In case you missed the news, I wanted to direct your attention to the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in October to three African women, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work” (Nobel Peace Prize website). Two of them, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, are from Liberia, and one, Tawakkul Karman, is from Yemen. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current president of Liberia (and first female president in modern Africa), Leymah Gbowee is a prominent peace activist who has sometimes been associated with Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman is also a human rights activist.
I’m going to focus on Leymah Gbowee for now simply because she is the peace prize recipient about whom I first started reading this past month (so basically everything I’m recounting is from pieces I’ve managed to glean from news stories and interviews featuring her). This woman is for real, folks. Influenced by MLK, Jr., and Mennonite John Howard Yoder, she basically inaugurated a women’s peace movement that would significantly contribute to the end of the second Liberian civil war in 2003. While working for no pay as the leader of WIPNET, the Women in Peacebuilding Network, and while trying to handle the care of her five children, she decided to stand up against the bloody violence and terror of war. With help, she began welcoming others to work for peace by going to mosques, markets, and churches, proclaiming an end to the war and handing out flyers to get people, particularly women, involved. As 2002 progressed, Gbowee came to be recognized as the leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which centered around Muslim and Christian women praying in markets together (using both Muslim and Christian prayers) and staging sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations directly against the orders of brutal Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.
Of particular interest to me is Gbowee’s inauguration of a sex strike by thousands of women: women refused to have sex with their male partners until the war was over. (And no, Gbowee had not read nor even heard of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.) The sex strike did not directly end the war, but it garnered a lot of media attention for these women and their protest over the course of several months. They (as in, a couple thousand women or so) finally became so bold as to occupy a soccer field next to the route the Charles Taylor would take every day to get to work. They wore white T-shirts with the WIPNET logo on them, as well as white hair bands. Fortunately, Taylor agreed to have a hearing with them, and at that point Gbowee voiced their demands for the war to be over. Taylor then promised to attend peace talks in Ghana the following year and to negotiate with warring rebels.
Come the time for those peace talks in 2003, Gbowee and a small group of women gathered outside the opulent hotels where the talks were occurring. They wanted to put pressure on the negotiations and push for an end to the civil war. However, these talks dragged from early June all the way through July without the violence in Liberia waning. Becoming increasingly impatient, the crowd of women, now swelling to a couple hundred, gathered inside the hotel lobby in full view of the negotiators, holding signs calling for an end to the violence and threatening to link arms to hold the negotiators “hostage” until the war ended. When the men tried to leave the area, the women threatened to rip their clothes off, which would be a deeply scandalous action, as married and/or older women bearing their skin in public is generally considered taboo in African society. Gbowee believes that their presence helped bring an air of seriousness and sobriety to the talks. The Liberian war officially ended a few weeks later and Taylor resigned in August of that year.
There’s more to Gbowee’s life story, and you should check out her 2011 book Mighty Be Our Powers. I just want to point out a couple things about the events that I’ve relayed. First, Gbowee’s success came from her ability to mobilize masses of women, thus attesting to the power that women can have upon society, specifically against warring men. Second, Gbowee mobilized women across religious lines: she got Christian and Muslim women to pray together in public spaces for peace. I think that’s cool and noteworthy and is a really good example of the directly political and liberative effects of prayer.
Third, and in some ways most importantly to my mind, change took time and required profound personal risk and inconvenience and was not directly rewarding. I think it’s easy to look back on this portion of Gbowee’s life, years after the war has ended, and triumphantly take for granted that it just worked out for her because, gosh darn it, she had moxie. Now, I’m not denying her moxie, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it must have been like to go into public and gather diverse and sundry groups of women and stage sit-ins in public. Think about what it would be like to decide to occupy the soccer field where Charles Taylor, dictator Charles Taylor, would see you and then decide what to do with you. Think about what it would be like to yell at a bunch of male politicians that you’re going to rip your clothes off in public if they don’t end the war, stat. Think about the courage it would take to threaten patriarchal codes of subordination and control of women and demand change in society from violent men. I remember that a few of us here at ND staged a very small, quiet protest of William McGurn visiting and giving a talk on being pro-life right around the time that all the CIA waterboarding classified stuff was getting revealed in connection with the Bush administration, and I had sweat through my clothes within the first ten minutes of sitting down and holding posters up at the entrance to the talk. (Remember that time, guys?) So. I find the degree of risk that Gbowee and other women incurred to be deeply humbling, and I will continue to think about her as I encounter things in my own life that I need to challenge and decry. I think she’s providing a concrete witness to acting out of courage for the truth.
On a final note, check out this relatively short interview of her by Stephen Colbert. It’s not that substantive (it’s Colbert), but it gives you a chance to see her speaking, looking utterly gorgeous and completely unflustered by Colbert. She also includes a brief bit about the ugly effects of the slave trade upon Liberia starting in the nineteenth century:
My general point, then, is not to pass up learning about this awesome woman, as well as the other women who won the Nobel peace prize this year.