As Libya struggles in continued conflict, Hala Bugaighis, founder and Executive Director of Jusoor Center for Studies and Development, is among a crop of brave social entrepreneurs offering green shoots of hope in a country that, even 8 years after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, still seems precariously poised.
Jusoor, which on its website self-proclaims itself as “a Libyan Think and Do Tank”, is the first think tank in Libya to focus solely on tackling women’s issues and bridging the gender gap, a tall order in a deeply patriarchal society.
Bugaighis recently spoke to Justice Hub, as part of our #MyJustice series, while attending the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which this year was hosted by the Netherlands (in The Hague) in partnership with the United States.
Bugaighis matter-of-factly described the threats she has had to endure to do her work:
“I have been threatened twice. Someone wanted to kill me once because they thought that I’m trying to implement a foreign agenda and a change in the social norms. Now we are more careful with our approach,” she revealed.
Here’s the rest of the interview:
Justice Hub: Tell me about Jusoor?
Hala Bugaighis: Jusoor is the first think-tank that works in economic development in Libya. We have a special focus on women. We work in three main pillars. The first one is economic policies and advocacy. It’s more of analysing and studying the current economic system in the country and trying to push the policy makers and different stakeholders to change it and especially in such a way that it is more inclusive so that women and men can equally participate in the economic development process.
The second pillar is enhancing entrepreneurship and start-ups. That’s where we have partnered with the SPARK in founding the first business incubator in Libya and it was dedicated to women. It was really a very nice start for us. It’s been almost a year now and we have incubated 40 women projects. The services of the incubator have benefited roughly 300 women in Tripoli.
Justice Hub: What kind of start-ups were people involved in?
Hala Bugaighis: Well mostly it’s the traditional work that woman do – like beauty, fashion designing, tailoring and the food industry. But we also have had two or three projects that are centred on the green economy. It’s very unique in Libya for women to lead such initiatives. We also have a technology-based project but the majority is, of course, are the traditional projects.
The third pillar is enhancing job skills for those seeking employment. This is for women and men. We don’t really differentiate. We think that preparing women for the workforce has to be done in a mixed class so that they really get to engage with men and be ready for the workplace. Segregation isn’t the right way and that’s why we are insisting that the job creation program is all mixed.
Justice Hub: Is it tough to get people to take part in mixed sessions?
Hala Bugaighis: Many have declined the project but for us, this is not the right thing. We need women in the workplace where they work hand in hand with men. We don’t really want segregation or for women to feel comfortable and their comfort zones.
Justice Hub: What about the employment rights of women?
Hala Bugaighis: We undertook a study in 2017 in which, after many discussions with women, we found out that they don’t understand their rights. They don’t understand when they have sick leave or when they have the annual or pregnancy leave, all these rights that are dedicated to them. They don’t even know that there are laws to protect them from sexual harassment at the workplace. This was a gap and it was hampering women from entering into the official workforce.
We designed a project from the four pillars to really assist women and to raise their awareness on these particular issues. It was done in sessions with experts presenting on topics and then there were discussions. From that, we published the findings of each session on the internet. The videos had a reach hundreds of thousands in Libya. Many women learned things they didn’t know before, for example, that the first article in the labour laws states that women and men are equal and that employers shouldn’t discriminate.
Many women didn’t know that. The result was many women feel empowered and are more comfortable asking for their rights. It was really a great project in my opinion. It was the first project in Libya that really addressed the issue of employment rights. After that, many men also came to us wanting to be taught their employment. It was a great project.
We have also been successful in using traditional Arabic expressions such as a’belik or ’a’belak (عقبالك) or “your turn” which is an expression used to reciprocate good wishes in wedding or engagement ceremonies and applying it to our work to show that women can be successful in the professional arena as well. We twisted ’a’belak in our media campaign to show a woman who had succeeded in her chosen career and to communicate that other Libyan women can do the same.
Usually, we get a lot of harassment, hate speech and bullying online but this campaign was received very positively. We worked with partners Huna Libya and we are proud of this campaign.
— Jusoor Libya (@jusoorly) March 7, 2019
Justice Hub: You are speaking about Libya and the kind of work you are doing. It doesn’t necessarily fit with the perceptions people have of Libya outside the country. How difficult is it to do your work?
Hala Bugaighis: Well, it is really difficult. I always describe as akin to walking in a minefield. You never know when you stepping on the wrong thing. But we are very careful. We work with a very high level of caution and always watch our steps. We understand the norms of the society we work in.
It is not easy. I have been threatened twice. Someone wanted to kill me once because they thought that I’m trying to implement a foreign agenda and a change in the social norms.
Now we are more careful with our approach. We are more inclusive. We target every Libyan woman and not just the young open-minded ones. Everyone. We are getting into the social structure in order to make them trust us which is the most important thing.
Working in the economics space is safer than working in peacebuilding and political and other aspects. Somehow it’s all interlinked but we are working on all the umbrella of economics which is keeping us safe until now.
Justice Hub: How did you come to get involved in this work?
Hala Bugaighis: I am actually a business lawyer. I used to have a successful business before the second civil war, as we call it. After the second civil my cousin, who was a civil advocate, was assassinated in her house for trying to defend the right of voting. After that assassination, there were two or three other assassinations of women defendants and all of a sudden in 2013 it was silence. Nobody could talk about the cause anymore. I was really attached to my cousin because, although she was older than me, we used to work together and I looked up to her and I felt it was unfair that all the work she believed in and would be in vain.
I studied the civil society in Libya to see where I could work, be safe but work in work in a place that I feel comfortable. That was when I realised that in the field of economics in Libya there is no women representation. Together with other co-founders, we felt that this is where we wanted to start our organization. That’s how it happened. It was a feeling that we were obliged to continue what others started.
Justice Hub: What does justice mean to you?
Hala Bugaighis: Justice has a very broad meaning but at least in my work it means equal opportunities and understanding that I have certain rights and certain responsibilities. Justice is also the feeling that you are always protected and if you’re doing something wrong then you will get what you deserve. For me, justice means equal opportunity and having clear rights and obligations.