Friday, October 07, 2011

The Nobel Peace Prize in 2011

Went to three women, all of whom clearly deserve it:
The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded Friday to three influential women from Africa and the Middle East, a decision intended at once to draw attention to the suppression of women’s rights around the world and to spur their fight for greater freedoms and equality in conservative, male-dominated societies.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia became the first woman to be elected president in post-colonial Africa. Peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, mobilized women across ethnic and religious lines to help end war in Liberia and ensure women’s participation in elections there. Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist, has been a leading figure in the nation’s populist revolt this year and inspired thousands of women to rise up in a region where women are considered second-class citizens.
You can watch the award speech here.

Short snippets from descriptions of the winners:
In 2006 Johnson Sirleaf took over a government that lacked policies and procedures. She inherited a collapsed economy, with low human capacity, a highly corrupt government, no running water or light, unpaved primary roads, and few functional schools. But because of peace and stability in the country, Liberia has attracted $16bn in investment and it is erasing its international debt.
As president, Johnson Sirleaf has received numerous international accolades, including America's highest civilian honour: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Women currently occupy many top positions in her government, including the ministers of justice, commerce, and agriculture, and head of the Liberian anti-corruption commission, to name a few. The president established a rape law, and a rape court that made it an unbailable crime. She has given hope to Liberian women that they can be anything they want to be, if they try.

Gbowee grew up in Bong County, in central Liberia, and left for the capital when she was 17, just before the war started in 1990. She trained as a trauma counsellor and started working with ex-child soldiers who had fought for Taylor. She then became the spokeswoman for the women's group and led the protest for peace, concluding that: "If any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.
"I started to cry and to pray. The women kept coming. Market women. Displaced women from the camps. Some of them had been walking for hours,'' she said in her book, The President Will See You Now.
Her strength was evident in 2003 when she led hundreds of women to Monrovia's City Hall, demanding an end to the war. "We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed," she shouted. "Our children and grandchildren will not be used as killing machines and sex slaves!"
The women protested until Taylor agreed to a meeting. Under Gbowee's leadership, they gave the three warring factions three days to deliver an unconditional ceasefire, an intervention force and for the government and rebels to sit down and talk. They got what they asked for and soon after, the Accra Peace Accord was signed in Ghana.

Karman identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen's alienated youth, but she is also a member of Yemen's leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah, which has been co-ordinating many of the protests against Saleh and buying food and medical supplies for the thousands camped out in Change Square. It has caused alarm in the west, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former adviser to Osama bin Laden considered a terrorist by the US.
But Karman's relationship with the Islah is complicated. She maintains it is the best party in Yemen for supporting female members, but last October ran into trouble after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill to make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17. "The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I'm trying to take women away from their houses," she told the Guardian in March.
Some student protesters have accused her and her party of trying to hijack their movement in a bid for power. Karman responded: "Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organise. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don't want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one." Last year she narrowly escaped with her life when a female assassin tried to stab her with a traditional dagger known as a jambiya. Karman says her crowds of supporters helped her survive the attack.
Many see Karman's award as recognition of the growing involvement of Yemen's women in the uprising. In a country where most women are neither seen nor heard, thousands have taken to the streets in recent months, defying authority and the weight of tradition to call for the fall of the regime, and the sight of 10,000 of them marching down a six-lane motorway in mid-April after Saleh accused them of "mingling with men" was too much for some to bear.

The political intention of this year's Peace Prize is clear: It's to draw attention to the oppression of women and the fact that peace defined without any input from women is not going to be a general peace or create a fair society:
Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, said the Nobel committee hopes that the 2011 prize “will help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realize the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.”
In the fight for democracy in the Arab world, he said, “one must include the women and not set them aside.”
But deep challenges for women remain in both Africa and the Middle East. A United Nations report this year said many African countries have made “notable progress” in improving equal access to primary education, but that unemployment and poverty remain higher for women than for men in many countries, and access to health care remains inadequate.
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.
I am pleased with this year's choices. At the same time, reading about these brave women shows us the constraints they work under, what roles are possible for women to assume in a conservative society and why. For someone like me (a cynical-but-idealistic goddess) the road ahead is a very long one before the fact that these recipients are women would matter not a whit. That's the kind of world I would like to live in.