This article was originally published by New America Weekly.
I am an arms dealer in Libya, but my weapons reduce violence and last longer than a bullet.
As the founder of the Voice of Libyan Women (VLW), a women’s rights organization focused on peace and security, the tools I use to drive change and create peace are rooted in diplomacy, cooperation, culture, and history. In other words, what some people call “soft power.”
“Hard power,” on the other hand, refers to the use of surveillance, sanctions, and military intervention to ensure international security. But in Libya, I’ve seen more progress on peace and security from the work of arms dealers like myself—women who wield weapons like dialogue, awareness, and education—than from the carriers of “hard” weapons. That’s because hard power solutions tend to focus on the short-term, whereas soft power fixes focus on the long-term.
Here’s what I mean: Rather than press buttons far away to wipe buildings off the map—an act proven to instigate violent reactions from local communities, leading to greater instability and insecurity—we walk into extremists’ homes, schools, and workplaces. We speak to those who feel they have no alternative, working with them to foster self-confidence and create greater opportunities, such as volunteering, part-time jobs, and even creative outlets. Most recently, a young rogue militia member from the southern Libyan city of Obari founded a “peace coalition” with educators, parents, and fellow militia members in his hometown after attending our seminars. He expressed that working with other community leaders in our seminar and workshops was the first time he felt he had equal opportunity to contribute to the community and public life in a respected role without the use of arms. Our work gave him peaceful, practical tools to strengthen his voice, an opportunity that he was previously only granted through his militia role as a street patroller.
How do we make our case for peace to young militia members? The strongest tool in our educational arsenal involves challenging the misrepresentation and misuse of Islamic teachings to promote extremism, and then using the accurate interpretations of Islamic verse to promote action on traditionally taboo issues, like domestic violence. We did that recently with VLW’s Noor Campaign, which invoked Islamic texts as a way to combat violence against women. “International Purple Hijab Day” was a similar campaign that called for greater action against domestic violence. It reached tens of thousands of men and women in its first year. For the first time, domestic violence—and its prohibition in Islam—was discussed in schools, universities, mosques, workplaces, and on national media throughout Libya. The Libyan prime minister himself supported the campaign, wearing a purple scarf on television and throughout his daily meetings. The next year, the campaign was internationally supported by Jordan’s Queen Noor, and has since been replicated by organizations throughout the region.
Why does this “soft power” work? It hands the community words and tools to fight against violence, poverty, fear, and corruption—weapons of strength and self-actualization. It offers youth weapons of peace against an enemy that wants to drag them into war.
And when women are the key arms dealers, “soft power” can be even more effective. That’s because women, in their roles as mothers and as the majority of teachers, have greater and more organic access to the local community and to young students. I’ve seen that their ideas, surprisingly, are much more likely to be heard and respected. Why? Women often aren’t perceived as political or security threats to those in power (which is a problem in and of itself).
Consequently, it is women who lead the majority of awareness-raising campaigns in Libya—from voter awareness to teaching students the mental and physical effects of war.
Our greatest weapon in the struggle for peace is, as Nelson Mandela so famously stated, education. Every additional year of formal education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10 percent, and it also significantly reduces maternal mortality rates and the spread of fatal diseases.
Formal education is key to economic and political stability. But so is informal education. Our belief is that by focusing on the informal education of young men and boys specifically we can build their understanding of how dialogue—rather than bombs and military strikes—is key to security and economic opportunity. This understanding is what will lead to a society in which all individuals pursue collective goals of prosperity, dignity, and rights.
But not everyone believes us yet. The greatest challenge to the work of women arms dealers like me is the continued focus of international security efforts on violent weapons and military intervention rather than community development and dialogue. It’s like trying to unlock a door with our hands tied behind our backs.
Sustained international peace will come as a direct result of the greater emphasis on dialogue from the international community. If U.S. policymakers want to help us in this murky, post-conflict environment, they’ll increase communication with women’s groups on the ground, demand that they be involved in conflict and mediation processes, and give greater financial and technical support to this kind of critical work.
Next time those policymakers have a meeting about international security, they may even want to call the Libyan women arms dealers. We know which weapons actually work.