Setting Yourself on Fire to Keep Others Warm: Why I Fight for Women’s Safety

Lina AbiRafeh
9 min readFeb 28, 2023

I heard the screams before I saw her face. Deep, ancient howls. The agony of all women since the beginning of time. My stomach turned, knotted. I did not want to see, but I had no choice. I did not want to know, but somewhere deep, I knew.

I gently pushed aside the partition of plastic bags strung together, held up by twine, tied together at the corners, dust-coated and frayed, quivering at the slightest breeze, ready to disintegrate. Even as the bags shook, the air was dead-still that day.

I handled the grocery-bag barricade carefully, delicately. Like someone’s laundry on a line. But they were not clothes. I did not want to be the one to destroy what had been deliberately constructed — a shield to allow the woman whose voice I heard a sense of dignity, of privacy. To allow her to feel safe.

This plastic was the only protection she had from the outside. The protection I now compromised.

“We need to see where that sound is coming from,” the journalist said.

“We need to know what is going on,” her photographer said.

“You said you’d line this up for us, Lina,” she added.

Yes, this was my job. I worked in humanitarian emergencies — wars, natural disasters, the world’s worst stuff. In those tragedies, I worked with women. And not just any women — women who were survivors of rape. Or at risk of rape. Which in fact is all women.

And yes, part of my job was to work with journalists, reporting what we do, and how we do it.

“You said you’d line this up…” she repeated, as if I needed to be reminded that the journalist was there, in Haiti, to report on rape after the earthquake.

I wondered what, exactly, I was supposed to “line up”? Women who were raped — for them to be revictimized by the international media? This was a part of my job, yes. But it was a part that I despised.

Her howls continued, growing louder. Guttural. Plastic bags now aside, I finally saw her. The girl. The girl behind the howls. She was lying in the dirt, writhing, face contorted, sweat-soaked in her once-white cotton gown, a scrap of fabric that was now brown and tattered on the edges.

The dirt had turned to mud where she lay. A small patch of mud, created by her sweat. Created by her pain.

“How old is she?” I said in French to the two women who stood above her, occasionally speaking to her in Creole. The girl did not appear to be listening.

“17,” one of the women responded, after a few more Creole words.

“Is this her first baby?” I asked.

“Yes.”

The howls continued. Her hand reached out, grabbing at the dirt, squeezing it between her fingers. Dirt was ground deep into her nails.

“The father…?”

“She does not know him…” one answered.

“What is her name?”

“We do not know.”

A girl whose name no one knew, delivering a baby she did not want, born from a man — a criminal — she did not know, in a house she no longer had, in front of strangers she did not welcome.

The cameraman hoisted his equipment into position, pointing his zoom lens so very close to her face, to her pain. Too close, I thought.

“Stop. Enough.” I said, calmly at first.

And then, firmly: “Get. Out.”

“This will not end well for you, Lina,” the journalist retorted, as they forcefully pushed aside the bag-barrier and left.

I left quietly afterwards, mumbling “I’m sorry… I hope she will be ok… Thank you for taking care of her…Please take care of her…” as I walked out, retying the bags carefully behind me.

Later, the article would say that I had obstructed a journalist’s investigation.

Later, I would regret not having done more.

At that point I had been working on sexual violence — on rape — for a decade already, in some of the world’s most challenging contexts. It was there, in Haiti, in the dirt, that I finally put words to what I was trying to achieve.

Safety.

I wanted to help women find safety. The girl in the dirt, I never saw her again. But that moment in the dirt, I never forgot it. In the rest of my time in Haiti, I met hundreds of women. And I asked each one the same question: “Are you safe?”

I asked, although I knew the answer. It was always No.

And then I would ask: “What will it take to make you feel safe?”

And I would try and do just that. It was impossible, this task I set out for myself. And maybe, maybe, it was enormous enough that I would be kept busy, distracted. Maybe I didn’t want to ask myself that same question. I did not want to hear the answer.

I was born into the unsafe, you see. I was born in a Beirut on the brink of war, to parents who fought desperately to bring us to safety. I was born broken — with a dislocated hip. In my body cast, I weighed 40 pounds. I was born unsafe and born broken, but more than this, I was born female, which is enough to make us inherently unsafe.

It didn’t take me long, as a girl, to realize that the world sees us as “less than.” We are less valued, and so we are given less choice, less voice, less opportunity. Less freedom. And with this “less,” we are expected to do more. We are expected to constantly compensate for how the world sees us, as if we have to prove ourselves worthy and deserving, over and over, again and again.

Boys are born believing they have a right to exist. Girls are expected to justify their right to exist in every space they occupy. There are plenty of stats to prove this. And I know them all too well. But it’s not about numbers. It is about what happens to a girl when she realizes that the world she was born into does not see her as equal, as worthy. There is a light that dims.

