institute at their university?
The critical thing about feminist institutes is that they are built on data and research. When you have an evidence base, people start to listen – slowly. They might not like what you say, but you have a platform and you have the evidence. Be strategic, find entry points and allies, and push boundaries – smartly. At the same time, all of academia should be more feminist in its approach. This should apply across academia, not just in “women’s studies” spaces. We cannot be siloed. And feminist academics need to maintain strong links to feminist activists, to bridge the gap between research and practice. If the data isn’t relevant to social change and policy change – to people’s lives! – then it is not useful.
5. You published “Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention” in 2009 based on your doctoral research and your CNN piece on women in Afghanistan led to a live CNN interview in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. One year onwards, we have seen the Taliban continuously violate the human rights of women and girls by forcing them out of education, government, and other spaces in public life. What do you think can be done for the women and girls in Afghanistan as well as other countries where governments enforce patriarchal practices and policies that brutalise and silence women and girls?
In 2022, I published my second book “Freedom on the Frontlines”, following from the first book and telling the rest of the story. In my writings, I advocate for genuine women’s leadership – different from the lip service we pay to women’s leadership – and for full and meaningful funding for women-led organisations. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, women are always the ones who know who needs help and how to help them. They know what they need, and they have been doing it anyway – with or without our help. I argue that we did not sufficiently listen to or support Afghan women or their movements, and the current state of the country is a consequence of this. In Afghanistan, international rhetoric on women’s rights was not matched in reality. Ultimately, we let Afghan women down. And we risk continuing to do so now.