Project Silphium, a Conversation on Women’s Rights in Libya

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Activists in Tripoli, Libya, taking part in the 16 Days campaign. (Picture taken from the GVB Program FB page here)

You might have heard about the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a campaign that seeks to end violence against women. Every year it starts on November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and ends on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). These 16 days are used to raise awareness on a multitude of issues such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, to name a few.

An excellent Op/Ed piece in Libyan Youth Voices has been published recently entitled “Sound the Alarm, Tightening Spaces for Women in Libya“, which highlights a series of worrying developments concerning women in Libyan society.  From the article:

There used to be a glass ceiling in Libyan society, I know it was there because I experienced it first-hand. However, the glass ceiling has since shrunk to a wooden shed. I’m afraid to actually admit this out loud but if everyone keeps brushing off these accumulating incidents, we’re going to end up in a cement grave.

With the eroding state of the country and the ever-growing war, how can Libyan women combat these problems? One group of Libyans decided to utilize the power of the internet and launch Project Silphium, a blog with real life stories and experiences, written by Libyan women for Libyan women. From the blog’s description:

Silphium was a plant that was used in Cyrene (Shahat) as a medicine. Project Silphium on the other hand heals through lots of rants, views and opinions of Libyan women with real life stories and struggles, aiming to reach out and empower women all over Libya.

The blog is the efforts of both Libyan men and women, working as writers and designers. While it’s still relatively new (less than a week old), it has already attracted a lot of attention. One of the co-founders told me that the idea came from the frustration that much of the news articles on Libyan women didn’t represent them and how they felt.

They also expressed excitement at the reaction the blog was getting, especially that “young people are responding” and contributing their experiences.

Part of the success of this project can be attributed to the simple yet powerful impact that sharing real life stories can have. Under the cloak of anonymity, Libyan women can send in their own stories/rants in either English or Arabic. Having a safe platform with which to express yourself and to be heard is one of the greater aspects of the internet and one that has proven to be a profound change-maker.

So far the blog has featured posts like “There’s More To Life Than Just Men and Make-up“, “انا مسلمة و اطالب بحقوق المرأة” (I am Muslim and I Demand Women’s Rights) and “انتِ اكثر بكثير من زوجة رجل ليبي” (You Are More Than Just the Wife of a Libyan Man).

This will give outsiders a chance to hear the raw and diverse narrative of women in Libya, and hopefully, will give Libyan men a chance to better understand the emotions and struggles of their fellow citizens.

(You can check out Project Silphium’s Facebook page here or, if you’re a Libyan woman, contribute your own story and send it to projectsilphium@gmail.com )

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The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 4

If you’ve been keeping up with our higher-education memoir series, this is the final installment, where we ruminate on life after graduation. As always, this is Ali’s POV, while mine is over at Ali’s blog.

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Postgrad Blues

While I had chosen to completely numb my expectations of life after graduation, the initial ‘reality ensues’ kick remained quite painful. I suddenly had an abundance of free time in which I had nothing to do in except laze around, play video games, watch movies and look for jobs. Moreover, what social life and human contact I had were completely thrown out of the window. Being the only child not only worsened that, but it also put more pressure on me to get a job and move to the ‘next level’ in life.

What you don’t learn in university is that life really can be tough. That, and graduation is really not worth it – it doesn’t lead to anything unless you have ‘the connections’ to secure a decent job. Doubly so in a small, oversaturated labor market such as Bahrain: plenty of graduates and skilled candidates to go around, not enough jobs to actually accommodate them.

The only job opportunities that are open to a fresh graduate tend to be quite banal: aggressive cold-calling salespeople or outdoor sales, vehicle drivers, waiters or hotel receptionists, and graphic design. I tried the sales thing for a month and I hated it with every atom in my being. What university also doesn’t teach you is that sales jobs are like chameleons: they come under many names but they are all the same. Here’s some of them: business development executive, marketing executive, sales executive, client account manager, and client services executive. They also all work the same way: cold-call someone, set up a meeting, attempt to convince them to purchase your company’s services, meet a bazillion times, hope that the deal actually goes through.

Not my thing whatsoever.

But I digress. What makes post-graduation life difficult is not the inability to find a job but how your dreams, future plans and self-worth get crushed into a fine thin paste, assuming they are not outright evaporated. How? Allow me to elaborate:

A. Jobs

There’s a good chance that the job you actually want and is really an entry-level position has some very stringent experience requirements. Usually something such as 3 years in an equivalent position. The problem with this is that it reeks of fuzzy, catch-22 logic. You can’t get the job unless you have experience in it, but you can’t get experience unless you get the job. It’s like the chicken or the egg, but very, very real. By the way, scientists say the egg came first.

