The citation for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – awarded simultaneously to the activists Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) Tawakkul Karman (Yemen) and the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia – notes that “[w]e 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.” The Nobel Committee statement ends with the hope that the award “will help to bring an end to the suppression of women … and to realise the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.”
The breadth of this suppression, and the courage needed to oppose the political and cultural institutions that perpetuate it, are easily underestimated. Twenty years ago the development scholar Janet Momsen estimated that women made up approximately half of the world population but were saddled with two-thirds of the manual work, for which they received one-tenth of the total income – they also held less than one per cent of the total property. The situation in Highly Indebted Poor Countries – the 40 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, that are eligible for special assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – remains comparably bleak today, but even in modern democracies women are generally undervalued and overworked. The 2009 US Census Bureau data on male-female income disparity – among ‘fulltime year round workers’ – shows American women earn nearly a quarter less than men. This statistic discounts relative experience and qualifications, but other surveys which focus on people with similar credentials confirm the existence of an income gap that can only be attributed to gender discrimination. Imagine, then, the difficulties which confront advocates of women’s rights in less receptive environments.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is celebrated beyond Africa, largely because of her well-deserved reputation for holding her nerve in a male-dominated culture. Less well known but no less impressive is the story of Leymah Gbowee and the hundreds of Christian and Muslim women whose alliance – the Liberian Mass Action for Peace – forced Charles Taylor and Liberia’s rebel warlords towards a negotiated peace in 2003. The non-violent alliance accomplished this with nothing more than all-white uniforms and an unshakable moral commitment to gather outside the presidential palace until the government acknowledged their concerns and began negotiations. When subsequent peace talks in Ghana were in danger of stalling, Gbowee ingeniously barricaded the conference room with her activists and threatened to strip naked when guards attempted to remove her. The conference continued and a deal was reached. Afterwards, Gbowee was instrumental in securing the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and she has even put together an unprecedented team of female election observers from nine West African countries for Liberia’s upcoming elections. Gbowee’s remarkable journey is vividly recorded in the riveting documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and her recent memoir Mighty Be Our Powers.
Tawakkul Karman is perhaps the only controversial choice among the 2011 laureates. Virtually unknown outside of Yemen, she founded a group called Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, to protest longstanding government abuses against human rights and freedom of expression. Over the years she has remained unfazed by imprisonment, an assassination attempt, and several threats which followed the government’s refusal to grant her a licence to publish a newspaper and open a radio station. In 2007 Karman launched a series of weekly protests which have contributed to the widespread movement that now looks set to topple the thirty-year dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
While her leadership of the frequent demonstrations in Sanaa’s Freedom Square are reminiscent of Gbowee’s Mass Action protests in Liberia, Karman also has much in common with Iranian activists like Shadi Sadr, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, Shirin Ebadi and Nasrin Sotoudeh – lawyers and journalists who have taken up the cause of women’s rights with astonishing courage. Like her Iranian counterparts, Karman comes from a devout Islamic background and has drawn much of her resolve from a firm conviction that modern Islam is compatible with progressive attitudes towards human rights. Significantly, Karman dedicated her award to “the youth of the Arab Spring, to the memories of the martyrs, to the injured and all the activists.”
In recent years the Nobel Committee has made several curious choices for its Peace and Literature prizes – the barely-elected President Obama and the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek being the most egregious – but this year’s Peace Laureates, and last year’s inspired choice of the Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo, are a welcome return to form for the world’s most prestigious prize. By themselves the awards are a small, long overdue gesture towards the full integration of women in both developing and developed societies yet, as the backgrounds of these remarkable women amply testifiy, the longest, strangest journeys begin with unlikely first steps.