Nobel Peace Prize goes to 3 women activists, including Liberia's Sirleaf

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 7, 2011 

TRIPOLI, Libya — Friday's award of the Nobel Peace Prize to three women who'd undertaken nonviolent campaigns for peace and women's rights in war zones sent a powerful message to the developing world that women must not be left behind by movements that are pushing for democratic reforms.

But whether women will have “the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” as the Nobel citation called for, remains a much-discussed question even as reform movements upend political regimes that have ruled for decades.

Each of the laureates shows the power of women to influence events.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's president and the first woman ever to be democratically elected to lead an African nation, reflects a rare success story in a country where years of civil war devastated the economy and the social structure.

Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian community organizer, highlights the innovative grassroots campaigns of women who are fed up with violence in their communities _ one of the pressure tactics Gbowee devised was to organize Liberian women into holding a “sex strike” to force their men to stop fighting.

And Yemen's Tawakkul Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, underscores the obstacles women face as they struggle for reform in conservative societies. Karman, who in 2005 founded the group Woman Journalists Without Chains, continued her human rights activism despite death threats and the specter of prison.

Surrounded by supporters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, Karman beamed Friday in reaction to her unexpected Nobel win, greeting people from a tent at the anti-government sit-in that’s been her home for more than seven months. She remained humble despite the win, even as mobs congratulated her with cries of “our next president.”

Before the announcement, there was widespread speculation that the prestigious $1.5 million prize would go to participants in the Arab Spring revolts that continue to shake up authoritarian governments across the Middle East and North Africa.

It would have been difficult, however, for Arab protesters to fulfill the Nobel panel’s requirement that the prize go to an individual or organization. The uprisings, which first erupted in Tunisia and have now spread in some form to most of the region, involved millions of protesters and countless activist groups.

“This is not a win for me, but rather for the youth of Yemen, and all of the activists of the Arab world,” Karman said.

Arab women activists are growing increasingly angry that the historic demonstrations during which they faced down government snipers and choked through teargas alongside men haven’t led yet to real progress on women’s issues. In fact, in Egypt, Tunisia and other nations, feminists fear a rollback of rights if conservative Islamist factions fill the power vacuum.

"I think that the international community is feeling that women are being discriminated against after the revolutions that swept the Arab world," said Hoda Badran, an Egyptian activist who’s head of the Arab Women Alliance in Cairo. "I think that the world wants to tell our world to be ashamed of not giving women their rights and their fair share of recognition and participation in building their countries and communities."

Still, she said, the Nobel award was an important marker. “I’m very happy. The role of women in our region and continent has been recognized and will never be forgotten,” she said.

Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Nobel committee, echoed that theme when he was asked after the announcement why the committee had selected an activist from Yemen. Karman, he said, “showed courage long before the revolution started.” He said her selection was “a signal to the whole Arab world that one cannot set aside the women if one wants to build democracies.”

Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, ascended to Liberia's presidency in 2006 and has won praise for keeping her tiny, conflict-ridden country from sliding back into civil war. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Liberia was part of a multi-nation killing zone in West Africa where warlords and militias pillaged cities, hacked off limbs and raped women with impunity.

“She has done a lot to bring Liberia from where it was six years ago to where it is now,” said Titi Ajayi, a researcher on West Africa for the International Crisis Group. “She has contributed to the political empowerment of women, and a lot of Liberian women certainly are inspired by the fact that a fellow woman could become president.”

Whether she will hold onto the presidency, however, will be clear in four days, when she faces what's expected to be a close re-election vote. Liberia’s reconstruction hasn’t gone as smoothly as many had hoped. Unemployment remains shockingly high _ 80 percent, by some estimates — and the entire country still runs on generators, its power plants decimated by the war.

Johnson-Sirleaf also faces misgivings at home over her past support for Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, who’s currently on trial at The Hague, Netherlands, for war crimes he’s accused of committing in neighboring Sierra Leone. When Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed her among those who should be barred from public office because of their ties to the Taylor era, Johnson-Sirleaf ignored it.

Perhaps incongruously for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Johnson-Sirleaf was the only African leader who volunteered to host the U.S. military’s Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, which much of the continent staunchly opposed. The command ended up basing itself in Germany.

“It was a very controversial move,” said Emira Woods, a Liberian expert at Foreign Policy in Focus, a Washington advocacy organization. “I’m among those who see this prize as a reminder for her what a commitment to peace means in the long term.”

Gbowee, a former social worker and mother of six, was an influential peace activist during the Liberian civil war and served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She’s been widely lauded for her work with trauma victims, Liberian refugees and former child soldiers in Taylor’s army.

She led a delegation of Liberian women to peace talks in Ghana to press the warring sides to reach an agreement. In 2008 she was the subject of an award-winning documentary about women’s role in ending the war, called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which has its U.S. broadcast television premiere Oct. 18 on PBS.

She described her sex-strike tactic in a 2009 appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

“Desperation was the reason for us going that way,” Gbowee said. “We had just gotten to the point where we were really fed up and we thought our menfolk weren’t really serious about ending the conflict … and we needed to find a way to get to them…

"We just said, ‘No sex.’”

In Yemen, the ruling party of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued a brief statement congratulating Karman, one of the president’s most vociferous critics.

Despite her familial connections to the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, which is headed by her maternal uncle, Karman has often clashed with religious hardliners. At the dawn of her activism, she made the very public decision to stop wearing the niqab, the black face veil worn by the vast majority of Yemeni women, discarding it in favor of the bright, floral headscarves she wears now.

Karman has been a presence at anti-government demonstrations since they began in January and has remained an outspoken critic of Saleh, whom she routinely condemns as a criminal and a dictator. A brief detention by government authorities did little to temper her activities, instead raising her profile and swelling then-nascent protests as thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in outrage.

Despite her popularity, Karman has long been viewed as a controversial figure, and even some fellow activists have expressed misgivings about her leadership style and ties to Islamist figures. In the wake of Karman’s win, however, the criticisms seemed far from most Yemenis’ minds as they celebrated the impoverished nation’s first Nobel win.

“The first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize is a Yemeni woman, and a leader of our fight against the regime,” said Nader al Qirshi, a young demonstrator. “This can only make us stronger.”

(Allam, McClatchy's Cairo-based Middle East correspondent, is on assignment in Tripoli, Libya. Bengali reported from Washington and special correspondent Baron reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed from Cairo.)

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Leymah Gbowee interviewed on The Colbert Report

Trailer for 'Pray the Devil Back to Hell' about Leymah Gbowee's peace efforts

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