Reformers and Peacemakers, Nobel Women
Liberia’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee and youth activist Tawakkul Karman are the first women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize since 2004. These three women were chosen for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. It seems the overarching theme attached to 2011’s prize was that of women’s rights and activism. In this regard, the Nobel committee was spot on. Democracy and lasting peace can only be realized if women’s needs and concerns are recognized in conjunction with the expansion of women’s aspirations and skills to their fullest potential. Until women are formally educated and can earn a living wage, they will not be able to take their rightful place in influencing development at all levels of society.
However, having been criticized for imposing a political agenda on continuing events rather than capturing a moment of hope, the Nobel committee has received flack for their choice of winners. I have no problem with this perceived political agenda, as long as that agenda arises from support of particular issues and is not just blanket coverage for the sake of granting women the Nobel peace prize.
In a blanket coverage stance, the committee seems to have arbitrarily thrown the prize at three women, all in the name of merely supporting women’s interests. By doing so, they have diluted the standing of the Nobel peace prize. What the committee really needed to do was pick a particularly pertinent issue and stick with it or adopt a more representative approach. Over the last year and from their list of possible winners, the Nobel committee could have picked out three issues within the context of women’s rights and activism: The Arab Spring, Liberian women peacemakers and a decade of conflict in Afghanistan. But instead of focusing on one issue, the Nobel committee picked out two issues, Liberia receiving more emphasis than the Arab Spring while ignoring Afghanistan altogether.
As part of a focused approach, the prize could have been given to the two Liberian women in honour of their efforts to build a fragile peace out of a nation devastated by more than a decade of civil war marked by the use of rape as a weapon of war and the use of child soldiers. While Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee epitomize the strength and resilience of Liberian and African women generally, Tawakkul Karman is considered to be a token nod in favour of the Arab Spring. With a short but intense record of activism, she was chosen ahead of a Tunisian or Egyptian woman in support of an ongoing ‘revolution’ in Yemen.
If the Nobel committee wanted to take a truly representative approach, then they should have included the Afghan candidate in the trilogy of 2011’s women winners. Head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and former Minister for Women’s Affairs, Sima Samar is the first Hazara woman to qualify as a doctor in Afghan history. Although more interestingly, Samar’s emphasis is on the health of women – particularly the impact of poor diet or lack of sunshine on the bone structure of Afghan women in conservative families.
Granting the Nobel peace prize to Samar would not only have been acknowledgment of the gains made in Afghan women’s rights over the last decade, but also recognition that these rights are teetering on the edge of oblivion in a quick fix bargain for peace with the Taliban. A whole generation of Afghan girls was born and raised into the idea that they have the right to education, to vote, to hold positions in paid employment, to stand for elected office and enjoy a life free of domestic violence and forced marriage. Such hopes cannot be obliterated now. Given December’s Bonn Conference to set Afghanistan’s course after 2014, the Nobel peace prize would have embodied the message that women need to play an active role in an inclusive peace process, and any negotiations or settlement with groups like the Taliban must unambiguously guarantee women’s rights.
Alright, there’s no rush. The Nobel committee always has next year to embrace a different aspect of women’s interests in either a more representative or specifically focused manner. But in 2011, and exactly 10 years to the day since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, by overlooking Afghan women the Nobel committee may have missed a vital opportunity.