Liberia’s democratically elected female president, an Liberian feminist activist and a Yemeni woman who has organized women in the Arab Spring were chosen to share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
When Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, set up the awards in his 1895 will, he established prizes in literature, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, honoring significant advances in the fields of physical science and significant contribution to the human culture in literature. The physical science prizes are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, along with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The physiology and medicine prize is decided by the Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish Academy awards the prize for literature.
The Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Nobel was a bit vague about the prize, which should honor “work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” It was sort of his penance for the damage his invention did. Over the century, the Committee expanded the definition to include civil rights activists. The first co-winner was Henry Dunant who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross. There have been 101 individuals and 20 organizations who have won this prize, which includes an award of $1.5 million dollars. Only fifteen have been women.
The first woman to be awarded the prize was Bertha von Suttner, in 1905, partly for her book Lay Down Your Arms and mostly for her contributions to the prize fund. The next woman was American Jane Addams in 1931. Addams was an activist for the poor. In 1976, two women from Northern Ireland, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, shared the prize for founding the Northern Ireland Peace Movement. Mother Theresa won in 1979 and Alva Myrdal, a negotiator for disarmament, in 1982. The screaming omission in this list is Eleanor Roosevelt who worked for recognition of women’s rights in the founding of the United Nations.
Since 1991, women have increased their presence in the list of Nobel laureates. Ang San Suu Kyi of Burma in 1991, Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala in 1992, Jody Williams of the United States in 1997, Shirin Ebadi of Iran in 2003, Wangari Muta Maathai of Kenya in 2004.
Joining their ranks today is Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is working to establish a stable government in a nation that has suffered too many of the upheavals common to African nations. Liberia was founded in 1847 as a home for freed American slaves. Liberia went through a civil war that began in 1989 and ended in 2003, killing about 200,000 people and displacing another 3 million. United Nations peacekeepers have been working there since 2003 to maintain the fragile peace between the factions. Sirleaf, who took her master’s degree from Harvard in public administration and held major jobs at the World Bank and the United Nations, first ran for the presidency of Liberia in 1997, losing in a landslide in a rigged election to Charles Taylor. She became the focus of the Liberian opposition, nicknamed the “Iron Lady” and was elected after a campaign that handed out buttons saying “Ellen – She’s Our Man” in 2005. Her re-election campaign is winding towards next Tuesday’s elections, facing accusations from the opposition of vote fraud before the election is even held. The Nobel Committee said that the upcoming election had no influence on their decision, but it sure can’t hurt.
Shirleaf’s fellow Liberian, Leymah Gbowee, is the organizer of a group of Muslim and Christian women to fight the warlords and, “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia and to ensure women’s participation in electins.” She also has worked since the end of the civil war to protect and defend the victims of rape. She is the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa and is the mother of five.
Choosing to honor a woman for participation in the Arab Spring was more difficult. Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told the press, “We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context. Namely, if one fails to include women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.” “It was not easy for us to say to pick one from Eygpt or pick one from Tunisia, because there were so many. And we did not want to say that one was more important than the others.” It doesn’t help that the revolutions are still in flux. In choosing Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, they chose someone whose activism predates the Arab Spring. Yemen is a very conservative nation, but the revolution has involved a lot of prominent women. It has also been very unsuccessful. Karman leads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. She has been a driving force in organizing the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman told the Associated Press, “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people”
Though the three represents very different aspects of women’s rights, they share a determination that women do have rights, equal rights, regardless of race, nation or religion. While Western and some Far Eastern women have become complacent about their rights, the struggle is in its earliest stages in Africa and the Middle East. In addition to political rights, economic rights and education rights, those women are fighting rites and rituals that mutilate women in the name of “purity,” cultures that punish women for being victims, cultures that responded to AIDS by allowing younger and younger girls to be married off – greatly prized for their virginity.
Though Alfred Nobel did not include civil rights activists in his criteria for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, it is with the expansion of rights for all that peace becomes possible. Without rights, peace is just a state of non-violence created by oppressors.