Let Us Celebrate These Powerful Women

It has been announced in Oslo that this year's Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded jointly to three amazing women, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia. Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said that the oppression of women is the most important global issue: "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women achieve the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: In 1980 Samuel K. Doe, an army officer, staged a coup and seized power over Liberia. Two decades of turmoil and bloodshed followed. During his stronghold, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was arrested and threatened with death. Johnson Sirleaf, who had served as a vice president of Citibank in Kenya for a time, became active in politics and an outspoken critic of Doe's brutal and corrupt regime. After calling government officials idiots, she was jailed in 1985 and again in 1986, then fled to the United States. But she always considered Liberia to be her home, and returned frequently. When she made an unsuccessful bid for Charles Taylor’s presidency in 1997, compatriots and critics alike began to call her Liberia’s Iron Lady. Not taking "no" to mean "never," Johnson Sirleaf ran again in 2005 and defeated soccer sensation George Wea for the presidency, becoming Africa's first female elected head of state. She inherited a nation that Taylor had plunged into more than a decade of civil war. The conflict had left 200,000 dead, a third of the population displaced and 60 percent of it under the age of 25, and no infrastructure to speak of. But she has proved to be up to the task at hand.

Tawakkul Karman: The Yemeni activist received the news about her Nobel Prize in Change Square in her country's capital, Sanaa. She has camped out there for several months with other protestors calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman is a journalist who is politically active in Yemen's main opposition party, Al-Islah, also called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform. The party, with an estimated five million followers nationwide,  garnered 22.6 percent of the popular vote in the last election. She also founded and heads Women Journalists Without Chains, and advocates for mobile phone news service, for which she receives a litany of threats and suffers harassment. She has stopped wearing the traditional nigab, which covers her body and face, and embraces the wearing of scarves that allow her face to be seen, contrary to cultural preferences. She is also a fierce advocate for the rights of young women, whom she seeks to save from being married before the age of 17. During the ongoing 2011 Yemeni protests, Karman organised student rallies, which I will allow her own words to describe: "After a week of protests I was detained by the security forces in the middle of the night. This was to become a defining moment in the Yemeni revolution: media outlets reported my detention and demonstrations erupted in most provinces of the country; they were organised by students, civil society activists and politicians. The pressure on the government was intense, and I was released after 36 hours in a women's prison, where I was kept in chains."[1]

Leymah Gbowee: Also from Liberia, the activist was born in the center of the country, but in 1989, when she was 17, she moved to the nation's capital, Monrovia. The following year, warlord Charles Taylor led an uprising against president Samuel K. Doe, which led to Civil War. Gbowee trained as a social worker and trauma counselor, and began to work to heal the pain and violent tendencies of the former child soldiers that Taylor used for his cause. There was nothing about this war that sat well with Leymah Gbowee and so she began to organize in a very unusual way: In 2002 she drew both Christian and Muslim women together to refuse sex with their husbands until the violence ended. As in Aristophanes' Lysistrata, they were able to use this technique to force a negotiated peace. Gbowee explained in Newsweek that “nothing happened overnight. In fact it took three years of community awareness, sit-ins, prayer and non-violent demonstrations staged by ordinary 'market women.'"  Today, Leymah Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra Ghana. Her work is designed to create support for women through building their capacity to prevent and stop conflicts. To this end, she is also a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program / West African Network for Peacebuilding. She has also served on the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the commissioner-designate.

How Can We Help: 
  1. Be aware of the ways in which these women move or inspire you
  2. What are the issues plaguing society that most clearly call to you and challenge you?
  3. You may want to read more about these amazing women. Do a Google search to discover more of their publications
  4. See if there are projects or issues that you are passionate about where you might replicate some of the techniques they have employed
  5. How could you use these women as touch-stones?

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