Executive Director, The Arab Institute for Women; SheDecides Guiding Group
Dr. Lina Abirafeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University – based in New York and Lebanon. Her background is in gender-based violence prevention and response in development and humanitarian contexts. She brings over 20 years’ experience in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, and others. Her 2015 TEDx talk summarises her experience.
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. 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.
Lina Abirafeh has spent over 20 years working on Gender-Based Violence prevention and response in a range of humanitarian and emergency settings. This is where she came to understand that more than many other emergency services, women and girls need to protect and control their own bodies first. Today she works to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through the intersection of academia and activism across the 22 Arab countries.
Lina laments on the state of gender equality in the Arab region – one plagued by patriarchy, and the rising power of conservative movements. The message of bodily autonomy is urgent here. But in spite of the challenges, she is hopeful about the future. ‘I have to remain cautiously optimistic – with a belief that equality is possible, even if it doesn’t materialise in my lifetime. I will keep finding every possible way to do it – from my work to my activism to my writing and whatever other means available to me…we MUST get to a future where SheDecides’ she says. ‘And to do so we need to take the anger that has been simmering and turn this into action’.
Read her full interview below.
Tell us briefly why you are passionate about being involved with SheDecides?
1. Tell us briefly why you are passionate about being involved with SheDecides.
Bodily autonomy and integrity for women underlies everything that we do – everything that we are trying to achieve. This is the cornerstone of the feminist movement which is also the most contested and hardest to win. But it opens the door for all the other pieces of work that we must do – ensuring women’s access to health and education, engaging women in politics, decision-making, leadership, the economy – none of which are possible without the right to decide our own bodies FIRST.
I am passionate about this because to me it is a no-brainer – something non-negotiable and not up for discussion. EVERYONE has the rights to their own body. And yet, it seems like since the beginning of time, men have made decisions about women’s bodies – everything ranging from their reproductive functions to the preferred length of their hair. How did we allow it to go this far?! I think it’s time we all stood up and said: ENOUGH! SheDecides.
2. Briefly describe how you are working hard so women and girls can make decisions themselves about their bodies.
I’ve spent 20 years working on gender-based violence prevention and response in a range of humanitarian emergencies. In those settings, I saw that women and girls need to protect and control their own bodies first – more than many other emergency services. Working on GBV is considered life-saving – and sexual and reproductive health and rights exists together with this life-saving work. And now I’m in academia – at the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World. We work at the intersection of academia and activism to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment across the 22 Arab countries. In this context, the message of bodily autonomy is even more urgent.
3. What is the biggest challenge facing women and girls in your region? Why?
We know that NO country in the world has achieved full gender equality, but look at the Global Gender Gap Report, or the Women Peace and Security Index – this region ranks last all the time. We are challenged by all forms of insecurity, plagued by patriarchy, and suffocating under conservative movements that are gaining power. We’re even seeing a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms.
In the region we are in a state of perpetual insecurity – either full-blown conflict, or socio-political and economic challenges, or all of this combined. In these settings, women’s rights are the first to be stripped and the hardest to revive. Research shows that the biggest predictor of peace in a country is not economics or politics, but how the country treats its women. We have a long way to go!
At the Institute we don’t stop fighting – addressing critical issues like GBV in the region, what’s holding Arab women back from equality, violence, inequalities and challenges for Arab women, and repeal of Lebanon’s Article 522, the so-called “marry-your-rapist” law. We have a lot of work to do.
But the underlying message is this: unless we’re addressing inequalities everywhere, we will achieve equality nowhere.
4. Tell us a story of a moment that drives you to do what you do every day.
I have a niece – she’s not quite 4. I think when you have a small person in your life – and certainly a small female person! – you want to drive forward change faster. I want to see results in my lifetime – but not for me! I want it for her. I want her to have full freedom and bodily integrity and equality and the ability to have every choice open to her – without socio-cultural expectations, restrictions, limitations. I want her to NEVER question her right to her own body and her own life. She must have access to every place and space – from the highest political office to the street-corner market – with the same sense of entitlement that men feel today. I want her to laugh and think that our lives of inequality are outdated and old-fashioned, and a thing of the past. I want to bury those inequalities in history – and build a future my niece deserves.
5. How are we going to get to a future where SheDecides, without question – particularly in the Lebanon context.
We have a very young population in the Arab region, which presents a lot of potential for change. We need to reach those people now – quickly! – before we lose them. It’s easy for them to feel disillusioned. The region deals with so many challenges.
And at the same time, we’re facing massive global regress. These setbacks also play out in the region. Last year I examined the implications for women in light of the administration in the US – and the news wasn’t good. One year later, he’s proven to be a catastrophic emergency for women, stripping back rights and denying fundamental freedoms at every turn. And yet, without the beast, we would have not birthed the beauty that was the feminist resistance on 21 January. Of course, our fight was always there, but the Women’s March and SheDecides and MeToo and so many initiatives are now alive - and enraged - because of this political transition.
It has been extraordinary being a part of this new invigorated movement. We MUST get to a future where SheDecides – and to do so we need to take the anger that has been simmering and turn this into action. There is global momentum – and the region is catching on slowly. And there are small tastes of victory. I hope this justice is contagious! I want the young people of this region to see that equality, rights, justice can win. They need to see these victories to believe it is possible – and to have the courage to continue this fight!
6. Anything else you'd like to add?
It’s easy to be cynical – and I am, quite often! But I have to remain cautiously optimistic – with a belief that equality is possible, even if it doesn’t materialize in my lifetime. I will keep finding every possible way to do it – from my work to my activism to my writing (LinaSays) and whatever other means available to me.
I’ve never done anything but this – and I won’t do anything else. This is a life-commitment – and the only way I’m willing to go is forward.