Honoring local knowledge and experience, global political strategist Hibaaq Osman conceives visionary approaches to issues of peace, human rights, and women's rights. As the leader of three regional NGOs—Karama, the Global Dignity Fund, and the Think Tank for Arab Women—she amplifies and expands initiatives already being done from the ground up. Hibaaq is a member of the Expert Committee for CEDAW and the Expert Committee for Peace and Security at the League of Arab States and serves on boards for organizations such as Women Without Borders. Named one of the 500 most influential Muslims, Hibaaq has redefined activism and opportunity in the region, putting forth a new global agenda for women.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I stumbled upon the greatest things that I did. Growing up in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, there were certain issues that compelled me, including women’s rights, empowerment and protection. As my situation changed, I could not go back home, but I worked on these issues wherever I could, as they were the things that resonated most strongly with me personally. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by and partner with great women, who guided my vision and helped me understand how to effectively impact the priorities closest to my heart.
In many ways, my work has been a response to where I have lived and the people I have known. I wanted to create the space and opportunities for women so that they could have a fighting chance in every aspect of their lives. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t have to go through the hardships or obstacles that I faced, and thusly, worked to address their most urgent, significant and basic needs. Karama is about dignity and amplifying women’s voices so they can articulate their priorities and concerns and fight for their advancement, equality, protection and security. In some ways, I was reacting to the lack of support and the gaps in research and linkage that I acutely felt in my work and engagements. I was finding a way to fill these areas in, building connections and leveraging collective expertise to find the best strategies to improve the situation for women in the region and beyond.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Patience, Wisdom, Forgiveness
Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?
A: As Gaddafi stepped down, Karama partnered with dozens of Libyan women activists, academics, politicians, artists and community leaders to form a coalition called the Libyan Women’s Peace Platform (LWPP). The LWPP filled a gap, providing linkage and connection between women from disparate backgrounds and perspectives, and bringing them together to work toward a common goal. Civil society had long been suppressed under Gaddafi, but working these women, I learned that it was never silent, just hidden. These women are among the most courageous, joyful, and driven women I have met, and are committed to doing all that they can to ensure that the new Libya does not leave women behind.
Since they came together, the LWPP, along with other coalitions and groups, lobbied collectively and relentlessly for women to be equally represented in the new Libyan assembly. Despite back and forth, they eventually earned a strong result: the National Transition Council’s approval of an alternative election law guaranteeing women’s representation in the new Libyan assembly.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: Networking is about understanding people and building connections. Among the most important elements in building these connections are development of trust, expression of empathy, and diligence in listening to what others are saying and feeling.
You must reflect in your vision, the aspirations, hopes and despairs of the people you are hoping to connect with and link yourself to. It must be a reflection of their situation. They have to recognize themselves in you – in your speech, in how you are poised, how you are treating them, how you are responding to them. More than anything, people must be treated with enormous respect and dignity and they must feel respected and dignified in your engagements. They should always know their self-worth and the importance of their presence and their ideas. Every human being in front of you is worth everything.
Q: Can you share a personal story of successful negotiation that leaped you forward?
A: We are continuously negotiating with governments and women. The emphasis of my work from the beginning, even before Karama, has always been about bringing together people of different viewpoints and backgrounds and allowing them the space to share, discuss, and exchange with each other. Often this is about negotiating how terms are defined—for instance terms such as prostitution or trafficking—across national boundaries or from shelter to shelter. Or this might be about negotiating with different visions for the future in order to unify thoughts and work toward a common mission.
Another aspect of this work has been to work with governments and policymakers, who often do not support our plans or oppose what we have to say. Negotiation is not only about finding a middle ground, but it is also about earning a space to voice these opposing opinions in the first place. With governments, this is part of the battle, but the key is always to find commonalities and shared goals instead of emphasizing differences. It is not about what I want or he wants or they want but about what we collectively want and think will be beneficial on the whole
Finally, there is the ultimate negotiation we are always battling with, which is negotiating how something is perceived. For instance, with SIHA, a network of women’s organizations in the Horn of Africa I established in the late 90’s to end women’s exclusion from public influence and community leadership, women of very different backgrounds who weren’t used to relying on each other or working together joined forces to amplify their voices and change their image in Africa from victims to doers. This effort helped women mobilize politically and socially, proving their leadership not only in their local communities, but in regional and international roles.
Q: What or who in your life gives you the strength to persevere?
A: Quite simply: women. I am continuously working with people who make my problems seem insignificant. I have a strong belief in and hope for tomorrow. For whatever reason, I do not see anything as impossible, because there is absolutely no room to be hopeless. It is so easy in this environment to slip into hopelessness, but you can’t really let yourself feel this despair or nothing will ever turn around. The women all around me have proven what can be done through a strong imagination and belief in yourself.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: I believe that life is on loan and I believe that whatever strengths you have are for you to share and leverage to make a difference. Whether the gift is your health, your intellect, or your wealth, you were never intended to be its sole beneficiary. None of this is your own; but it’s a tool that you’ve been given to impact other areas and other lives.
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: Everything that I do is a risk in this region. Working in a society that is conservative and focusing on politically-driven issues in a closed political system, while acknowledging the likelihood your phones are tapped and people are watching what you are doing means there is no safe or protected moment or action. One has to be very careful, whether in holding a meeting –sometimes the topics are deemed as assaults on national security or anti-government–sharing research or holding a training session. Human rights and women’s rights work is a risk, but the way to mitigate it is to build trust with those you work with and develop strong networks and organizations. You have to give partners the resources they need to do the work in the right way, under the thumb of dictators, and continue finding out-of-the-box strategies to keep doing what’s important, under the radar.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: As a rule, I make sure that I am working through a network of people whom I trust and that I have the analysis and information I need to make strong decisions. But one also has to be careful and savvy. I avoid situations unless I know what I am joining. I have to know very well what I am opening myself up to, from the people to the politics. Over my career, I’ve done work in many risky environments, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Libya. In this region, it is important to gauge the prevailing dynamics and make sure that there are experts and local organizations that know the environment, and the people involved. Beyond mitigating the risks, it is also this collective that then protects us and supports us if we do encounter an issue or obstacle.