B. Dreams

Not having a job can put a damper on your dreams. It’s either because you can’t get a job which will make you eligible for your dream job, scholarship or career plan or alternatively, because you can’t get any money with which to work towards your dreams. While some people might have very broad or vague dreams which they will bend or claim flexibility on (that’s me), there are people who do have very specific plans or dreams for the future. The result is the biggest depression-inducing shock of their life as I have witnessed in many a friend.

C. Your self-worth

Oftentimes, post-graduation quickly devolves into a very routine existence of wake up, eat, sleep. This routine, coupled with things such as family pressure, an overabundance of time and having your dreams crushed can make a person feel extremely useless or worse, think themselves as a burden on those around them. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lock yourself into a cyclic trap of depression.

Finally, if you thought university was full of incompetence or disorganization and how you’ll be leaving all of that behind, don’t hold your breath going into the ‘real’ world. It is the exact same. You have those who have it figured out, and those who don’t. Even the biggest of companies harbour complete messes within their walls.

As you can see, without the right mindset or support, graduation is an abrupt, sudden shock in the life of a student. This is why I pretty much tell all of my still-students friends to not rush towards graduation. The suckerpunch will come – no need to ask for it in advance.

Is university the best time of your life? I would say no, not in the Middle East. Rather, university is more akin to ‘Life-Lite™’. You get a nice little sandbox to play in, discover how society functions and understand yourself and your peers better. It fills in most of your time with things to do and manage. In essence, university manages your life for you while you learn the ropes of society.

What it doesn’t teach you is how to manage your life completely on your own. It also doesn’t teach you crucial skills such as navigating workplace politics or how things really do happen in the real world. You’ll have to learn those on your own time, my fellow graduate or graduate-to-be.

That brings us to the grand question: are you kind of screwed coming out of university? Was it all a waste?

Well no.

University probably helped refine and temper you as a person, simply think back from when you first entered and where you are today: I’m sure you’ll find a lot to be proud of or at the very least, some things you may not be so-proud of but can rest easily that you have experienced or tried them.

So what can you do? Well, I would say that you should stay hopeful, continue to pursue your dreams and interests and not give up so easily. Surround yourself with good advice and supportive allies. Cultivate a hobby or two. Set up gatherings. Stay in touch with people. Use your newfound time to learn something, do something or join something. Create activity in your day-to-day life. If you don’t do it now, you’ll do it later: most people with jobs or marriages almost always get horribly bored a year or two into their job or marriage without any of the aforementioned in their life.

Remember, a job, marriage and kids are not the only valid moves to play in life. The trick is to find out what you can and want to play.

You can almost say that’s the beauty of life.

So go ahead. Try living.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 3

This is third installment of our education series. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I’m featuring the voice of Ali here, while my own is over at his blog. Enjoy!

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The Drop

By 2011, the administration in my university was more or less nuked as a direct result of the ‘Arab Spring’. After some two months or so of university being put on pause, classes started up again, but this time around almost everything that was fun in university was removed.

A good deal of tutors had packed up and left while others started packing up. Moreover, the summer scholarship abroad became history remembered by few and building 24 was put down: it got stripped of everything it contained and turned into a boring empty space. Classes also started becoming more vague and aimless.

But more importantly, it was time for me to pick a major in business. I had a choice between banking and finance, accounting, management or marketing. Against every bit of my parents’ wishes (or my dad’s more specifically), I picked management because I was informed that it would have tones of psychology in it and that was that; not that I regret my decision whatsoever. It turned out to be the jack-of-all-trade’s degree: the perfect companion to a person with far too broad of an attention span and a finger in every pie, so to speak; something I found out later in life.

Sadly, having to choose a major also caused a split in my group of my friends as each went on his or her own way and we couldn’t meet up as frequently as before thanks to scheduling differences. Over the coming years, the split got bigger until I was spending most of my time with one or two people at the most, assuming I wasn’t alone to begin with.

Overall, the quality of education continued to drop sharply over time. It also didn’t help that I was the guinea pig of my university due to my status as a student of ‘the first batch’. The only thing that kept me sane was my relationships with my tutors as mentors and friends in addition to my student friends. Other than that I was mostly zoned out in class, with only half a grip on what’s going on. Luckily, I didn’t miss out on much so my grades weren’t affected.

By the time my graduation project rolled around, I was completely burnt out in regards to university. I completely stopped caring at this point. I just wanted it all to be done with, to hell with grades. I want to go and experience the real world. The real-real world that is; my graduation project was to work for a company on a ‘real’ project, but it was so disorganized and chaotic, I was convinced that this cannot be the way companies operate in the real world.

