OSLO, Norway – Leymah Gbowee confronted armed forces in Liberia to demand that they stop using rape as a weapon. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first woman to win a free presidential election. Tawakkul Karman began pushing for change in Yemen long before the Arab Spring.
They share a commitment to women’s rights in regions where oppression is common, and on Friday they shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored women for the first time in seven years, and in selecting Karman it also recognized the Arab Spring movement championed by millions of often anonymous activists from Tunisia to Syria.
Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said it would have been difficult to identify all the movement’s leaders and that the committee was making an additional statement by selecting Karman to represent their cause.
“We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context,” Jagland told reporters. “Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.”
Karman is the first Arab woman ever to win the peace prize, which includes a $1.5 million award that will be divided among the winners. No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees.
“I am very, very happy about this prize,” said Karman, who has been campaigning for the ouster of Yemen’s authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2006. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”
Sirleaf, 72, won Liberia’s presidential election in 2005 and is credited with helping the country emerge from an especially brutal civil war. She is running for re-election Tuesday in what has been a tough campaign, but Jagland said that did not enter into the committee’s decision to honor her.
“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia, the capital. She said Liberians should be proud that both she and Gbowee were honored.
“Leymah Gbowee worked very hard with women in Liberia from all walks of life to challenge the dictatorship, to sit in the sun and in the rain advocating for peace,” Sirleaf said. “I believe we both accept this on behalf of the Liberian people and the credit goes to them.”
Gbowee, who took a flight to New York on Friday, said she was shocked to learn she had won.
“Everything I do is an act of survival for myself, for the group of people that I work with,” she said. “So if you are surviving, you don’t take your survival strategies or tactics as anything worthy of a Nobel.”
One of the first people she told was a fellow airline passenger.
“Sat by a guy for five hours on the flight and we never spoke to each other, but I had to tap him and say, ‘Sir, I just won the Nobel Peace Prize.’ ”
Gbowee, 39, has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape, organizing Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters – the “women in white” – through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who continued to prey on women even though a peace deal ending 14 years of near-constant civil war had been reached months earlier.
“You’re supposed to be our liberators, but if you finish everyone, who will you rule?” Gbowee asked rebel official Sekou Fofana during one march that year.
Gbowee was honored by the committee for mobilizing women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.”
Gbowee works in Ghana’s capital as the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. The group’s website says she is a mother of five.
The Harvard-educated Sirleaf took a different path toward change in Liberia, a country created to settle freed American slaves in 1847.
She worked her way through college in the United States by mopping floors and waiting tables. Jailed at home and exiled abroad, she lost to warlord Charles Taylor in elections in 1997 but earned the nickname “Iron Lady.” A rebellion forced Taylor from power in 2003, and Sirleaf emerged victorious in a landslide vote in 2005.
Though Liberia is more peaceful today, Sirleaf has critics at home who say she hasn’t done enough to restore roads, electricity and other infrastructure devastated during the civil strife. Her opponents have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign for re-election, charges that her camp denies.
Liberia’s truth and reconciliation commission recommended that she be barred from public office for previously giving up to $10,000 to a rebel group headed by Taylor. Liberia’s legislature has not approved that recommendation, and Sirleaf has said that if she should apologize for anything it is for “being fooled” by Taylor in the past.
Karman is a mother of three from Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against Saleh’s regime. The daughter of a former legal affairs minister under Saleh, she has been dubbed “Iron Woman,” “The Mother of Revolution” and “The Spirit of the Yemeni Revolution” by fellow protesters.
Long an advocate for human rights and freedom of expression in Yemen, she mounted an initiative to organize Yemeni youth groups and opposition into a national council.
On Jan. 23, Karman was arrested at her home. After widespread protests against her detention – it is rare for Yemeni women to be taken to jail – she was released early the next day.
Karman, 32, now lives in the capital, Sanaa. She is a journalist and member of the Islamic party Islah and heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains.