Friday, October 7, 2011

3 women share the Nobel Peace Prize

It has been reported in the news that this year's Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to three women; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakel Karman, all three of whom are world renowned for the significant part they have played in the struggle for women's rights. In awarding these three the peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that they were being recognized "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa's first democratically-elected female president, having been elected in 2006. Since her inauguration, she has worked , according to the Nobel Committee, for peace, socio-economic development, and the improvement of the status of women in her country, Liberia.

Leymah Gbowee worked hard to mobilize women from various ethnic and religious backgrounds for the purpose of ending the civil war in Liberia and she has also worked to increase women's participation in public life. Tawakeel Karman has participated in the struggle for women's rights and human rights in her country, Yemen. The Nobel Committee stated that it was its hope that awarding these three women the peace prize "will help 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."

Tawakel Karman's story is particularly interesting. She is the first Arab woman to have won the peace prize. The decision to give her a share of the prize is intended, in part, as an expression of support for the Arab Spring, as well as a recognition of the important role Arab women have played in the democratic movements that are reshaping the Middle East. The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated; "The Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it." Karman herself stated; "I give the prize to the youth of the revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people."

The Nobel Committee's decision to award the peace prize to these three exceptional women is, I think, significant in that it reflects an appreciation of the vital role the struggle for women's rights plays in the broader struggle for human rights. It also reflects a growing tendency of women in the poorest and most oppressive societies to challenge their second-class status and attempt to reverse the political, social, and economic subjugation they have been forced to live under for so long. Above all, there is, I think, a growing awareness on the part of both men and women that progress towards socioeconomic development and political liberalization will be inhibited in any society where half the population is deprived of the same basic human rights, privileges, and opportunities that are accorded to the other half. Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, upon news of the award, stated:

"The Nobel Peace Prize recognizes what human rights activists have known for decades: that the promotion of equality is essential to building just and peaceful societies worldwide...the tireless work of these and countless other activists brings us closer to a world where women will see their rights protected and enjoy growing influence at all levels of government."

Most significant of all, in my opinion, is the awarding of the prize to Tawakel Karman, given the fact that she is a politically active Arab Muslim woman and given the momentous events that have occurred in Yemen, as well as in the broader region, over the past year. The decision to award a share of the Nobel Peace Prize to her is intended as an expression of support for women's rights and human rights in the Arab world. It is also intended to convey the message, which I think all of us will agree with, that genuine democracy cannot be achieved while women continue to be relegated to the status of second-class citizens. The following statement from the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee perfectly expresses this viewpoint.

"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"


Rose Sawyer said...
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Rose Sawyer said...

Sometimes it's great to note that women are making leaps and bounds forward -- to focus on feminism's successes (while acknowledging that there is still a ways to go!). In the New York Times article "No Longer is Leadership a Men's Club" [1], writer Luisita Torregrosa notes that Brazil has a female president (Dilma Rousseff), the United States has a female Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton), Germany has a female Chancellor (Angela Merkel), and the IMF has a female Director (Christine Lagarde). While women in top leadership positions are still the exception rather than the norm, there are at least now a handful of them -- enough that their individual voices may begin to form a sort of feminist chorus.

One might argue that these women are in such diverse positions that their presence will, practically speaking, effect little change. In the book Feminist Legal Theory: Readings in Law and Gender, however, Katharine Bartlett and Roseanne Kennedy address this postmodernist concern: "experience interacts with an individual's current perceptions and reveal new understandings and to help that individual, with others, make sense of those perceptions. Thus, from women's position of exclusion, women have come to 'know' certain things about exclusion." Otherwise put, Rousseff, Clinton, Merkel, Lagarde, and the recent Nobel laureates may be coming from very different places (literally and figuratively), but that doesn't mean that they won't promote universally "feminist" ideals.

Moreover, as the New York Times article points out, at the very least "the more young women and girls can look up to women in power, the more likely they are to see themselves holding such a job." This small handful of female visionaries may well usher in a generation of female leaders.