On the bright side however, my character and personality was vastly improved after 2012 thanks to a refreshing summer exchange program and a more balanced view on life. I realized a year later that not only had I matured a great deal throughout my university years, but I also built up an almost inhuman resistance to whatever adversity that came through my way thanks to all the downers I encountered until then. Losing some 25 kilograms did wonders to my self-confidence as well, now that I was ‘in shape’.

Come June 2013, I had submitted my final project report and completed all things university. For all practical intents and purposes, I had graduated, minus the actual certificate and a fancy party. It was time to roll out.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 2

Alright, here’s part deux of The Graduation Gauntlet, a look at university education in the MENA,through the eyes of Ali. For my perspective, you can check it out on his blog here.

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The Carefree Years

By the time year 2 and 3 rolled around, I had settled into a bit of a comfortable rhythm at university: I had found a core group of friends with which to hang with 24/7 and could identify with to some extent as ‘my people’. A typical day would consist of going to class, meeting with my group, enduring class and then going out with the group, usually visiting the recreational area or carpooling outside of university and over to a restaurant or something.

I had also started to build a relationship with most of my tutors through after-class chit-chats, usually about completely irrelevant topics in comparison to class. Most of my classes weren’t very interesting in and out of themselves, but the class conversations and tutor personalities often made up for that. The interesting classes were my elective ones, such as music composition, music around the world and general law. Other fun ones included theater and journalism, but alas, one could only take one or two electives at any given time.

It was also at this time that university really was a lot of fun. I had great tutors, a good group of friends and easy access to entertainment. As an example, the recreational building in my university (henceforth dubbed building 24) was a nice place to be during year 1 and 2 of university. It contained generous amounts of sofas, satellite TV as well as a TV connected with a Playstation 3. Students would either ‘rent’ one of the available games or bring their own games and set up a ‘king of the hill’ style getup where the winner gets to continue playing as challengers rotate. I had sunk many hours into Street Fighter 4, Soul Calibur 4 and Mortal Kombat 9 in that building.

If you weren’t the video-gaming type, building 24 still had other fun for you: miniature football, table tennis, billiards and for some strange reason, a leg-press machine in the middle of the building which later paved the way for a full gym. The building itself quickly gained status as the place to be in-between classes. It got so popular, some students would come before classes just to get a couple of games in the morning.

But of course, there had to be someone to ruin it for everyone else. During year 1 and 2, there was no such thing as an attendance policy in my university. You were expected to be an adult and attend your classes or skip them if you felt you didn’t need them. I think it was a good system that should’ve lasted. But who am I kidding? Of course it was abused.

Students would skip their classes and spend their entire day in building 24, then complain and moan once they get an assignment and realize that they can’t do any parts of it. It got worse when some students got the bright idea of coming in first thing in the morning simply to hide behind sofas and make out.

A year after, the free attendance policy was revoked and turned into a ‘20% absence and you’re out’ policy. More amusingly however, students were actually given a chance to prevent this from happening: an open ‘forum’ was set up for a whole day where any student could come and argue in favor of keeping the free attendance policy. Unfortunately, most visitors did not present a reasonable viewpoint as much as they merely went to grumble and complain about the coming change.

Like all good things, building 24 didn’t last for long either. By year 2 it had gained a reputation as either ‘Africa’ due to its overpopulation and dirtiness or as a ‘seedy underbelly of immorality’, depending on who you asked. Either way, it would soon become a place that no ‘self-respecting student’ would enter or spend time at. Boo.

Things were still pretty good otherwise. However, I remained a cynical bastard; I figured that next year would probably get worse and lucky for me, turns out I wasn’t so wrong. Not that remaining cynical did any good to my popularity or character, of course.

The Graduation Gauntlet

I wanted to do something a little different this time. A friend of mine (the awesome Ali) suggested we could to a collaboration piece. Instead of the typical rant on politics, society, or the other headline-making problems that plague our part of the world, we decided to focus on something that never seems to get much attention; education. Specifically, university education, and our own personal experiences.

To mix things up a little, this is Ali’s point of view, and you can catch mine over on his blog here. We divided up our work into four parts, each focusing on a different part of the journey. We’ll upload each part once a day.

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Year 1| The Reset

I think I am on the complete opposite side of Nada on university. Fresh out of a school of ‘hard knocks’ so to speak, I was completely nonchalant about the idea of enrolling into university. I knew it was supposed to be a big decision that sets in motion the direction of your coming years, but I had trouble imagining that for two reasons.

