One on One : Nebila Abdulmelik
The People asked our very own Head of Communications, Nebila Abdulmelik about the #JusticeForLiz Campaign, family, career and her drive. This is what she had to say.
1. How was it like growing in Ethiopia? In regard to Family,education and social background?
I am the youngest in a family of three girls. We were always challenged, both personally and academically to excel – to participate and to push boundaries. My dad never made us feel as though we were any less than any of the boys or men we were surrounded by, and my mom broke a lot of boundaries – including being one of the few women in the family at her age to have not married early, to be working outside the home, to be driving – all of which were the starting points for my feminist politics. Both my parents did everything they could to make sure we had the best education possible – believing that this would grant us access to greater opportunities.
2. Ethiopia has one of the highest inequality ratios, did you experience this while growing up? I s this what drives your feminist agenda?
My feminist agenda is driven by the injustices I see around me. Not only in Ethiopia but across the world. The stark inequalities between rich and poor, men and women, rural and urban, educated and not educated; the discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities as well as those with disabilities. As a young, Hareri Muslim woman – I have faced many levels of discrimination – even from a point of privilege – you can imagine how much more compounded this is for the impoverished, the non-literate, the rural, the disabled…I believe that everyone, regardless of circumstances, wants to be treated with dignity and respect – that is what drives my agenda.
3.FEMNET, being the large organisation it is…Just how did you land the head of communication post? How was the journey like?
I started off at FEMNET almost three years ago as the Associate Advocacy Officer. I had graduated from my Masters in African Studies with a Gender & Development Emphasis, moved back to the continent and was looking for work in my field. It was a frustrating year and a half – but I kept myself busy taking French classes, getting involved in the poetry scene in Zimbabwe, volunteering at the World Food Programme and writing for the priemier Alliance Francaise newsletter. The vacancy at FEMNET opened up, I applied, and fortunately my application was successful. After about a year and a half in the Advocacy position, the Head of Communications opened up. I think we often doubt ourselves. It took a number of people asking me to apply for me to turn in my application. I was shortlisted, interviewed and again, successful. I thank the Almighty for these opportunities, and for seeing me through. The key lesson for me was to always aim high, to do not only good but great work, not be afraid to work outside my terms of reference and to take advantage of opportunities as they come. As Marianne Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…” I try to keep this in mind.
4.You were recently involved in the ‘Justice For Liz’ campaign…give us more insight on this
It all started when Terry from COVAW sent us an email with a link to the article written by Njeri Rugene of the Daily Nation – the first article that broke Liz’s horrendous story. We sat down with colleagues and began to strategize on our actions. Inaction was not an option. I was so enraged by the injustice, I couldn’t fall asleep that night. That’s when I created the online petition addressed to Inspector General Kimaiyo demanding for the immediate arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators as well as disciplinary action on the police who dismally handled her case. The initial target was 1000. We met that target in two or three days, and then that number doubled. At this point, it began to get a bit of attention – we were on BBC to talk about online activism – of which Liz’s story was a big part. I heard myself, during this short radio interview, saying that although we had reached and surpassed our initial target, that that wasn’t enough. The petition needed to go viral, and have a million signatures. I didn’t realize what I had said, and that perhaps I was speaking into the universe.
Avaaz, who hosted the petition, and which is a global online activist network and petition site with over 28 million members worldwide contacted us and said they’re interested in taking up this campaign. In the meantime, COVAW was on the ground meeting with Liz, her parents, doctors and psychological counselors. The Nation Media Group had also at this point launched an Mpesa PayBill to collect donations that would go towards Liz’s surgery, to repair the slipped disks in her back as well as to repair the obstetric fistula she had developed. They raised over 700,000KSH which was enough for the surgeries – which she successfully underwent.
We mobilized together, along with the Africa UNiTE Campaign, and Avaaz to get hundreds of people on the streets to demand Justice, Dignity and Respect. We had a big crowd with us – including over FEMNET members – 100 African women from over 25 countries. At that point, the petition had over 1.2 million signatures. Global media outlets were very interested and were giving the campaign good coverage. We delivered the petition, as well as a list of our key demands to the Office of the Inspector General – although he himself didn’t come to receive us, he sent the Chief of Staff who received us, took his time answering questions, and to our surprise, invited us for a close door meeting the next day. A few of us went to that meeting – which appeared very fruitful – the Chief of Staff and the other members present assured us that they were taking the case very seriously, that they were pursuing the perpetrators, and that if the allegations of the police conduct was true, that they would be sacked. We even discussed long term measures – including review of the courses and curriculum to make sure they were gender sensitive and responsive, setting up gender response units at all police stations and the like. We had set a date two weeks from that meeting for updates. Unfortunately, the next day in a press conference, the Office of the Inspector General did a 180. In their statement, they insinuated that perhaps Liz may not have been raped. The good news was that Chief Justice Willy Mutunga had forwarded the case to the National Council for Administration of Justice, and the Director of Public Prosecutions Tobiko had since ordered fresh investigations into the case. Since then, we have heard that one of the perpetrators has been apprehended and one of the police officers demoted and relocated. The struggle for Justice, Dignity and Respect – both for Liz and all other survivors and victims of violence continues.
5..What are some of the challenges you have faced in life and career-wise?
My dad died when I was 13. That shook my life in ways I couldn’t imagine. It also made me grow up very fast, and view the world in a very different light. I began to recognize the importance of living life meaningfully, of leaving the world better than we found it, and of the ultimate need to leave behind a legacy so that it can be said of us, not that we have passed, but that we have lived.
In terms of career, starting off was a challenge as organizations and individuals weren’t necessarily open to giving me a chance to showcase my passion and skills. Once I started, I have been blessed to be in a field and area that I am very passionate about, and to be part of an organization that works across the continent and is a critical part of building the Pan-African women’s movement. The heavy workload makes it a challenge to achieve work-life balance, and at times I see my health and well-being deteriorate. It’s essential for us to take care of ourselves if we are to sustain our work and activism – and our energy levels and creativity that we need to carry out our work effectively and efficiently.
6. Do you think you have achieved your desire end, when it comes to the feminist fight?
No, not at all. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We cannot stop until all people, regardless of their gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, religious status, their ability or any other factor remains an obstacle to leading dignified lives free of discrimination, violence, coercion and want. We must stand in solidarity with one another to achieve this – and build on unity – across borders.
7.Many women continue to remain single even after 30, just what are women doing wrong that they should do right. Some even feel that men don’t respect them as the should, why is this? Are women scared about the ‘baggage’ that sometimes comes with marriage or is it the men, just who is the who in this blame game?
I don’t think we should be playing the blame game. That is part of the problem. In fact, we shouldn’t be playing any games at all. I believe that we need to be honest and genuine – with ourselves first and foremost, and that should extend to our relationships. We must be confident and content with ourselves – and that goes for the men as well. Any man who is secure with himself will not feel insecure by the success of his partner. In fact, the opposite should be true – in healthy relationships, partners should build each other up, and the success and growth of one should be that of the other. I wish we could lead such lives and relationships.
8. Any future goals?
Yes, so many – building my own family, building a successful business, traveling the world and who knows maybe trying the political arena. My overarching goal, however is to be content doing whatever it is I find myself doing and in whatever path the ALMIGHTY has planned for me.
Excerpts of this interview were originally published by the People, for Women Essence. Access it here.