“In the hot sun and pouring rain, thousands of Muslim and Christian women sat side by side on the Monrovia Airfield, clothed in sackcloth and covered in ashes to proclaim a message of peace. These women sat together, enduring harassment and beatings at the hands of the armed soldiers of Liberian president Charles Taylor. Driven by their faith and a desperate situation they had come to protest against violence and government oppression.” This is the way a forthcoming work on Interfaith Just Peacemaking introduces the concept of faith in direct action for peacemaking: women’s grassroots leadership.
Leymah Gbowee, a key organizer of that non-violent campaign in Liberia, shares the Nobel Peace Prize of 2011 with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first woman to be elected president in modern Africa, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, a journalist and pro-democracy campaigner.
These women from Africa and the Arab world have received this honor as leading individuals, but this joint prize also illustrates one crucial aspect of non-violent direct action and social change: it is frequently the work of women who persevere year after year in revolutionary patience and creative actions, often from deep faith convictions. These women are designated leaders in one way or another, but they also symbolize the roiling power of faithful women’s grassroots work in peacemaking.
Liberia endured civil war for more than 15 years. Despite a peace treaty signed in 1995, violence continued and murder, rape and the use of child soldiers escalated. The lives of women and children became unbearable.
The women of Liberia had had enough. In 2002, Leymah Gbowee, along with Comfort Freeman, presidents of two different Lutheran Churches, began to speak out. They organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), a group that encouraged recognition of the import role women play in peacemaking.
They, along with many other women of Liberia, Christian and Muslim, persevered not only in peace witnesses and other mass action, but began to engage directly in conflict mediation. In 2003, as the war continued to be so brutal, WIPNET helped create the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign, “involving women of to confront and engage the rebels directly, traveling all over the country and region. WIPNET’s involvement with the rebel leaders was instrumental in moving the disarmament process forward,” according to a United States Institute of Peace report.
The election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was due in part to the energy generated by this widespread women’s activism, and according to the USIP report cited above, she “has made it a priority to include women in Liberia’s reconstruction: women head the ministries of commerce, justice, finance, youth and sports, and gender and development. They also comprise five of the 15 county superintendents.” President Sirleaf seems, however, more popular outside Liberia than inside, and her inclusion in the Peace Prize has raised questions. This is perhaps natural during a campaign season.
One clear message from the last 15 years in Liberia, however, is that women matter in bringing about substantial change through non-violence. Their challenge now is nation-building that includes women as full participants, and protects and nurtures children.
Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni journalist, politician, and human rights activist, is also illustrative of the new recognition of the work of women in creative, non-violent social change. She heads an organization which she co-founded in 2005, Women Journalists Without Chains and is the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She has become an international public face of the 2011 Yemeni uprising that was part of the Arab spring.
Tawakkol has been called “the mother of the revolution” and “the iron woman.” She received the news of winning the joint Nobel Peace Prize in her tent in “Change Square,” the epicenter of the Yemeni protest movement. “This prize,” she told the press from her tent, “is not for Tawakkul, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice.”
Like many women in the Arab Spring uprisings, Tawakkol uses the Internet as part of her activism, and her Facebook page welcomes you to WJWC.org, the Women Journalists Without Change website.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are models for her work, Tawakkol acknowledges, as they have been models for so many around the world in the work of creative non-violent direct action.
But there are new aspects of peacemaking being acknowledged in the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize as shared by these three women. Women as creative and courageous peace activists have always been crucial; what would the American Civil Rights movement have been without Rosa Parks, for example? But this 2011 prize underlines that today women are in the forefront as leaders directly making the change, and also, and equally important, they are bringing their own creativity, including their faith creativity, to this work as they sit, stand, march, pray, blog, and sometimes suffer harassment, beating, arrest and even death for a more decent and humane world.
Peace is genuinely women’s work today. Of course, in many ways, it always has been.