In Libya, Islam – and a purple hijab – help spurn domestic violence against women

In newly liberated Libya, our women's rights group tried to address domestic violence by using proven international ways to raise awareness. But people threw away our fliers. Then we started Purple Hijab Day to spread the word that Islam condemns such violence. We're seeing results.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters/file
Women wave Libyan flags in Tripoli at a commemoration of the second anniversary of the Feb. 17, 2011 revolution. Op-ed contributor Alaa Murabit writes: 'The idea that an issue as sensitive as domestic violence could be broached through a simple purple hijab [head scarf] surprises many. But now, a greater awareness of Islam’s condemnation of violence allows families to better discuss domestic violence.'

Domestic violence against women and girls is not unsolvable. Here in Libya, where young women are finally beginning to speak up about this serious problem, we’re learning how Islam – and a purple head scarf, or hijab – can help address it.

Violence against women is not new around the world, including in Libya. But since the country’s liberation in October 2011, such violence – both in and outside homes – has been exacerbated by a lack of law and order. As the new government works to improve security, civil society must make sure that Libyans and their families are well aware how a lack of accountability for this violence harms families and communities.

In September 2011, I founded The Voice of Libyan Women, an advocacy group to help women take an active role in the economy, politics, and society. Our organization, like many others, represents the struggles of citizens in securing their rights in a newly democratic nation.

We first tried to address violence against women by proven international models. We needed to raise awareness, and so we handed out eye-catching informational fliers. Yet schools would not open their doors and shopkeepers would not allow us to leave our leaflets. Even the young men and women we targeted would immediately throw away the materials. Our team was at a loss.

But we did not give up. Instead, we chose a new grass-roots awareness campaign that focused on Islam’s teachings against violence, including against women. The result was the February 2012 debut of International Purple Hijab Day in Libya. An annual event, it is first and foremost a reminder of Islam’s strict stance against domestic violence.

Libya, a Sunni Muslim country, is relatively conservative, both in its religious and social practices. When Libya drafts a new constitution, it is expected to be strongly influenced by sharia, or religious law. For most Libyans, Islam was the best hope under a dictatorial regime, and it remains their moral compass.

Mistakenly, many also believe myths about Islam condoning violence against women. In a country closed off from much of the world for decades, foreign and especially Western influence is viewed with strong suspicion. As our group learned early on, concern about domestic violence is viewed as “Western” – already difficult to discuss because such issues are considered private, familial ones.

We’re slowly turning this resistance around with our Purple Hijab Day. This year, 13,000 Libyans united to support action against domestic violence. Teachers, scholars, doctors, and imams in more than 25 schools and 17 Libyan cities spent a week conducting seminars and distributing surveys.

Purple has no real significance in Islam. It is not the pitch black of despair, and it has universal meaning as a color of hopeful grief. Here it expresses hope for a solution that simply needs to be discovered. The idea that an issue as sensitive as domestic violence could be broached through a simple purple hijab surprises many. But now, a greater awareness of Islam’s condemnation of violence allows families to better discuss domestic violence, and to work together toward a safer community.

Through the protection that Islam affords women, we successfully broached an issue as never before. It was only because of discussions, seminars, and surveys that we learned that the misinterpretation and miseducation of religion serve as the leading excuse for domestic abuse.

Unlike our previous campaigns that asked about scientific reasons for abuse or emphasized a health-based approach to this problem, Purple Hijab Day directly contests a Muslim’s falsely perceived right to abuse a wife, daughter, mother, or sister. Our brochure explains Islam’s true teachings about violence. It features a statement by Aisha (God be pleased with her), who is the wife of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “The prophet never hit a woman.” The brochure also includes relevant statistics, myths about violence, and how to prevent it.

The Voice of Libyan Women is working to make sure Libyan cities will soon be awash with fliers, seminars, billboards, and radio shows on domestic violence and how it violates Islam. Imams nationwide plan to dedicate the Friday prayer address to the importance of respect in Islam and how abuse cannot be tolerated.

We’re planning sessions with girls and boys to educate the coming generation. Teachers will learn how to abstain from corporal punishment, and school social workers will undergo training to recognize violence-caused stress in children and other signs of risk of familial violence.

It is a long road to sustainable change – including laws protecting victims of domestic violence. We can travel this road if we take the time to better understand what drives this issue and to reeducate Muslim society on the rights that Islam graciously gives women.

Alaa Murabit is founder and president of The Voice of Libyan Women.

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