BEIRUT: Lebanese-Palestinian gender rights activist Lina Abirafeh’s name features alongside the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai on the a new list of the world’s 100 most influential people in gender policy in 2018. Initiated by Apolitical, a platform that connects public servants worldwide, the list honoring women and men working toward a more equitable society was published on May 23 and referenced by the United Nations, the World Bank and other major global institutions.
For Abirafeh, who sees gender-based violence as the “biggest crime against humanity one could ever imagine,” the nomination is a call to action for Lebanon and the region.
“The congratulatory emails are great, but I would also love for some of [people’s] enthusiasm to be channeled into something concrete,” Abirafeh, who since 2015 has led the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, told The Daily Star from its offices in Beirut.
IWSAW was established in 1973 by the Lebanese American University as the first institute in the Arab world to work at the intersection of academia and activism to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality.
At present, Abirafeh heads a team of five people with an ambitious mandate to cover all 22 Arab states.
Among the projects in the pipeline is the expansion of one of the institute’s signature programs, Qudwa – “role model” in Arabic – which was pioneered in Lebanon over 30 years ago as an informal education package providing life skills to vulnerable women at the community level.
Over 200 topics of conversation, from women’s political engagement to reproductive rights, were crafted in Arabic by the institution to enable discussion on critical issues.
Taking this model to the other 21 Arabic-speaking countries – be it as an online module, app or paper manual – requires a wider network of collaborators that IWSAW hopes to achieve thanks to the steam gathered from the nomination.
“We need to scale quickly in order to keep up with the demand,” Abirafeh said.
Over the years, a debate on gender equality has progressively emerged in the Middle East, but is still one mired by “a culture of shame where women are ostracized and blamed for their behavior.”
“When I started volunteering as a teenager, I was one of those outside of the norm who fixated on this issue at a weirdly young age,” IWSAW’s director recounted.
“Nobody believed that this was actually a career.
“People thought this was a warm fuzzy feeling that I could keep on the side while I had a job.”
Twenty years on, after a PHD from the London School of Economics, a book on gender and international aid in Afghanistan, and a TEDx talk on the challenges of working on gender-based violence in emergency contexts, Abirafeh sees social movements that focus on gender rights are gaining traction – albeit slowly.
“We [in the region] are just learning how to do this and learning a little bit late,” she said. Among the 100 nominees listed by Apolitical, Abirafeh was one of only two influencers of Middle Eastern origin.
According to a World Bank study released Thursday that measures the economic cost of gender inequality in lost human capital, women face barriers to fully participate in the workforce and to earn as much as men in nearly every country today.
Overall, women account for only 38 percent of their country’s human capital wealth, defined as the value of future earnings of their adult citizens.
In low income and lower-middle income countries, women account for just a third or less of human capital wealth. Globally, countries are losing $160 trillion in wealth because of differences in lifetime earnings between women and men, amounting to an average of $23,620 for each person in the 141 countries studied.
The global Women, Peace and Security Index last year ranked Lebanon an astonishing 143rd out of 150 surveyed countries for inclusion, justice and security.
“Lebanon has a very interesting identity crisis,” Abirafeh said. “The masses consider it to be quite liberal and make comparisons to other countries in order to justify that.
“But I don’t think that’s effective. I think that’s just a reason for inaction and complacency.”
In the latest parliamentary elections, expectations for greater female political participation were frustrated, with women bagging only 4.7 percent of the seats.
At the same time, the global #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment gave birth to a few grassroots movements, but failed to gain wider traction in the region.
This, Abirafeh explains, stems from the absence of foundational reforms that have enabled the movement to flourish elsewhere.
“[In the U.S.] there is less tolerance for those kinds of [abusive] behaviors, and a stronger sense of the rule of law.
“We are not there yet. If there is no benefit to you raising your voice and doing it in a public forum, why would you do it? The costs outweigh the benefits,” she said. IWSAW’s work in Lebanon and in the region aims to build this conducive environment by focusing on political, social and educational reforms.
“This is not a day job. It’s a lifetime commitment, it’s a calling,” Abirafeh said, speaking of her team’s work.
While working up to this goal is her profession, everyone can play their part, she said. “I think individuals need to start where they stand. I want to challenge people to look at their role of bystander as something where they can take the initiative.”