Somali women’s rights activist and founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) El-Karama Hibaaq Osman, spoke to students and faculty at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management on Wednesday afternoon, March 11 as part of their COEX International Women’s Day celebration. The Heller School has hosted International Women’s Day events previously, with guest speakers including Anita Hill (WGS/ALS), Kathryn Bolkovac and other influential women. Osman’s work to end violence against women in the Arab world earned her a spot among Georgetown University’s list of 500 Most Influential Muslims. Her talk at Heller described the development of El-Karama and her collaborative efforts with other women leaders in the Arab world.
“Something magic happens when women come together,” Osman said. Founded in 2005, El-Karama works in partnership with existing organizations that support the promotion and protection of women’s rights in countries including Jordan, Palestine and Sudan. The word Karama, which means dignity in Arabic, represents the organization’s goals. It is based in Cairo, where Osman now lives.
Central to El-Karama and Osman’s vision for the Arab world is the idea that women’s rights are vital to democracy and human rights in general. Osman explained that while many regimes see women’s rights as an easy first target, they often move on to deny civil rights to their entire constituency. Though she recognizes that many leaders use religion or culture to back the stripping away of women’s rights, she denies the notion that Islam, in particular, justifies violence against women or any violation of women’s rights.
“Muslim scholars should really reclaim Islam … What is happening in the name of Islam is not Islam,” Osman insisted. What she views as a misinterpretation of Islam and Shariah law, is, in her opinion, due much more to politics than to religion. Understanding and working within the culture of Arab countries is essential to bringing about reform, Osman argued. In describing her efforts with El-Karama, Osman said, “It was a war of culture, and we understood it. It was a war of politics, and we understood it … the best people to bring the solutions are the people who are living in the crisis.”
Osman talked about her frustrations with the political aspects of her job, particularly the failure to completely implement U.N. Resolutions. She brought up U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which focuses on bringing more women into the U.N.’s decisions and the protection of women’s rights in member states. Fully implementing these resolutions would, in Osman’s opinion, provide more support for women’s rights and open up dialogue surrounding the promotion of women’s rights and security.
One of the main focuses of Osman’s talk was the importance of women’s education. She asked, “What is wrong with asking for education … Is that women’s rights or is that humanity?” She stressed how important it is for women to have power over their own lives. Osman told the audience that women must be able to speak for themselves and not allow others to define them. “We are pushing for a woman to have choice wherever she is,” Osman said.
“Women are the backbone of society,” she argued. “What can tear us apart is war and what can put us together is peace.” Though Osman is incredibly proud of El-Karama’s achievements and the achievements of women’s rights activists across the Middle East, she says that there is still a lot of work to do. Osman explained that the progress women have made is under threat in certain countries, giving the example of her friend and fellow women’s rights activist Salwa Bugaighis.
Bugaighis was a Libyan human rights lawyer and advocate for the rights of women in the Arab world who was assassinated in her home. In honor of Bugaighis, El-Karama has created the “Justice for Salwa is Justice for All” campaign. Though Bugaighis’ position meant that her assassination was highly publicized, Osman explained that violence against women, especially women’s rights advocates, is not uncommon.
The COEX International Women’s Day at Heller event was sponsored by the Coexistence and Conflict program at the Heller School; the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life; the Heller School’s Gender Working Group; the Graduate Program in Sustainable International Development; and the Women’s Studies Research Center. Program Director Alain Lempereur, who introduced Osman, has worked for many years in conflict prevention and has worked with Osman and El-Karama in the past.