Noura’s Stark, Feminist, and Humanitarian Voice: Resonating from Libya to Turkey

Noura’s Stark, Feminist, and Humanitarian Voice: Resonating from Libya to Turkey

9 min read

Born in Derna, to two Libyan parents, an oil engineer in an exploration company and a social studies teacher, Noura was the middle-child in a family of seven, with two older siblings and two younger ones. Due to the nature of her father’s work, the family lived in an oil company compound along the desert coast among other Libyan as well as foreign employees and their families. In other words, they were isolated from their extended family and the city as a whole.

Living in a compound – in a closed, “isolated yet open” environment – allowed Noura and her peers to experience a form of life less prevalent in a country that was not considered as tolerant as the community they were living in. She had the chance to meet people from different Libyan regions as well as foreigners, which presented her with the opportunity to learn more about diverse cultures and ideas.

For this reason, Noura – given the chance to go back in time – would choose to live in the same place even though it deprived her of the excitement of life in the big city and socialization with her extended family, including her aunts and uncles. She recalls that she was able “to learn more about the different backgrounds and cultures present in the Libyan community. The more [I] was isolated from my extended family, the more I felt I had an alternatively unique family within this community”.

The young girl was enrolled in a mixed school within the compound itself, another exceptional case in conservative Libya. Her presence there gave her and her school-mates the chance to understand how to deal with a naturally-diverse society without any obstacles, exaggerated barriers, or pre-conceived ideas that have nothing to do with reality. “Socializing with colleagues and friends from both sexes, first in school and then in university, was something quite normal for both my parents and me. It was the norm”.

The young girl was enrolled in a mixed school within the compound itself, another exceptional case in conservative Libya. Her presence there gave her and her school-mates the chance to understand how to deal with a naturally-diverse society without any obstacles, exaggerated barriers, or pre-conceived ideas that have nothing to do with reality. “Socializing with colleagues and friends from both sexes, first in school and then in university, was something quite normal for both my parents and me. It was the norm”.

“My school years were one of the most beautiful phases of my life”. Growing up in an accepting society, Noura felt unrestricted as she benefited from an atmosphere free from all conditions and ideologies of regular Libyan schools. She also had diverse colleagues and a life of learning and fun. Her circumstances pushed her to become an A-student, which, in her opinion, would not have been possible had she been enrolled in another normal school.

Today, after nearly 20 years post-graduation, Noura relives some of her memories to prove that this unique experience positively affected her life. Every time she faces an attack, a smear campaign, or criticism because of her human rights stances, her school-day friends are the first to support her, even if they haven’t had the chance to meet for years. “The years we spent together were enough for us to know each other well. They lend me their support because they know the real me”.

During highschool, a new decision was put into effect – dividing secondary school classes into specialized subjects such as general sciences, life sciences, social studies, etc… They young girl preferred to go into general sciences, while her mother thought it would be better for her to study dentistry – like her friends’ daughters. She considered that a purely scientific specialization is almost exclusive for males and was an unsuitable option for girls. Therefore, taking advantage of her academic excellence, she decided that Noura should pursue studies in the medical field and removed her from her original specialization. This change led her to the distant University of Sirte, but with some intervention from high-level acquaintances, she moved back to the Faculty of Dentistry in Benghazi, the nearest to her family’s apartment.

She lived there with her brother, a Master’s student at the same university; however, she was unhappy with her specialization, which was not her first choice. She felt that the place was much bigger, and that she had no friends… The “gang” was dispersed.

Her parents traveled to the United Kingdom so that her father could attend a training course there. Therefore, Noura took the opportunity to search for a university to study Interior Design abroad. She asked her family to arrange for a visitor’s visa without informing them of the reason. She simultaneously withdrew her file from the University of Benghazi before graduation, leading the dean of the college to believe that she had lost her mind.

She then traveled to the UK, facing her parents with her decision six months before their return to Libya. Her mother refused the idea, while her father worked to reach a mutual “agreement” with her, which stipulated that she could continue her studies abroad, on one condition: to return to Libya after graduating.

Pursuing her studies in Interior Design, Noura lived in Manchester for three years. However, she did not feel in sync with the social environment there and was unable to make any local friends. In addition, the “dreary” weather contributed to her quick return to Libya after graduation. “I considered them to be the most difficult three years of my life up until then”.

She went back home in 2009 as a proud interior designer, only to discover – to her utter dismay – that her degree meant nothing, as there was no real job market for those with degrees and experiences similar to the ones Noura had spent three years abroad to obtain. It was then that she concluded that young men and women, between the ages of 20 and 25, should not decide on their definite course of study before they spend some time working and gaining experience. At that moment, the main question was: “Should I follow my passion or should I focus on the demands of the local job market? Will I be able to find a compromise that joins them both?”

