By Kelly Jean Cogswell
Last Friday, the 2011 Nobel committee split the peace prize among Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni writer Tawakkol Karman, recognizing them "…for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." It’s one of only 12 peace prizes given to women in the 112 years of the award, and the first for an Arab woman.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s probably the most conventional of the three -- a Harvard-trained economist who became post-colonial Africa’s first woman president. Elected in 2005, she’s worked to promote development for her impoverished country, getting 4 billion dollars in foreign debts forgiven, and supporting the rights of women and girls.
The Liberian activist that made her election possible, was sister laureate, Leymah Gbowee, who worked first as a trauma counselor with ex-child soldiers, before participating in the fledgling women’s peace movement trying to end years of bloody civil war, widespread rapes, and the kidnapping of children for soldiers.
The movement began in Monrovia in 2002 with a daily peace encampment near a small market where women dressed in white, and fasted and prayed. She joined them, working to unite Muslim and Christian women, and developing additional strategies. One tactic was a sex strike persuading husbands to support the peace movement. It was extremely successful. Another time they threatened curses.
Not long after a huge march on Monrovia’s City Hall in 2003, dictator Charles Taylor agreed to meet. Three days later, there was a ceasefire. Soon after that, all sides negotiated an agreement that has held up, thanks to ongoing work. Taylor is currently awaiting a verdict at the Hague after being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The women’s peace movement in Liberia has sparked interest all over the continent, encouraging women in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe to begin putting pressure on their own governments. The third laureate, journalist and leader in Yemen’s democratic revolt, Tawakkul Karman, has been equally inspiring to women in the Arab world.
Head of Women Journalists without Chains, she’s a longtime critic of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, organizing protests since 2007 to demand rights for women and increased freedom of the press.
It was her arrest in January that sparked massive protests demanding a democratic government. Since her release, she’s been with the other protesters in “Change” Square, despite very real fears she’ll be murdered or kidnapped.
Like other women protesters from the Arab Spring, she’s faced not only threats from her government, but from conservative forces in her own Islamic opposition party, Islah, that have denounced her uncovered face and close contact with men. Her own father was opposed, and tried to get her to stop, but when she wouldn’t he finally joined her.
Like the Liberian activists, the growing visibility of Tawakkul Karman is hugely important for women in the region. She’s openly called for women to take to the streets. They’re responding in droves, though most keep to the back of demos and wear the abaya and face veils.
It’s difficult to say what these awards mean for lesbians in Central Africa or Yemen. Even in democratic countries, we’re often excluded from women’s movements, and our own work rarely sees the light of day.
On Friday, for instance, while these three extraordinary women were being informed of their award, one South African court finally offered some small measure of justice in the murder of lesbian activist Zoliswa Nkonyana who was beaten, kicked, and stoned to death six years ago by a gang of youths.
The trial was postponed more than fifty times by a reluctant justice system and the incompetence and bigotry of local cops, but in the end, at least four out of the twenty accused were found guilty.
If the trial happened at all, it was due to pressure from groups like FreeGender, a black lesbian organization in Capetown whose founder and spokesperson Funeka Soldaat said that though they were happy about the judgment, too many people had been acquitted due to police incompetence.
She helped found the group because lesbians were being raped and killed and nobody cared. Mobilizing was tough: “lesbians were too scared to attend public demonstrations.” So they decided to create FreeGender, which would let them stand as a group against homophobia, holding workshops, and trying to get cops trained.
They’ve come a long way. In June they hosted the very first national black lesbian conference in South Africa, and participated in a groundbreaking task force of the Department of Justice aiming to combat the wave of rapes targeting lesbians in South Africa.
The LGBT community could take a page from Nobel committee’s book, and do more to highlight the work of queer activists like Funeka Soldaat, both with funding and recognition. It's how more activists are inspired.