Young women are redefining activism across the world – we interviewed three of them about their work

Published on Wednesday, 8th of March 2023

More than ever, women – especially young women – are involved in protest movements as leaders and organisers, mobilising others. A new generation is transforming women’s traditional forms of involvement in politics – including peace processes. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we asked Libyan Asma Khalifa, Palestinian Dalia Hamayel and Afghan Nilofar Ayoubi how they view their activism.

From left to right: Dalia Hamayel, Asma Khalifa and Nilofar Ayoubi. Photo: Anni Lindgren/CMI

Asma Khalifa

Researcher and activist from Libya.

Research Fellow / Doctoral Student at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies and at the GIGA Doctoral Programme. Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Hacettepe, Türkiye.

Co-founder of Tamazight Women Movement and Khalifa Ihler Institute.

Works on human rights, women’s rights and youth empowerment with a strong focus on peacebuilding in Libya. Has had multiple roles as a consultant, researcher and advisor on these topics.

What made you an activist?

Asma Khalifa: There are many things that make an activist – conditions, the environment, upbringing. I was already conditioned to join in 2011 [Libya’s revolution] because of how I was brought up. My dad has a very clear sense of injustice. Had I had a different upbringing, maybe I would not have participated. I have a very straightforward idea of what is morally acceptable and what isn’t, and I’m willing to stand by my beliefs. It’s actually a very hard thing to discuss, to try to convince other women to participate in women’s movements if they are so comfortable in their lives. They might have never had to face a violent male family member or witness it. When I have these conversations they cannot relate to me.

Dalia Hamayel

Activist and community organiser from Palestine.

Works for social and economic justice in Palestine.

Dalia Hamayel: When you act against occupation, is that activism or is it wanting to see social change that makes you an activist? I remember that as a child we were only allowed on the streets at a certain time. So, then what I considered a revolutionary act was just me taking my bicycle and being able to go down to the supermarket and buying groceries for many families on my street. We supported each other and there I learned that the collective is so important. I could not be an activist without the group.

Nilofar Ayoubi

Activist, journalist and entrepreneur from Afghanistan.

Master’s degree in Management and Governance from Islamic Azad University.

CEO of Asia Times Afghanistan and Editor of Akhbar Afghan. Founder of Women’s Political Participation Network (WPPN).

Currently runs and owns an international health and beauty product brand “forever living” in Kabul through which she supports widows and orphan children.

Nilofar Ayoubi: As a small child, I lived as my brother did – enjoying all the everyday things other girls living under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were denied. I took karate classes, attended school, rode bicycles and played contact sports until I reached puberty, when because of biology it could no longer be hidden from the Taliban that I was a girl. It was during this time that the seeds of rebellion, planted by my father, would take root. That’s when my activism really started.

What do you as activists? Tell us about your work.

Asma Khalifa: My work has varied from being on the streets to building the capacity of civil society in Libya, especially on conflict analysis, negotiation and mediation skills.  I have also influenced different policies in Libya. I have volunteered with Amazigh Supreme Council, politically raising awareness, and doing advocacy for the Amazigh’s [an ethnic group indigenous to the Maghreb region of North Africa] demands for recognition in the official constitution, and doing documentation on their cultural heritage.

Dalia Hamayel: I have been part of non-official work when it comes to social movements and justice in Palestine. I was working with a coalition of different organisations that are specialised in those subjects and my role was to coordinate the work.

We would support different social movements that were emerging at the time. I was active in different protests and movements. I was not in the leadership but just took part like any other person. Participated in whatever I can do, which usually meant joining protests on the streets and raising our demands.

Nilofar Ayoubi: I and a group of like-minded, resilient Afghan women have established the Women’s Political Participation Network (WPPN). The group is open to all Afghan women regardless of religious affiliation, socio economic background and sexual orientation. Earlier, the main focus for WPPN was to lobby for the inclusion of women in discussions and decision-making on peace talks in Afghanistan. Today, the scope for WPPN is wider, encompassing general work toward basic but equal human rights for all girls in the region.

We have teachers, we have tailors, we have housewives, we have mothers in the group. All we have in common is to advocate for basic human rights for women in Afghanistan. We don’t ask for much: education and the right to work and to thereby gain financial independence.

We know that young women are taking part and even leading protests more than ever before. This increased after the Arab Spring. How do you cope on the frontlines and adapt to tough situations?

Asma Khalifa: People do small acts on a daily basis that have an effect on their environment. They do not shout it out loudly, but there are also invisible little actions that one day accumulate to change. But to be vocally advocate and how to continue that… It basically requires you to take a thorough reflective self-assessment of your own ego and realise that it is not your thing. This does not belong to you; it is a social responsibility where all should ideally take part. It also takes an understanding that the issues are likely not something to be solved in your lifetime.

The fight for equality is an incredibly long one, it has started before us, and it will end after us. Also, we are very bad at self-care, at taking care of ourselves and separating ourselves from our work. It becomes part of your identity over time. I cannot shut it off, but I have to learn to shut it off sometimes because it is mentally challenging. Sadly, that is why many activists need to stop, because their mental health is not good.

So being an activist is a necessity and not a choice?

