21 October 2011

Reflections on Nobel Peace Prizes

When the Nobel Committee awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama (who had just two wars to his name at the time) the reactions ranged from polite puzzlement to sincere outrage. Since he added a few more wars or half wars (as Libya is known in Washington) to his record, the inappropriateness of the Committee's decision became more obvious with each passing year.

This year, the Committee chose a less controversial path and named three women "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." 

My first reaction was that, after the unfortunate 2009 decision, they should have left Ellen Johnson Sirleaf out, especially since this decision came just days before Liberian elections. Unlike others, I was not too concerned about merit, in terms of her brief association with Charles Taylor. Stuff happens and everyone makes mistakes. Actually, a good friend of mine had the definitive pronouncement on this when she emailed me that "elected officials should not qualify for the Peace Prize." After the Obama decision, I say amen to that.

My second thought was that it was an interesting decision as it rewarded two socially conservative and religious women who became more progressive through their struggle. I call them reluctant feminists: their starting point was not gender equality but rather a sense of injustice which eventually forced them to question the patriarchal precepts of their society, culture and even religion.

In the process, instead of moving away from their faith, they seem to have moved away from the patriarchal elements of institutionalized religions.

Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee co-founded with Comfort Freeman Women in Peace Building Network (WIPNET) and organized Christian and Muslim women of Monrovia.
WIPNET extended their network to include Muslim women, and began holding peace vigils in churches and mosques, mass meetings in Monrovia’s City Hall, and they marched in the street with shirts that proclaimed, “We want peace. No more war.” It was the first time in the whole history of Liberia that Christians and Muslims were coming together. Under hot sun and pouring rain, thousands of Christian women and Muslim women sat side by side, holding daily sit-ins on the Monrovia Airfield. [my emphasis]
What is remarkable is how quickly WIPNET moved from its Lysistrata beginnings to this declaration of intent to the President:
"In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails." 
With that, Liberian women marched to the capital and
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.
If you watch the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, you will see that Gbowee is a deeply religious person who was primarily motivated by the plight of families and young people of Liberia.
“The people of Liberia have hope,” Gbowee said when she reflected on their efforts to end violence. “Our vision is for the unity of families and the elimination of hunger and disease. We believe God’s hands are under us in this effort now. God has turned ears toward us.”
But along the way, she discovered that God's hands were under women. And his ears were turned to them as well.

Tawakkul Karman

I knew of Tawakkul Karman through news reports, as she rose to the forefront of the Yemeni struggle. When I first read about her, I thought that this was a very appropriate name for someone in her position. You see, Tawakkul is an Islamic concept which roughly means trusting God that whatever comes your way is a reflection of his wishes. Officially, this is considered an important Islamic notion, mostly because Islam essentially means giving yourself to Allah.

If you take religion out of it, you could think of "tawakkul" as Zen-like equanimity and if you make it pan-religious, you could say that it is very similar to Job's attitude when he faced those calamities that befell on him and his family.

That is a name that befits a woman who is a member of the Islamist opposition group Al Islah (which means reform in Arabic) and who fights for freedom and for women's rights from within that conservative group.
She is socially conservative and her starting point was hardly a feminist platform.
Karman started protests as an advocate for press freedoms. Afterward she has also led protests against government corruption
She is a Yemeni Muslim woman who actually is not at all unconventional as she may have been depicted recently. Rather she is quite socially conservative. However she is extraordinary in her leadership. She holds a position on the central committee of Yemen's major political Islamist opposition party, the Islah (Reform) Party. Her brilliance is in her determination, her unceasing demand for the rights of citizens; all Yemenis, all Arabs and the entire world, to truly enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of association. 
Along the way, she realized how much of the society's ills were caused by the constant marginalization of women:
She has stopped wearing the traditional niqab, which is a full covering, in favour of more colourful scarves, often pink, that show her face. She first appeared without the niqab at a conference in 2004. Karman replaced the niqab for the scarf in public on national television to make her point that the full covering is cultural and not dictated by Islam. She told the Yemen Times in 2010:
"Women should stop being or feeling that they are part of the problem and become part of the solution. We have been marginalized for a long time, and now is the time for women to stand up and become active without needing to ask for permission or acceptance. This is the only way we will give back to our society and allow for Yemen to reach the great potentials it has."
She has also charged that many Yemeni girls suffered from malnutrition so that boys could be fed and called attention to high illiteracy rates, which includes two-thirds of Yemeni women.She has advocated for laws that would prevent females younger than 17 from being married.
I have to admit that, given institutionalized religion's almost immutable patriarchal structures, I have long considered mixing faith and feminism a mostly futile endeavor. I respect people with faith but when you start your journey by accepting a large number of axioms and deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about women's inferiority, imperfection and impurity, I believe that your ability to fight gender inequality is largely impaired.

Maybe I am reading too much into this but from the example of these two women I take the idea that instead of fighting for equality from the start (and probably lose) they decided to fight for women's freedom to choose, to be safe and to be mainstreamed. Despite my past misgivings about the futility of such efforts, given their success and the progression of their views, I look upon their struggle with respect and even optimism.

Maybe, they will avoid conservative traps like substituting women's equality with women's dignity and they will manage to change those long standing patriarchal structure in culture and religion.

We'll see. In the meantime, I am keeping an open mind about all this.

And I am happy that the Nobel Committee recognized these two women.

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