The first is that I’ve always been the one kid who never knew what they wanted to be. When other kids were busy enthusiastically saying ‘I want to be an astronaut!’, I was the child who would look at you in total, genuine confusion.

The second is that I was both glad to be out of school and yet fully convinced that university would be a lot like school while simultaneously hoping that it isn’t, if that makes any sense. Moreover, I had actually entered university with a completely broken spirit.

School consisted of three terrible years of survivalism so to speak. It was full of bullying, freeloading and delinquency, starting with exchanging insults and vulgarities in the morning all the way to sabotaging the teacher or classroom in some way as to cancel class. In a class full of people who would (and did) take a piss in the class’ cupboard, I felt like the only sane person. In retrospect, this sounds very melodramatic, but I honestly cannot describe it any other way.

But I digress, that was just one half of why I had a broken spirit. The other half was being limited by my choice of university: I could have gone to a university with many fields and disciplines, but incredibly terrible teaching and student life versus going to a university that has just opened its doors. It told tales of a student-teacher relationship based on respect and a vibrant, active student life. It didn’t take long for me to take a chance by going with the new one, but it came at the cost of only having four fields to select from: business, ICT, engineering or logistics. None of which I was particularly interested in.

Combine having no idea of what to pursue with that of a broken spirit and you get complete nonchalance about entering university. Furthermore, my school experience had turned me into a shut-in cynic so I couldn’t hold the skepticism about university being different. The only difference I had a guarantee on is that university would 100% contain the alien species known as ‘girls’.

I chose business as my field based on a very pragmatic line of thinking: business is the broadest field. I might be able to decide on a path within it once it’s time to select a major. Furthermore, it’s the most likely to get me employed. Employment equals money and money means I can pursue my hobbies and interests once they are de-mystified!

Yep, that was pretty much it.

Thus started my university journey. While I was by all accounts and means, an incredibly bright student, I also had the manners, emotional intelligence and social skills of a neanderthal. School had conditioned me to be defensive, introverted and extremely bitter and blunt. I had all the grace of a slug.

I was fond of provoking or opposing authority figures and I was absolutely incapable of getting along with most people because of how much I voiced disagreement or ‘called’ their ‘stupidity’ in my opinion. The next two years of university would prove to be a very intense crash course in learning how to deal with people. I’m still amazed to this day how my tutors actually put up with me, nay, they even engaged with me. If I was teaching myself, I would either ignore or kick myself out of class for being an asinine little shit – but I guess they saw there was something beyond that crusty, hard exterior.

Oh the drama.

University was otherwise a strange hybrid of great times and bad times. Bad times would be the boring classes I had to endure and generally stumbling about this ‘socializing’ thing. Great times however, were finding out that university is different.

For the first time in my life, I was actually treated with respect by my tutors who also would level with you personally. Student life had multiple activities and fun events, my tutors were from all over the world and being a student at university felt like a privilege or perk due to how much help was available to me during the initial two years. There was even a summer scholarship to go abroad with no requirements save for proving you have decent English!

That one was a funny one however: I got rejected because I have too high a level of English and the scholarship’s purpose was to learn English. Ouch.

Still, times were looking up and I eased up over the two years, yet I remained a cynical bastard nonetheless. One that complained too often and too vocally for his own good.

 

When Architecture Suffers From Identity Crisis

“You used to live abroad, didn’t you?” I had become used to my professors eventually asking this question, and despite four years in the department, the same inquiry still pops up.

“Yes, I did. Did my accent give it away?” I grinned sheepishly. I still get uncomfortable when people bring it up, and the faint lilt in my Libyan accent always gives me away.

“A little, yes. But I noticed it in your designs.” I was slightly taken aback. I knew that my designs were a little different, but not that they reflected anything about my personal life.

“Haha, yeah, I guess I was really influenced by my childhood.” I felt myself entering dangerous territory. I didn’t want to be accused of lifting designs from the internet, what the students call their source of ‘inspiration’.

“Yes, it’s apparent. You try very hard to make them Middle Eastern, but it looks like an outsider’s interpretation. I admire your effort to return to your roots, though.”

The project that we had this conversation over was a landscaping task for a small house. I had initially begun with the aim of giving it a Spanish Colonial Revival feel, because I found that style comfortably familiar. Mediterranean-meets-Middle East, if you will. Spain’s architecture reflects it’s mesh of East and West very organically.

This might explain why I was attracted to it, but the resulting design was neither Spanish Colonial or Middle Eastern.

32You’d be hard pressed to find a house that looks like this in the Middle East. This screams middle class white neighbourhood, but the architecture of the house and the privacy afforded by the clustered trees hint of something else.

