Hajer Sharief is a Libyan activist who fights for peace and human rights. Her name is often mentioned when listing those young women who make their voices heard worldwide, when referring to a different view of politics, and I was impressed by her believing so much in the power of „together“. I had the joy of having a real conversation with her and there are so many subtleties I take with me from this #EpicTalk.
Gáspár: Dear Hajer Sharief, it brings me great joy to have this conversation with you and I am grateful for your generosity of answering my questions.
First, I would like to start with this one – Why is it important that people, all people, should make their contribution to politics? In Romania and in many other countries, a lot of people see politics as something that is dirty, evil and too corrupt for them to take part in such a system. But obviously, politics is about all of us, and we could actually work on changing our relationship with it.
Hajer Sharief: Politics is what you make out of it. If you do not engage and participate then others will, and the problem is when those „others“ might not be interested or motivated in ensuring that they serve all members of the community equally. And even in the best-case scenario, when a politician really wants to serve their community, they cannot do it without the engagement and participation of members of the community.
„Why all people should engage and participate in politics?“ Many people ask me this question, and I answer with „why not?“ Since politics affects all aspects of your life, why would you not engage and participate! What is the logical well-thought reason for not taking interest in politics?
For me, political awareness and engagement is one of the most logical things any individual should do.
Here is the thing, politics is simple. It’s people making decisions on your behalf, decisions that will affect you, your family, friends, and your society. Personally, I would never want someone to decide on my behalf without me being aware of what that decision is, how will it affect my life and so on.
Now some people might think, this is politics in an ideal world and that in reality it is different. That politics is dirty and corrupt. And I do not deny that is true in many political systems. But in my opinion, politics is not going anywhere, it will never disappear. Therefore, the only way to make it better and make it something that works for our benefit is by educating ourselves about politics and participating in it however we can.
Gáspár: While listening to one of your TED talks, the one in which you talk about family dinner as being a great context for political education, I realized that many parents are afraid of this topic; specifically, they are afraid of bringing such a subject in their family life. What do you think are the perks of such parenting conversations?
Hajer Sharief: The Family Democracy Meetings system that my family installed when I was growing up was a system that governed our family, similar to how political systems govern our countries and societies. During these meetings we did not discuss state politics, we did not discuss Libyan or international politics. We discussed our family matters and issues. Which is also similar to how political systems discuss societal and communities’ issues.
The Family Democracy Meetings system did not teach me the ideologies of politics, it taught me how decision-making processes functions. Growing up participating in a system that discussed issues that affected me directly or indirectly made me understand that political systems are no different than what I had at one. It’s people coming together to discuss issues and matters and make decisions on how to live. On the family level, it is easy for everyone to participate because a family is a small number of people, so everyone can participate directly. But societies and countries are huge, and since there’s no room for every single member of the society to directly participate in making decisions concerning the society, we have a number of members of the society – politicians – who make these decisions on our behalf. Nevertheless, this should not mean that the rest of us should not engage and not be interested in politics. And this is exactly what the Family Democracy Meetings system taught me. It taught me that politics is a decision-making process and that if I do not engage with it, then I’m allowing someone else to make decisions on my behalf without having any clue whether it is a good decision for me or not.
Gáspár: I know you have a brother who, when you were children, did not care much about household activities, convinced of the fact that those were womanly responsibilities. I also have a sister, and I never even thought that she should do more work around the house than myself. Even now, when we gather at her place, I make sure I help her cook or do the dishes. I would like to ask you – What it feel like for a woman to be helped around the house by the men in her family, and how does it feel like when she doesn’t get their help?
Hajer Sharief: I want to start by emphasizing that gender roles are ideas on how we should live as different genders and that they are based on assumptions. When we were kids, me and my brother, we grew up with certain gender roles. Although my parents did not enforce these norms as they treated us equally, but the society did. And growing up in Libya I always thought this division between gender roles is only in Libya. Then I came to realize its actually almost everywhere with various degrees, of course. But I think at some point of time, in almost all societies, women are tasked with household work and men are tasked with outside of the housework.
But the funny thing about me and my brother now is that, while a young girl in Libya, I was expected to do the household work, and my brother was not. Now that we are both adults, he is much better than me at some household work such as cooking. While I grew up to become a terrible cook, he is quite a good one, at least way better than myself, for sure.
This is to say that all genders are put into an identity box at a very early age. Which can even deprive them from discovering the things they like and love. But to go back to your question, I believe in contribution and not necessary distribution of the household labour between members of the household. In principle, household work should not be the primary task of one member of the family unless they, with all their heart, wish for that. But the fact is many women in different societies were and are „mandated“ with household work. Therefore, it is of course great when the men in the house help the women. Nevertheless, this should not be viewed as „helping the women“, but rather as sharing responsibility.
Gáspár: It’s amazing that, at only 28, you have a voice so powerful, that it makes people think and that triggers systemic changes at a society level. How did you discover your voice and who inspired or inspires you when it comes to this fight for human rights?
