from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

A Victory for Today’s Amazons: The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

October 7, 2011

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Tawakkul Karman during a protest in January (L), Leymah Gbowee in New York on October 7, 2011 (C), and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the 2nd Arab-Africa summit in Sirte in October 2010 (R). (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi;Shannon Stapletown;STR New/Courtesy Reuters)

In awarding its 2011 Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has delivered a timely message about the centrality of women in the quest for global peace and justice.

Of the three, Johnson-Sirleaf is certainly the best known. Known at home as the “Iron [Lady]”, she was elected president of Liberia in 2005. Over the past six years she has brought rare political stability and economic recovery to a country devastated by years of unimaginable violence, while fighting the corruption that has plagued so many African nations. Her firm leadership and financial savvy as a former senior World Bank official has made Liberia a darling of the donor community, which has written off most of the country’s massive debt burden and showered it with aid.

To be sure, her record is hardly unblemished. During the 1990s she backed Charles Taylor in his quest to lead Liberia—before becoming one of his fiercest critics. More recently, she angered political opponents by reneging on her pledge to serve only one term. (With presidential elections just a week away, the Nobel Committee courts accusations of interfering in Liberian politics). But then again, sainthood has never been a requirement for the Nobel Prize, as awards to Henry Kissinger (1973) and Yassir Arafat (1994) attest. Whatever her personal failings, Johnson-Sirleaf’s accomplishments remain monumental.

More obscure but at least as deserving is Johnson-Sirleaf’s courageous compatriot Leymah Gbowee. A trauma counselor who had worked with former child soldiers from Charles Taylor’s army, Gbowee helped bring peace to Liberia in 2003 as the leader of the activist group Women of Liberian Mass Action for Peace—a nationwide movement that for the first time united Christian and Muslim women behind one common goal: ending the unspeakable violence in their country.

In a nation where thousands of women had been raped and brutalized by rival armed factions, Gbowee turned the tables on the warlords. She mobilized country-wide nonviolent protests by Liberian women. Famously clad in white t-shirts, the women became a regular fixture in the country’s cities, villages, and roadsides, agitating for peace by singing, dancing, and—like the women of Athens and Sparta in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata–withholding sex from men until they renounced war.

Through these relentless actions, Gbowee secured a meeting with Charles Taylor and won his pledge to attend peace talks in Ghana. Gbowee’s organization subsequently tailed him to make sure he followed through, keeping a vigil outside the negotiations. When deliberations stalled, they blocked the exits from the hotel until a peace settlement was reached after fourteen years of war. Gbowee’s heroics are celebrated in award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Rounding out the trio is Tawakkul Karman, a 32-year old Yemeni political activist who helped spark a massive protest movement against the corrupt regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Her work has earned her voluntary salutes from Yemen’s soldiers and the sobriquet “Mother of the Revolution.” A member of Yemen’s leading opposition party, Islah, she has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic—and brave independence of mind. Karman recently donned a floral pink head scarf and shed the traditional abaya because it wasn’t “suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain [since] people need to see you, to associate and relate to you.”

Exploiting a variety of social media, Karman organized the first major antigovernment protests at Sanaa University, and succeeded in drawing many women to the protests. Despite imprisonment, physical assault, and repeated threats, she has remained outspoken in her demands for genuine political reform—making her one of the unquestioned heroes of the Arab spring. And her struggle continues. Today found her conducting interviews about the prize on Arab television, in a protest tent in the central roundabout plaza in Sanaa, dedicating her prize to all “who stand up to [Saleh] and his gangs.  What is all the more extraordinary about her achievement, as the Washington Post reports, is that “it is happening in patriarchal, deeply conservative Yemen, where women’s courtroom testimonies are worth half those of men and most women wear head-to-toe black abayas.”

To be sure, the Arab spring has produced many heroes—and other worthy candidates for the peace prize. (Most were eliminated from consideration by a quirk of the calendar—the deadline for this year’s nominations was February 1, when the uprising in Egypt, for instance, was still in its nascent stages.) By any measure, however, Karman is a worthy recipient.

The selection of these three extraordinary women carries a broader message beyond their inspiring individual stories:  Unarmed women can, against all odds, help end legacies of brutal violence and oppression—and lay the foundations for enduring peace, justice and democracy. These three women have battled goliaths of their nations for years, to deliver better days to their nations. International recognition was never the goal, but it is an important message to their opponents that their brutality is not unnoticed.

That global attention is the greatest value of the Nobel peace prize. Back in 1993, the Internationalist was on hand as a guest scholar at the Nobel Institute, when the committee recognized Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk for their bravery in ending South Africa’s apartheid regime. Today’s awards remind us that the struggle for peace and justice continue—and tell the women and men on the front lines that they are on the right side of history.

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