This year’s award arrives as women in Africa and the Middle East find themselves at a crossroads of sorts, trying to break away from a history of restrictions fueled by culture and traditions. While women have become more visible in government and social activism, deep challenges remain in many areas, including education, employment and access to health care.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Nana Asantewa Afadzinu, executive director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute in Accra, Ghana, who has worked with Gbowee. “Women have a challenge in being part of the decision-making process in our countries.”
And although women have played crucial roles in the protests still rocking the Arab world, a conservative backlash in places such as Egypt has prompted efforts in some instances to push them out of the spotlight.
The Oslo-based committee described the award as an important siren call for women the world over. In its citation, read by its head, Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, the committee said that “we 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.”
Men have overwhelmingly won the award in its 110-year history; only 12 other women have been honored, including Mother Teresa, American philanthropist Jane Addams and Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner, who died last month.
Before Friday’s Nobel committee announcement, online speculation had centered on whether the peace prize would go to leaders of the protests that have toppled long-entrenched rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The deadline for nominations was Feb. 1, when protests in Egypt and Libya were still in their early stages.
“I very much appreciate the bloggers,” Jagland said when asked why Karman and not others involved in the protests had received the prize. But Karman’s “courage was long before the world media was there and reporting,” he said.
Karman called the award “a victory for our revolution, for our methods, for our struggle, for all Yemeni youth, and all the youth in the Arab world — in Tunisia, in Egypt, everywhere.”
“This will give the people more strength, and to recognize that peace is the only way, that making a new Yemen must come without violence,” she said, speaking by telephone in broken English from inside her tent in Change Square, the focal point of the uprising in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.