She kept her degree aside and used her advanced level in English to work as an English teacher at a language institute in Benghazi. After some time, she luckily fell in love with her new job: she had the chance to interact with people, create a new mini-community, and most importantly, passionately pass her ideas to teenage students – both males and females.

Her ideas were influenced by her different upbringing in the distinguished compound, her travels to Britain, and the unique family atmosphere that embraced her. She shared liberating ideas that were uncommon within the Libyan society, which is largely characterized by conservatism and intolerance in the face of diversity. In her opinion, a significant portion of Libyans limit their experiences abroad to mall visits, shopping, and other similar activities. What Noura wanted to show her students is the other side of going out, traveling, and socializing – and that is: richness, openness, and thinking outside the box.

During that time, she married a young man that she was introduced to through common relatives and through her work at the institute. She admired him for his different ideas regarding Libyan society, and found out that they had a lot in common. However, their separation after 4 years of marriage was sudden, unconventional, and unexpected. This trapped Noura into a state of shock that took her a while to get out of.

A year after their separation, the young woman began to come out of the shock and gradually understood what had happened. Through this negative experience, she realized how deficient personal status laws were in Libya, and how a similar experience of divorce could have a severe negative impact on a woman’s life – both on the individual and communal levels.

Through a social media platform specialized in women’s rights and issues, Noura sought to raise awareness on the issue. The idea of her project was to document her life, over a period of three days, through Snapchat. In other words, she used the application as a diary, where she talked about several issues including her divorce, other related experiences, unjust laws, and all what she had to endure: how she spends her day, how she helps herself, how she forces herself to live life to the fullest, and how she participates in different activities to regain herself before anyone or anything else.

Reactions to her three-day campaign were shocking and unexpected, as it was unusual for women to share such private details related to divorce in Libya.

Reactions to her three-day campaign were shocking and unexpected, as it was unusual for women to share such private details related to divorce in Libya.

Following that, Noura became the focus of different organizations and influencers. She also gained the trust of women who passed through similar painful experiences; therefore, she began to open up more and shifted her energy to other similar activities. She felt strengthened by women who saw themselves in the stories she shared on Snapchat. Her parents, as expected, were very supportive as well.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “violence against women and girls – especially domestic violence – remains a huge problem in Libya. Prior to the revolution, laws rarely addressed this problem, and when they did, they addressed it in discriminatory ways”. The report also states that “Libyan lawmakers should now seek to eliminate violence against women through constitutional and legislative reforms, as it has become a prevalent form of discrimination there”.

After a while, Noura moved to Istanbul for a new adventure and put her previous experience to use through working as a social media editor in a private Libyan TV station and through participating in a human-interest TV programme, which constituted, as described by her, as “a turning point in my life”. Noura was known to be very daring, and she never remained silent in the face of topics related to violence against women, stereotypes, sexual matters, harassment, and marital rape… These issues angered members of the Libyan society, to the point where a fellow presenter told her on live TV that “she deserves to be beaten if she complains about domestic violence!”. However, she says “the support I received from people was greater and way more important to me than resentment”.

Noura was known to be very daring, and she never remained silent in the face of topics related to violence against women, stereotypes, sexual matters, harassment, and marital rape… These issues angered members of the Libyan society, to the point where a fellow presenter told her on live TV that “she deserves to be beaten if she complains about domestic violence!”. However, she says “the support I received from people was greater and way more important to me than resentment”.

The HRW report also mentioned the existence of “so-called Libyan social rehabilitation centers, where victims of domestic violence are held”. Both women and girls reported that the situation there was closer to detention than voluntary protection. “The government then justified the use of these “centers” as a measure to “protect” women and girls suspected of engaging in “illegal” sex work and who were rejected by their families. In reality, women and girls can’t actually get out of these prisons even though many of them have committed no crime while others had already served their required time. Some even entered those centers for no other reason than being raped and then cast out because they “disgraced their family’s honour”.

Noura left the network to work in the “Taharri” platform to counter-act fake news, especially those related to the political process in Libya.

Human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular in Libya, are a top priority for Noura. She defines herself today as a Humanitarian Minimalist. She also realizes that she is labeled as an “atheist” by some organizations in Libya, which could be fatal, especially with the rise of influence of extremist Islamic groups there. She also considers herself a refugee, even if she does not fully conform with the official legal definition. She cannot return to her homeland to reside there or simply to visit her family. The risk of death because of her views and activities is both present and realistic.

She defines herself today as a Humanitarian Minimalist. She also realizes that she is labeled as an “atheist” by some organizations in Libya, which could be fatal, especially with the rise of influence of extremist Islamic groups there. She cannot return to her homeland to reside there or simply to visit her family. The risk of death because of her views and activities is both present and realistic.

In fact, Noura wants to return to Libya. She wants to work towards “preserving the rights of all components of the Libyan society, their right to exist in dignity, and their right to be diverse. She wants to preserve the rights of everyone – with no exception”.