Hajer Sharief: Well! Now I’m 28 years old, so not too young anymore. I think the majority of people know and understand that they have a voice that can make a difference. But not everyone knows how to use it. I learned how to effectively use my voice since I was a kid because I was taught and trained how to do so. As I mentioned above, I grew up with a system in our family that gave me an opportunity to engage in constructive discussions and debates since I was a kid. Therefore, for me it honestly comes very naturally that I continue using my voice, standing up for what I want, and that I continue acting as if I’m welcomed to speak up even when others think I should not.
Now, as an adult, I understand that what I had when I was a child was „privilege“. I was very privileged to grow up with a system that gave me an opportunity to challenge practices that negatively affected me, such as discrimination against women in the family. And I remember one time a friend of mine in primary school was complaining to me about something in her family, and I told her you should discuss it in a family meeting, and she simply could not grasp the idea of asking her family for a meeting because no one would listen to a kid!
So, I soon realized that I had it better than others, but of course I had it the same as other women outside of my house. At school and university and on the streets, I was discriminated against. Nevertheless, I always stood up for myself because it is much easier for me to do that than it might be for other women. And that is exactly why, for the past ten years, I have been focusing on promoting and educating on human rights. Because if people, particularly women, do not know their rights, then they cannot stand up for them.
Gáspár: Being a psychologist, I am very interested in the effect of adversities over the human being. Libya got through some difficult moments, and you are one of the survivors of the Libyan Revolution – What impact do you think, feel, or know the war had over your emotional health and how do you tend your mental health?
Hajer Sharief: Living a war is one of the most traumatic experiences a human being can live. It does not only change your life, but it changes the meaning of life and not for the better. In the beginning it did not seem to affect me emotionally. Of course, I would get sad whenever I saw or heard of someone who was killed or injured by the war. But because I also volunteered at the hospital during the war, so most of the patients were people injured by the war, I sort of got accustomed to an extreme situation. Only years later, I started noticing the psychological aftermath of the wars on me. To give you an example, two years ago I was celebrating New Year’s Eve with some friends in Egypt, and as in every new year’s celebration there were fireworks. But the minute the fireworks went on I got extremely anxious because the sound of the fireworks sounded exactly like the sounds of rockets used in the war, and I had to leave the place. This is just one example of how something that is extremely joyful for others became horrible for me.
Unfortunately, mental health is hugely neglected in many war-torn countries. And the psychological effects of wars are not given the attention needed. Some people are lucky to identify and recognize such effects and can seek help, but help is not available and accessible to everyone, so that is another struggle.
Gáspár: Undeniably, you are one of those people who have found their mission and purpose in life. And I believe you are a person worth following, and so, I would like to ask you – What did you lose walking on this road of activism and what did you have to give up, in order to advance in this field?
Hajer Sharief: I both lost and had to give up on people. Partly it was my mistake and the other part it was not. The problem with this field of work is that it intersects with your personal values and beliefs. This is not like other field of work where different opinions are perhaps a matter of different tastes. Being an activist means you are wearing special eyeglasses the whole time. These eyeglasses make you spot the injustices and unfairness in our world. And once you see them, you want others to see them and do something about them. But the fact is, not everyone cares. And of course, no one should be forced to care. But it is extremely difficult when people do not see what you see, and then they criticize and challenge you to an extent that it could be harmful.
Gáspár: In my field of expertise – relational psychology, and family psychotherapy –, we believe in the power of relationships and in cultivating peace. Even more so, we believe we need peace in ourselves, between ourselves, and amongst ourselves. What does peace mean to you and how does the world you dream about looks like?
Hajer Sharief: For me, peace is an environment of which every member of the society can live and strive. I dream of a world where differences are not a threat. A world that will meet the needs of everyone because I believe the world is rich enough for all to live a quality life.
Gáspár: I tend to believe that psychology and politics are more alike than they are different, because both of them work with human behaviour, idea and emotion. Which is why my next question will be about psychology – What do you think are the most important abilities for a woman in 2021?
Hajer Sharief: I believe women are made and not born. And here I am making a distinction between being a female and being a woman. Females are taught how to be women, we are taught how a woman should look like, how to behave, what is our roles in the society and so on. So, the answer to your question really depends on what different societies allow women to be. In an equal society, a woman enjoys all the abilities any human enjoys. But in an equal society, the most important ability a woman should do her best to have, is to understand how gender discrimination works and help fighting it.
Gáspár: Because the pandemic affected the entire planet, I could not end this conversation without asking you – What do you think about the COVID-19 vaccines and how well do you think the Libyan leaders have dealt with this pandemic?
Hajer Sharief: The pandemic, the pandemic!!! I simply think everyone should take the vaccines for sure. I understand those who are skeptical, and I think they have the right to be skeptical. But while being that, they should also be pragmatic. So before reaching a discussion on whether to take the vaccine or not, people should properly research and ask for medical opinions about the vaccine they are offered. And most importantly, not listen to anti-vaccine campaigns on social media.
Gáspár: During #EduCare, you will be addressing the Romanian public. I tend to believe that you will be discussing the role and purpose politics has in our lives, and how not to avoid talking about politics. What are you preparing for those who will listen to you, and what will your message be for the parents here, in Romania?
Hajer Sharief: I will be sharing more stories from the Family Democracy Meeting system, so stay tuned for the video!