For the first time, three women have been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a cause for celebration.
Two of the women are Liberian, including the country’s current head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, while the third one is a Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman to get the Nobel. Only a dozen women had previously gotten the Nobel Peace Prize in more than a century of its existence.
The prize has been awarded to the three “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building work,” the Nobel Committee said in its press release. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Of the three awards, the one with the broadest significance may be the recognition given to Karman due to her involvement in the Arab Spring. (She has dedicated her prize “to all Arab revolutions.") Karman, at thirty-two the youngest Nobel Peace laureate ever, has been organizing peaceful protests since 2007 against the regime of Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh. She has also helped set up a Yemeni organization called Women Journalists Breaking the Chains, all the while taking inspiration from Gandhi, Mandela, and, above all, Martin Luther King. “She’s led demonstrations, even in years gone by, leading up to the time of Yemen’s unrest, which began in January, and she has inspired a lot of women as a result,” British journalist Iona Craig told Democracy Now. “She has fought very hard for press freedom and Yemen and she has also fought for political prisoners and for journalism in general in the country.”
Karman occupies an interesting place on the ideological spectrum—a liberal Islamist activist, with all the complexities contained within. “Giving it to a woman and an Islamist? That means a sort of re-evaluation,” Nadia Mostafa, a professor of international relations at Cairo University, told The New York Times. “It means Islam is not against peace, it’s not against women, and Islamists can be women activists, and they can fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.”
At the same time, critics point out that she is a member of a party, Islah, that has retrograde and hard-line elements in it (though she has tried to steer the party away from such thinking). Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, is also not without her share of detractors. She has certainly brought peace to her land, a huge achievement after the depredations of dictator Charles Taylor, a psychopath who is currently under trial at The Hague for various war crimes. But as impressive as this is, Sirleaf hasn’t been able to match it on other fronts.
“The president’s shining international image contrasts with the shaky condition of the Liberian economy, where fewer than one in five people have full-time employment, and with her early support for the warlord Charles Taylor, whom she later disavowed,” The New York Times reports. “And though she is credited abroad with restoring peace in Liberia, about 8,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops are still deployed here.”
Her political opponents also call into question the timing of the award, since it comes on the eve of a difficult reelection bid. Perhaps the least controversial among the three is Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist whose activism became known in the West through the award-winning documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”
Gbowee helped organize an interfaith coalition called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that mobilized thousands of African women against Taylor’s brutalities. “Leymah, who’s an extraordinary woman, sees herself as a community organizer and began organizing a movement first of women in churches, then reaching out to women in mosques, but really, women pushing forward the path to peace in Liberia,” Liberian-born analyst Emira Woods told Democracy Now. “You know, Amy, they marched every day in the pouring rain, in the blazing sun, with their kids on their backs, demanding the ouster of the former president Charles Taylor, and their work went largely unrecognized, really, except for a few of us who held them up.”
Coincidentally, Gbowee’s memoir, “Mighty Be Our Powers,” arrived at our office just a few days ago. She writes in her book that on every occasion she has been recognized for her work, “Each time my response was the same: Me?” “The work is hard,” she adds. “The immensity of what needs to be done is discouraging. But you look at communities that are struggling on a daily basis. They keep on—and in the eyes of the people there, you are a symbol of hope. And so you, too, must keep on.” The Nobel announcement comes barely a few weeks after the passing away of Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist and women’s rights activist extraordinaire who was the first African woman to become a Nobel Peace laureate. Maathai must be smiling somewhere.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "U.S. Must Change Policy Toward Pakistan."
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