Asma Khalifa grew up wearing a military uniform at her school, as was the dress code for all high school kids in Libya during Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, from 1969 to 2011. They were raised to be his soldiers — to learn his political philosophy from what is famously known as the “green book,” and were tested on their understanding of their country’s military. Today, 27-year-old Asma is cynical about Qaddafi’s regime, about the revolution that replaced him, and about Western intervention in her land. So she undertakes what she believes is most needed in Libya — personal action. The recipient of a 2016 Luxembourg Peace Prize, as “Outstanding Youth Peaceworker,” travels around the country to promote women’s rights and train local communities in non-violent resistance. “That’s how we build the foundation of a country,” Asma explains.
Asma is not one of the Arabs who make up most of the country’s population, but an Amazigh, the indigenous people who survived various civilizations that crossed the land, most recently Arabs. Amazigh, (one of many ethnic groups, along with the Berber), means “free humans,” and Asma takes this definition to heart.
“It was illegal to speak our language or even celebrate our weddings in our cultural ways as I was growing up,” she explains, sharing what it means to be a non-Arab Libyan and the discrimination her people have faced. “They always told us that we are not wanted and that we are in danger,” Asma says. Her uncle was put in prison for expressing his views — a major crime in Qaddafi’s time.
— Libya Al Hurra (@LibyaAlHurraTV) May 28, 2016
When she was 15, Asma became aware of a new kind of discrimination. “My mother gave me clear instructions to avoid government gatherings or public officials,” she says, because women were vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse by Qaddafi and his entourage. The leader, who publicized his female body-guards, was privately notorious for the rape and harassment of the women with whom he came in contact (including those daunting bodyguards). Women, including teenagers, could only hope not to catch his eye.
Spared that fate, Asma put all of her effort into helping the most vulnerable members of Libyan society — women who were imprisoned for “moral corruption” under Qaddafi, (often girls who had escaped oppressive families and were caught up in prostitution), and abused children. Child abuse and the subjugation of women are risky subjects for a teenage girl to take on under an authoritarian regime whose rules change unpredictably, but Libyans like Asma resisted with small acts of defiance. When asked what inspired her to declare herself a feminist, she says, “I started reading a book about the suffragette movement and I started identifying with them, because my father was abusive and I identified with them as I knew violence was not right.”
But then the revolution happened. She was only 21 when she got a call from her friends in Benghazi, where she was involved in activism. This was strictly forbidden during Qaddafi’s time, yet the youth in general did communicate with each other about ideas and what was happening in the outside world when they started getting limited access to the internet in 2008. Her friends asked her if she would organize some similar activities in Tripoli. “I was in conflict,” Asma explains, “because I did not want to distribute information. I did not believe in holding a weapon even if it is against Qaddafi. So I joined a field hospital in Tripoli for the rebels. Then I went to the military hospital for a few weeks, then I became disillusioned with everything. I saw all the crimes we were committing as rebel forces. I was heartbroken. I deleted my name from all the lists, and I wanted nothing to do with the revolution. It was hard and very conflicting. But to be honest, I did not want to support the revolutionaries and I didn’t want to support Qaddafi. They were both wrong. So I started putting my energy on civil society.”
Libyan youth, she says, noticed that no one was addressing the issue of civil progress. “My friends and I anticipated having another dictator. So we decided to focus on trying to build a civil society. We were inexperienced, we made lots of mistakes … but still we believe that building civil society is the only way to go for Libya.”
Asma founded a feminist organization, learning an array of security skills that she applies in her daily work as she travels from one community to the next. “War completely changes the community. There is so much mistrust. There is so much hate. There is so much lack of acceptance and tolerance,” she explains. “So now I put my energy in what I know is important. I am now working on this campaign, ‘Women and politics change lives.’ It is to support women in local government at the municipality and community level.”
The conflict in Libya now is one of disunity. There are several competing political movements seeking legitimacy and, according to Asma, they are all dysfunctional. “So the only hope is to strengthen local municipalities,” she says. “My aim is to have strong resilience, hard working community. I don’t care who is on top doing what. My focus is on people. In addition to women, I work with Libyan youth peace builders. I teach non-violent resistance and gender activist theories,” Asma explains, adding that these are new concepts for Libyan civil society.
“At the early phase of each training, they think it is very strange and many are unconvinced that non-violence is the way to go. I understand them because I am asking activists not to use guns to protect themselves against armed militias. So I had to bring so many tangible examples from other movements. But it is hard … because they are all foreign examples until we get our own Libyan examples. I train them how to be safe how to use their phone safely and how to use location safely.”
But when I ask Asma how she feels about all that she is doing in Libya, she says, “Today is a bad day for me to be optimistic. They just ordered 12 prisoners who were just released by court order to be executed. But I don’t see any other way. If I want to see hope in Libya again, I have to work for it.”
Asma is doing this work with little support and even less budget. She operates in areas with no electricity, and no internet. But she is still there, planting a seed for a new way to look at the future in Libya.
In this era of fear, some look at Libya’s security turmoil and believe it can only be remedied with war, with military intervention. But Asma’s approach is more likely to effect progress in her country and in the Middle East and North Africa. It is her voice, her work, her attitude about the future of her country that needs the support, the endorsement, the financing and, most importantly, the media platforms necessary for being heard, not only in Libya but in the West, where new relationships with the region are being established. She rejects violence as an expression of opposition. Individuals and nations in the region and in the West should follow her example. She is one of many young women in the region who are speaking with a new, non-violent voice.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.