That ‘something else’ was my attempt to design something that was both climatically and culturally Libyan, while staying in my comfort zone. When I look at it, I don’t feel that it’s ugly or repellent. But there is something off, not quite right.

The other students reveled in the options afforded them by Middle East design, with tiles being the dominant ground cover, palm trees and water features in every nook and cranny, and a sterile white colour palette.

The next project was a small park in the middle of a busy district in Benghazi, and at that point I abandoned all pretense of designing something Middle Eastern. I read up on the urban landscaping revival in the West and the standards they had set.

Middle Eastern cities are the anti-thesis  to Western cities. The former focuses on privacy, the latter revels in public space. Arabs try to shield themselves from their weather while Westerners invite it into their homes.

So a Western design in an Arab city is perhaps an invitation to folly, but I had had enough of faking different styles and attempting to do something I was uncomfortable with.

Prefinal poster copy

I was much more satisfied with this design than the previous one, and interestingly enough, my professors also responded more positively than before. I guess all those adages about being ‘true to yourself’ are more than just sappy self-help quotes.

For my neighbourhood design (urban planning course), I decided to attempt a balance, by utilizing my (Western) style, but adding the primary concepts of MENA design with a twist, to make it fit together.

Final2 copyFor the airport design, there was very little room to add a distinct style, as successful airports are dictated by their functionality and economic standards. Overall, I’m really satisfied with the development of my work this semester, though I could still improve my time management when it comes to deadlines.

Like writing, I have found that designing helps me articulate my personality, and understand myself better. I need to avoid the pitfall of trying to mash contradicting principles which result in a design that gives the impression of cognitive dissonance. Architecture is problem solving among other things, and a non-orthodox approach does not condemn the proposed solution to failure.

Whether you’re influenced by the East, West, or another direction entirely, it’s important to be sincere with yourself and with your client. No matter how much you try to dress up or photoshop your design, nothing can truly disguise dishonest architecture.

A good example of this is in Dubai. The skyscrapers and impossible innovation are interesting if you observe them in a vacuum. But for these things to be in the middle of an Arab city, in our climate and culture, reeks of inconsistency. The struggle to bring the region up to modern city standards is admirable, but importing foreign designs and ignoring the surroundings never bodes well.

Perception of Women and Women’s Rights in the Middle East

I was rooting through some old documents the other day and found an essay I wrote for my civil society class at Georgetown University. I remember spending a few days at the library with Starry Gee researching the issue, and even as an Arab woman living in the region, there were a lot of new revelations, not just about how others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s an interesting read. 

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American exposure to the Middle East increased exponentially after 9/11. There was a desire to learn about the other side. Perhaps because this exposure came with a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, the perception leaned more negatively. Many saw the region as fostering primitive beliefs and backwards traditions, especially concerning women. One of the main problems was the inability of some to distinguish between the Islamic religion and Arab traditions, and the lack of knowledge of other religions and beliefs in the region.

Generally in the West, the idea of ‘male protection’ or the headscarf is viewed as signs of inequality, and the idea that women would embrace these ideals considered ludicrous. But, what is considered oppressive by some is not viewed the same by others, as is the case here. Cultural relativism plays a large role. The problem is that each side believes the other to be culturally conditioned.

In the book, “Women in Islam: The Western Experience”, the author makes mention to the in-group/out-group perception, where one observes the ‘practice’ of other groups but the ‘ideology’ within their own.

Clearly the missing aspect here is communication, or rather, the lack thereof. This can be seen from the introduction of universal women’s rights in the region. According to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’ –

“The modern language of human rights is confrontational and insensitive to traditional resources…” (pg. 145)

What is perceived as westernization by the region is rejected and the people revert deeper into the old traditions. This furthers the impression of intolerance. The media also plays a momentous role in this issue. Again from ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’

“As soon as women in those societies appear covered in their headscarves…our cries of human rights violations becomes part of media and academic sensationalism.” (pg. 145)

However, Muslims families in America give an altogether different perspective. They tend to integrate themselves to American culture without losing their own, and this is helping to change perceptions and dismantle misconceptions.

With the advances of technology and communications, these gaps between cultures and regions is closing day by day, as people from each group begin to grasp the differences, but also the similarities, of West and East. This understanding will pave the way, hopefully, towards peace.

References:

1)      Women in Islam: The Western Experience. Anne Sofie Roald. Routledge. 2001

2)      Muslims in the United States. Ilyas Ba-Yunus & Kassim Kone. Greenwood Press. 2006

3)      Islam and The Challenge of Human Rights. AbdulAziz Sachedina. Oxford University Press. 2009