Canadian was one of Gadhafi's most wanted for pushing women's rights
Alaa Murabit is shown in an undated handout photo conducting a Noor Seminar in Benghazi. (The Voice of Libyan Women / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Clare Clancy, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, November 29, 2014 10:15AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 29, 2014 6:01PM EST
Saskatchewan-born Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor and the sixth of 11 children in her family, describes herself as only an accidental activist.
"I never had any intention of being an advocate," says Murabit, who was raised in an education-oriented family in Saskatoon before moving to Libya when she was 15.
"My parents never made any distinction between me and my brothers. That was extremely important to the way I looked at the world."
After moving to Zawiya, Libya, however, Murabit says she grew frustrated seeing how her male counterparts were touted as examples of future ministers or doctors, while female students were relegated to the sidelines.
"I started realizing that regardless of how much I studied, or how much smarter I was than my male classmate, his opinion always trumped mine," she said.
"I felt very much robbed of my own opportunity and my own rights."
Murabit petitioned her university to allow women to sit on student council. At the time that was illegal.
Accidental activist or not, she soon found herself on the list of Moammar Gadhafi's 11 most-wanted women in Zawiya.
"The idea behind it was that these women should be, if found, arrested," she says. "We had seen what had happened to the men on the previous lists that had been released by the government at the time."
The targeted women's families were able to successfully hide them.
"I'm just very thankful nothing did happen."
Her organization, The Voice of Libyan Women, took root during the Libyan civil war of 2011 that toppled the Gadhafi regime.
Since then, the 24-year-old has become an international voice for women's rights and was recently appointed to a civil society advisory group with United Nations Women.
Libya is currently mired in the worst fighting since Gadhafi was overthrown and killed. On Wednesday, the U.N. Secretary General expressed deep concern about the recent escalation of violence, including air strikes on a military air base that until this week was Tripoli's only functioning airport.
Murabit says the insecurity has placed issues of women's rights on the back burner, but she's pushing to keep women involved with the country's recovery.
"People say you'll be involved after we mediate the conflict," she says. But "women have to be ... the key resource for peace-building."
Murabit's organization uses religious discourse to gain local-level support. She says it's a "radical" idea because people are often wary of incorporating religion into advocacy work.
"We use existing belief systems that (communities) already have. There are no new ideas coming from us."
Michele Moloney-Kitts, spokeswoman for Together for Girls, an organization aiming to end violence against children, says it works.
"We have been struck by (Murabit) as such a critical leader, the fact that she is a Muslim woman who is a pediatrician, who understands violence," she says.
"She is leading a campaign that is so appropriate, culturally driven, based in her case on the Qur'an and Islam. We have seen faith communities really standing up against violence."
Murabit says that concerns about violent extremism in the Middle East highlight the importance of women's participation in conflict mediation.
"Part of the main reason that (extremists) have been able to be successful is that there are political and economic vacuums, because half of society is not represented, half of society feel they do not have a role," says Murabit, adding that the right to education is essential for encouraging participation.
It's a message that has been touted by Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 recently became the world's youngest Nobel laureate for her activism. In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head while she was returning from school in Pakistan, because of her vocal support for gender equality and education for girls.
"Her message is the kind of message we need to be delivering everywhere," says Murabit, adding that Yousafzai is a good friend.
"If you can empower women economically, politically, if you can empower them socially, it completely changes the international dynamic."