The news didn’t quite seem to ignite an international celebration, but it was nonetheless a stunning piece of history. For the first time, three women from Africa and the Arab world were named as recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their efforts to use nonviolent methods of enhance gender equality and democracy.
As historic events go, this is among the most momentous-not only for the recognition of the significant role women are playing in promoting peace but because it has highlighted women in the small West African nation of Liberia, the home of two of the three Nobel laureates. The prize went to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, a fellow Liberian and peace activist. The third award was given to Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.
This is a highly welcomed, important development, considering the fact that the overwhelming majority of the prestigious award’s recipients have been men. It’s a refreshing and magnificent thing to see three women of color, two of them African, to join a field that, since the Nobel Peace Prize was first bestowed in 1901, has included such giants as Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Schweitzer.
In the international community, Sirleaf is one of the best-known leaders of any African nation as the first woman elected president in modern Africa. She took office in the aftermath of a devastating civil war that saw a quarter of a million Liberians dead and left the county’s infrastructure in tatters. A woman who was jailed by previous rulers of her country, Sirleaf been widely credited for keeping the peace in Liberia after the war ended.
For the last nine years, Gbowee has run an organization that has sought to unite Muslim and Christian women in the fight against oppression and to encourage the participation of women in Liberian elections. She first took up the cause in 2002, when she urged women in the fish markets of Liberia to protest the ongoing effects of the nation’s civil war.
Of course, the conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize is rarely without some controversy (who can forget the reaction to-and flutter over-President Barack Obama’s award in 2009?). Some in Liberia have criticized the timing of the award, which was announced in the final days of a heated presidential campaign in which Sirleaf was running for a second term.
Some of her critics have suggested that the award was part of an effort by the international community to throw its support behind the incumbent, a former Harvard student who once worked for the World Bank. They complain that she has been less than fierce in rooting out corruption and that progress has been too slow in Liberia.
Heated campaigns certainly produce heated rhetoric. And the reaction to Sirleaf’s award has ignited a large dose of it. What is undeniable, however, is that Liberia has attracted a good deal more international attention-and investment-under her stewardship, which has been central to the stability the country has experienced in the last six years.
At the end of the day, any time women are recognized for their roles as peacekeepers is cause for celebration. And when those women hail from Africa-an area of the planet that is too often misrepresented, marginalized and trivialized by the media-it’s cause for nothing short of sheer jubilance.