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Dr. Lina Abirafeh Speaks on Arab Women and Empowerment with The Zay Initiative

Written by: Nikoleta Morales

Dr. Lina Abirafeh, Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, spoke with Dr. Reem El Mutwalli of The Zay Initiative about breaking women stereotypes in the Arab world and empowering women. Dr. Abirafeh is one of the Top 100 most influential people in global policy and one of only two Arabs to make this list.

She is a strong feminist who is promoting education and research to advance social change in order to improve life in the region. She has 20 years of experience with specifics in gender based violence. She holds frequent dialogues on gender based violence and what is holding Arab women back from equality.

Dr Abirafeh's full interview can be heard on Soundcloud here.

“We are looking at how we can impact social and policy change around the region,” said Dr. Abirafeh whose organization is 47 years old.

She works mostly with young people because it is “important to remember how critical the fight is.” She said some of the rights people think are simple, such as the rights to wear a fashion of choice, have an ID and license, as well as to travel without permission, are rights that have been fought hard to get for many generations. She said that the feminist movement has always existed in every country.

“We are still fighting, generation after generation for things that should be granted to us,” said Dr. Abirafeh. “All choices you make have implications, how you study, work, raise children and deal with other women. All are political choices. Even the rights we think we have are being peeled away like an onion, and we need to be vigilant. It is exhausting.”

One of the issues that she fights for is a women’s right to their own bodies. She fights for reproductive choices, abortion, and violence against women, among others. “Your body becomes a public discussion, a political playground. How is it that men are deciding what I am supposed to do with my body?” she questioned during the discussion.

“When you talk about women’s rights and freedom in Palestine, people will say this is not the time for you, that it is time for national struggle. There is no peace, sustainable development if half of the population is left out of it. Women need to be part of the table and make decisions. Women are critical to peace. How can you discuss peace if you don't have it?” she added.

Dr. Abirafeh is also fighting for women to be able to freely choose. She said it is at the core of the feminist movement. In regards to the women's rights in Lebanon, some have been won, some are incomplete, some still remain, and some are still being fought for. “Don't wait because you think you won’t be affected, you will be affected,” she emphasized.

Another important matter she expounded upon is the problem that marital rape is still not in the Lebanese domestic legislation. “Violence against women is a matter of security, women deserve to be protected. Women are being killed by the hands of partner’s. “The social fabric of a family is built on a man's sexual rights to his wife regardless of the woman’s consent. The irony is if raped outside of marriage, laws are there to protect you. But within marriage, it is your duty as a wife. Young women need to understand that when you marry, you sign over your right to your body.”

Another point she spoke about is the choice to be feminine, even as a feminist. The idea that you choose your own type of beautiful, for example, “I have had short hair for 25 years. When I moved to Lebanon in 2015 I couldn't find a hairdresser who would continue to maintain my short hair. It was painful for them to do this,” she said. She finally found a barber who agreed to do that and she was able to express her own choice of what she found beautiful about herself.

“It is a simple choice of your own personal aesthetics,” she said. “Women have to rely on physical features a lot. Even in developed countries. Women who are slimmer, better attractive and better dressed are more likely to get a job or get married. It is an unconscious bias. Women feel a lot of pressure. The need to conform based on media, society and family and other women.”

“As a young woman you don't see the diversity and that's what we are missing,” she added. She gave an example of working with the Miss Lebanon beauty pageant where she educated the contestants on important women issues. “We had conversations about women's rights, role models, beauty standards, and the fact that your body has become an accordion for you to play with. Some of them were really shocked. You are free to participate in pageant and celebrate beauty, but it is a genetic lottery.”

She also gave an example of the Miss Peru beauty pageant in 2017 when a few of the female contestants spoke about important issues on stage, disrupting the competition, instead of talking about their body measurements. “Use your voice to the advantage of women. Say the right things and do the right things. It's ok to be beautiful but not at the expense of everything else,” she said.

When asked about Coronavirus and women empowerment, Dr. Abirafeh said that the personal and professional lives have been intertwined. “There is an increase of domestic violence. Women are stranded with abusive partners and there is no way to help these women. They say stay home and stay safe, but home is not safe for all women. We are starved for human contact and that leads to danger to people who exploit those situations.”

In regards to why men fear an empowered woman, she said: “Men's view of their power and sense of entitlement is how they are raised, leading to a belief and perception of superiority.” She said if we want to make a change it should start with the parents and what example they leave to their children.

For more on The Arab Institute for Women (AiW) at the Lebanese American University, based in New York and Lebanon, visit

Follow Dr Lina AbiRafeh on Twitter : @LinaAbiRafeh


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