And so, when I was 14, I decided this: maybe I could not make myself feel safe, but I would set out to deliver it to women. All women. Everywhere.

It did not matter that I had not had much experience, or that I had not experienced much violence, or that I had no idea what I was doing. Every violence I heard of, every violation I saw — it was mine. I did not see myself as different. And to me, there was no difference between what happened to women and to me. I took on all the pain as my own.

When I was 23, I moved to Morocco. I was desperate to go to the field, into the unsafe and broken. “The frontlines!” I said. “It’s the field or nowhere!”

I went into the field to help women find safety. To find answers. To fix the unsafe and broken in myself. But I didn’t know it at the time. I also didn’t know that I could give of myself while also giving to myself. It would take me decades to understand that safety is a right to which we are all entitled — not something we need to earn.

In Morocco, my job was to take women into account in the work we were doing — poverty reduction, water and sanitation and hygiene, basic education.

“Where are the women?” I’d ask.

“What does this mean for girls?” I’d ask.

Surprising, because to me these questions were obvious. These questions had to be asked because we live in a world that actually does forget women. But I was there to remind them.

I tried to do something useful for women and girls, but instead I was forced to come to terms with our shared victimhood. In trying to address street harassment, I was harassed too. In trying to make the office safe for female staff, I was chronically unsafe.

I was trying to deliver a safety for women that I could not even provide for myself. I had set out to fix what I thought was broken in the world. I had not planned on being the victim. There, I had to come to terms with my own powerlessness.

What I experienced in Morocco was in many ways mundane. So ordinary we hardly even talk about it — because we come to expect it. No, not everyone has been to Morocco, but everyone knows what it’s like to have their ass touched when you don’t want it.

I was 7 the first time a man touched me in a way that I did not want.

“Sit up straight and do not move,” the hairdresser told me, “and keep your hands on the arm rest. So you don’t slouch,” he added.

I was slouching. I was sliding as far as I could off the chair. In fact, I was hoping to land on the floor, to slither out of his grasp and out the door.

As he cut my hair, he was rubbing his crotch on my hand. On my 7-year old hand.

“Don’t move,” he reminded me. I didn’t. I was frozen.

My mom was just a few feet behind us, on the sofa, glasses on the tip of her nose, eyes on a magazine. I could have called to her. I could have told him to stop. I could have told her about it then. Or later. I didn’t. Ever.

And this story is the earliest I can recall. It is not exceptional. In fact, it is unbearably ordinary. I’ve had many conversations over the decades with girlfriends talking about these things — the “first time” our boundaries were violated. It was not the only time.

Life in a female body is a story of the unbearable ordinariness of violence, in all its forms. It is a story of violations of our bodily autonomy. It is a story where we are reminded, in a million small ways every day, that our bodies do not belong to us.

Death by 1000 papercuts, they say. Yes. 1000 transgressions, 1000 micro-violations, 1000 incidents. I’m not dead yet, but damn — I am very, very angry.

The body cast stayed on for one year. Once it came off, I had a lot of catching up to do. Wiggling, moving, crawling. I was six months into my new life of freedom when my father decided that I should learn how to swim.

“My daughter will not be afraid of the water,” he said to my mom.

“You’d better go inside, you don’t want to see this,” he told her.

Before she had even turned away, my father pulled the floaties off my chubby baby arms and tossed me into the water. And to save my life, I swam.

So I pushed myself further into the field, wondering if this time I would swim or drown.

It was just after 9/11 and I was asked to go to Afghanistan.

“Why would you go to this place,” my mother asked. “It is not safe.”

“There is a war,” my father added.

I stayed quiet, only nodding occasionally to show them that I was listening. I had imagined that this conversation would be difficult.

“It is not your fight. It is not your warzone.” My mother looked away, leaving many things unsaid.

We sat in what seemed like an eternal silence, and then she said this: “We spent our lives trying to get you to safety. Why do you throw yourself into the unsafe again?”

I did not care about me. At least not then.

“Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm,” one friend said.

“If you feel that you need a break, you’ve already pushed too far,” another one added.

“Yes, yes,” I responded. Fortune-cookie wisdom. I had no mind for it. I had work to do!

At that time, Afghanistan was one of the least safe countries in the world. And one of the worst countries to be a woman. No, it was the worst. And that is exactly where I knew I needed to be.

Twenty-five years and twenty countries later, and maybe now I understand.

Perhaps I was looking for my own safety in the safety of other women. What I set out to achieve was the impossible. When women are safe, I’ll be safe, I probably thought.

They never were.

The author… sorta.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com