“Violence against women transcends culture,” said Hibaaq Osman. The founder and CEO of Karama (“dignity” in Arabic) is a passionate advocate of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body, from how she dresses to how many children she has. “My job,” she explained, “Is to make sure that everyone has a choice, no matter what language, religion, or culture. That is social justice.”
Karama is a grassroots organization that Osman founded in 2005. Its goal is to end violence against women in the MENA regions. Its means is self-empowerment, and the mobilization of women to address legal, political, and civil sectors through collective participation and influence.
Osman herself rejects the title of leader. She regards herself as a listener and a facilitator, and centers leadership in the women with whom she works. Born and raised in Somalia, Osman was educated in the United States and has been living in Cairo since shortly after 9/11. She attributes her self-confidence to having a strong sense of self, to humility and to her ability and willingness to listen. A global political strategist, Osman leads two other organizations working to end violence against women in the Arab region: the Global Dignity Fund and the Think Tank for Arab Women. She has also helped civil society organizations launch in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
It was through listening to politically and socially engaged women leaders around the region that she was able to identify the main issues perpetuating violence against women, and to create a multi-pronged strategy based on political, legal, and civil activism.
Today Karama operates all over the Middle East. Its approach is to work with local partners to engage with local authorities in an effort to roll back laws that undermine the security and autonomy of women. Karama works across a coalition of partners in 13 countries through national and international networks, using international human rights mechanisms as its activism construct. But Karama also expands its work to a systemic frame and a ground-up strategy, emphasizing local expertise to inform policy and advocacy. It identifies the ways violence against women affects and is affected by economics, law, health, media, education, and art/culture — and designing strategies to combat it through each of these areas.
The organization has seen successes in women’s peace platforms established in Libya, Jordan, and Yemen. But Osman recognizes the difficulties inherent in mobilizing women for peace and security. In 2016, she wrote “Across the region women are seeing the gains they thought they had secured wiped out, and the emergence of new and greater threats to their rights, freedoms and safety. Where civil order has broken down entirely – in civil war as in Syria, or in areas of Iraq under the control of groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra – women have found themselves disproportionately targeted by sexual and physical violence and intimidation. But a more insidious threat affecting women much more widely is the decreasing opportunities available to them to campaign for their rights.”
Osman acknowledges freely that women often pay a high price for taking on leadership roles in pursuit of freedoms that undermine the patriarchy. “But,” she said, “you have to be willing to pay that price. You’ve got to keep moving forward and never look back.”
Learn more: www.el-karama.org