Friday, October 7, 2011

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize: progress toward a new societal order

History reveals that our society developed to reflect a "patriarchal order." Radical feminist scholars defined this order as a system developed by men for the primary purpose of serving male needs. Within the patriarchal order, women became a "category of oppressed people" trapped in a female "ghetto of sorts" with a purpose "to serve[]" in their shared, male conquest for power. (Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory). Some, like Catharine MacKinnon, consider violence and sexual harassment a defining element of this system. Men within this order focus on protecting their superior status and suffer from the pressure associated with "basing self-worth on performance, hiding doubts and vulnerabilities, and repressing feelings" (Id.; Mary Becker, Patriarchy and Inequality: Toward a Substantive Feminism).

The passage of time indicates that the strength of the patriarchal order slowly dissipates. Yet, many important vestiges of this system persist. As Mill explained in Women's Rights and Power in the Liberal State, the "issue is that [the legal subordination of women] is rooted in feelings," for the "most deeply-rooted feelings exist to protect old institutions and customs." So, is it even possible to strip a society of its demeaning, misogynistic, patriarchal traditions?

Today's news indicates that a new societal order--an order favoring equality and justice--might well exist. Early this morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman as recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee explained that these three women earned the prestigious prize for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." (Id.). The Committee followed this explanation with a statement that left a smile plastered across my face. "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world," the Committee stated, "unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society." (Id.).

These three women, like many remarkable women of the past, threaten the patriarchal order by refusing to remain chained behind the walls of the "female ghetto." In recognizing the achievements of these women, the Committee itself threatened the patriarchal order. The victory sweetens when one considers that these women were selected from amongst a pool of over two-hundred, well-qualified contenders.

Leymah Gbowee

In describing the role of women in a patriarchal world, Judith A. Baer explained in Our Lives Before the Law: Constructing a Feminist Jurisprudence that "sex is the means by which men exert power over women, and the model and metaphor for that power. Women's function is to be men's sexual outlets." So, what happens when brave women choose to resist this exertion of male power? What can happen when women turn the tables and refuse sex until men meet women's goals? Apparently, peace!

In the face of rape, warfare, and hunger, Leymah Gbowee organized women in a peace movement poised to end the Liberian civil war. These women sang and prayed together. They also collectively instituted a sex strike until their husbands, brothers, and male friends laid down their guns in favor of peace and reconciliation. Ultimately, the Gbowee-led mobilization of women in Liberia empowered women, recognized their legitimacy, and paved a road directly to peace.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female president of Liberia in 2006. (Three Women's Rights Activists Win Peace Prize). When she began her presidency, Sirleaf "inherited a broken country, devastated by war, [with] people displaced, infrastructure broken, [and] institutions dysfunctional." In spite of this challenging situation, President Sirleaf's leadership stabilized a failing country. (Id.). Her achievements in the face of adversity and her role as a powerful societal leader surely challenge patriarchal system in favor of an alternative world order in which women share the stage with men.

That said, while many celebrated Sirleaf's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, others argued that she did not deserve the award. These critics happen to include Winston Tubman, the man considered her main contender in Liberia's upcoming elections. While some may see this criticism as troubling, it could simply reveal the existence of a healthy Liberian democracy, for criticism abounds in democratic politics. In a world where even Americans have failed to elect a female president or vice president, President Sirleaf serves as important role model for women in leadership and politics.

Tawakkul Karman

In a country where women frequently face beatings and familial rejection for political activism, Yemeni leader Tawakkul Karman challenges the status quo. Often called "the Mother of Revolution," this brave activist and journalist inspires women throughout her country and her region to speak out in protest. Professor Nadia Mostafa explained to the New York Times that granting the prize to Karman serves as a victory for more than just women and activism, it "means Islam is not against peace, it’s not against women, and Islamists can be women activists, and they can fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.” Also a mother, Karman works tirelessly, but she is not immune from protest and danger. (In Yemen, A Woman Leads The Call For Revolution). Men have challenged her with their traditional daggers, and others have threatened the lives of her family members due to her actions and beliefs. (Id.).

Under the direction of Karman, the protesters in Yemen chanted, "The people. Want. The fall of this regime." (Id.) Is the time ripe for women and men to jointly call for the eradication of the last vestiges of patriarchy? Is the world ready for the fall of the male-dominated regime? The optimist in me wants to believe that the world will get there sooner rather than later.


Rose Sawyer said...

It is remarkable that these three women won the prize. However, the world's reaction to their having done so really reflects how male-dominated society is. When three men win the Nobel prize, it's hardly newsworthy -- but when three women do, it makes the front page.

As MacKinnon writes in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, "Men's physiology defines most sports, their needs define auto and health insurance coverage, their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family . . . their wars and rulerships [define] history, [and] their image defines God."

The reality that the women have won these prizes -- and its current shock value, I suppose, is a necessary step toward a world in which women's experiences and obsessions also define merit, in which the genders are truly equal. Still, a part of me looks forward to the day when three women winning the Nobel is just a fact -- and not front page news.

hanestagless said...

Rose Sawyer, I appreciate what you’re saying with respect to female winners of the Nobel Prize as compared to male winners. I agree with you that there is a discrepancy in society’s reaction to men and women winning the prize.

However, in truth, winning the Nobel Prize should always be front page news. The tragedy is that all the other winners of the Nobel Prize are buried in the back. There are six Nobel Prizes, Peace, Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature, and Economics (a memorial prize). This year's winner in Physics discovered that the Universe's expansion is accelerating. This is the first evidence of dark energy, changing our perception of the Universe. This year's winner in Literature is a Swedish poet who through "his condensed, translucent images, . . . gives us fresh access to reality." Every winner has fundamentally changed the way we see the world. Everyone should know of each person's contribution to the greater good of humanity.

Nonetheless, you make a very valid point with respect to how we react to women receiving awards, generally. While each award is a victory, it is indicative of the struggle that remains. Last year Tina Fey won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She was the third woman to do so, after Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. In typical Tina Fey fashion, she fearlessly and humorously drew attention to the issue during her acceptance speech saying: "I do hope that women are achieving at a rate these days that we can stop counting what number they are things. Yes, I was the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live, and, yes, I was only the second woman ever to be pregnant while on the show. And now tonight, I am the third female recipient of this prize. I would love to be the fourth woman to do something, but I just don't see myself married to Lorne [Michaels ( her oft-married boss from Saturday Night Live)]."