Dalia Hamayel: Yes, I agree. But not everyone makes that choice even though they should. I think that some people do not see any other way and just accept it. Especially when you cannot really live normally under the current regime. Everyone would like to live an easy life where they do not have this kind of responsibility.

Asma Khalifa: I think there are different kinds of activists background-wise. There are accidental activists who just sort of feel the need to do something when they face unfairness. But I also know that there are activists who have a legacy – their parents are diplomats or scholars and they come from a privileged space. They feel like they need to make a change and they can afford it. My activism is making me broke, ha-ha. You need money to do it.

Asma, you have said that conflict often presents an opportunity to women. However, the gains can be lost in the post-conflict setting. Can you elaborate?

Asma Khalifa: When I talk about how conflict presents an opportunity to women – it comes from the understanding that violence and chaos do not only create a very destructive environment but also it jolts everything: social and cultural norms, traditions. Women are usually not taking part, but in that situation, they have to. In Libya, women usually do not lead households but now it is quite common since men are in the war or dead. So, women need to take a more active part in the decision-making. The social and family structures have changed. That also means that for financial reasons and economy women must work. And the more they understand and experience financial independence the more it contributes to greater decision-making skills, because it is now her money. But as you said, the men come back and then the society aims to go back to the way it was before – although you can never return to the past.

Hamayel (left) and Ayoubi participated at CMI’s high-level event in Brussels in January 2023. Photo: Anni Lindgren/CMI

What are the opportunities and problems with online and offline spaces when it comes to political movements?

Asma Khalifa: It is similar online and offline. In Libya I remember in 2007–2009 I had a picture of my face on Facebook. And that was a huge no no: women usually had pictures of flowers or even their husbands’ pictures and names on the page instead of theirs. And now, on Instagram, there are accounts of young Libyan women doing everything that is considered a taboo. Putting their life entirely out there. – they would dance, you could see their private space, they would talk about their love life and their boyfriends. I just thought “oh my god, this is incredible”, it took me 10 years to see this. Social media gives space for self-expression and shows that to a greater degree that has changed. And that women’s self-expression is not constrained to social norms and traditions.

Is online in any way a more “free space” compared to offline? Is there more potential for activism than in the offline world?

Asma Khalifa: I think that it is not just confined to women – online gives space for everyone to raise their opinion and to speak not just about them but the world around them. You have all these educational Instagram and TikTok accounts that are incredible. It is also decolonising knowledge. A lot of indigenous groups talk about their culture and their identity online in a way that is not there in the mainstream. It’s a tool that is moving way ahead of us and therefore can also be misused. So it is not really a safe space.

Dalia Hamayel: I completely agree. When it comes to using digital tools and platforms you do not think about the regime or the corporations. But they have their own political views and their own agenda. And in some situations, they can decide if they want to open or close the space, just like the regime does with the physical space. We are trying to reclaim the online space so it is the same as in the offline world.

How important is social media in your activism?

Nilofar Ayoubi: Social media and activism go hand in hand. The same mechanisms that bring people together over the love of a sports team, a book or a hobby can also bring people together over social causes. When used correctly, the impacts of social media movements can be massive.

Social media activism is sometimes criticised as being more talk than action, but many posts are centred around driving a real-world difference. Actionable posts compel audiences to do something, like sign a petition, contact a representative, give a donation or show up to a protest. These types of posts illustrate the true power of a social media movement. The connectivity of social media gives movements the ability to organise more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Social media also gives easy access to policymakers, politicians, and government officials. There’s a better chance of getting a response or interaction with a policymaker as social platforms can be a more unfiltered, informal way they communicate with constituents.

Lastly, let’s talk about hope. What are the directions that you hope the situations in your countries will take?

Asma Khalifa: I get asked about hope a lot and it is a hard feeling. It is very emotional in many ways, especially for someone who has been active since 2011. I think we were all fired up by hope back then. That hope has since been killed on several occasions over the years. After that I have started to think of hope as something else – I work out of sheer stubbornness, thinking “I have to do this”. So, it is not something that is always there but then in some moments, especially when I work with younger activists, or I see new initiatives or projects. Then I feel it. There is a lot of despair. But you work regardless, even if you feel hopeless.

Dalia Hamayel: I agree. And it is so interesting to keep seeing the same faces in different protests – people are so persistent. They do not stop coming to the streets. And especially seeing women in Palestine, they are very strong. You feel inspired every day when you see them. Something in Palestinian history has shown the women how strong they can be and how they can lead. And it is not just in Palestine. I think seeing this gives me so much strength.

It is a disgrace to say “I do not have hope anymore”. If I compare myself to others, who do not have anything, and they still have hope. And comparing your experiences to theirs – that makes you responsible to have hope.

Nilofar Ayoubi: We live in turbulent times, and sometimes it feels like peace is a distant concept that will only occur when we are no longer around to experience it. But when you look at the big picture, it becomes clear that peace has been achieved in the past and can be achieved again. To work toward peace, we (alone) have more power than we would like to believe.

By influencing others around me, I can change the way people think about war and how they can help keep the peace. I do not have to be famous or rich to influence others; all I need is an idea and a strong desire to share it with those around me.