Awakening to Women: The Nobel Effect

The Nobel Committee's decision to celebrate the role of women in peace does so much more than celebrate three extraordinary heroines. It wakes us all up to the power of women everywhere to transform and sustain a peaceful planet.
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The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee is an occasion for both celebration and reflection. Gbowee, 39, one of the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and currently the Executive Director of the Women in Peace and Security Network, was prompted to action by her refusal to accept that incessant war was her country's destiny. She organized thousands of women, dressed in plain white, to gather everyday to protest nonviolently in Monrovia's fish market and in centers of power. Risking life, the extraordinary efforts spearheaded by Gbowee and the women of Liberia eventually helped cement a peace agreement between the government and the rebels, who had been fighting for years.

Gbowee's journey provides us with a great deal of insight into what successful peacebuilding entails. To that end, we have culled together a number of key lessons that we believe can be generalized and applied to other destructive conflicts around the world.

Lesson 1: Women are the missing story.

Before the film Pray The Devil Back To Hell -- which featured Gbowee and documented the role of the Liberian women's peace movement -- the international media generally addressed the subject of women in the Liberian civil war from the perspective of the victim; the story of women as "spoils of conquest", raped and abused from both sides of the conflict. From this perspective, women's agency, to the degree that it was acknowledged equaled the courage to testify. Missing from the narrative was the way in which women became significant actors, shaping the trajectory of their country's fractured history; the way in which the women of Liberia mobilized, crossed religious boundaries and non-violently spoke truth to power. Leading the way was Gbowee, but she was not alone.

That the international media did not tell this story was a curious fact; all the more so since it was well known in Liberia. The reporting was congruent with the perception that conflict and peacemaking are the domains of men. Those who have access to hard power -- political authority, material wealth, weapons, and physical strength -- get to make the important decisions regarding war and peace. They also get the coverage and accolades.

Yet the story of the women's movement in Liberia shows us how our dominant perspectives bias our perception and understanding of the world. In psychology, this bias is known as inattentional blindness: when focusing on a particular task or object literally blinds us to something that others can easily see. The women of Liberia remind us to check our assumptions and biases and broaden our perspective.

Lesson 2: Employ soft power and non-sense.

In examining the successes of the women's peace movement, we also have to ask, "Why did it work?" How were these women, armed only with white shirts and faith, able to affect change?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the non-threatening use of power wielded by Gbowee and her movement: what scholars call "soft" or "weak" power. Soft power is a capacity to influence outcomes based on a person's moral authority, intellect, trustworthiness, charisma, wisdom, warmth and kindness. Unlike hard power, soft power tends to expand when shared and is often developed in cooperation with others.

Coming from the churches and the mosques, representing archetypes of spiritual and emotional nourishment, the women impressed themselves on the conscience of all those involved.

Another factor of success was the way the women's movement injected an element of surprise into a rigid system. Times of war, even when chaotic, are often times of predictability: people's thought, emotions and behavior get pulled in a particular destructive direction. Patterns of aggression and victimizations are formed. Any sense of complexity and nuance collapses into an ultra coherent "us vs. them" polarizing narrative. And often peacemakers become just another component of the war discourse.

Gbowee and the women of the movement broke that pattern. They did so by bringing into the public and political sphere individuals -- mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc -- who embodied values of connection and nurturance. They did so by uniting Christians and Muslims -- unified under the realization that a bullet does not differentiate between faiths. They did so by organizing non-violent protest aimed at both shaming and reaching the hearts of those responsible for the war. They did so by orchestrating a sex strike and by using their bodies to barricade the warlords and government officials in a building until they negotiated an end to the war.

None of this made sense in the discourse of war. Instead, the women's action produced a rupture in the story. For example, after they barricaded themselves in the building where the negotiation between rebels and the government was taking place, Gbowee and her "troops" where threatened with arrest by police and physical violence by the warlords. In response, the future Noble Peace Prize winner began stripping off her clothes, challenging anyone to lay their hands on her (in African culture it's considered a curse to see a married or elderly woman intentionally expose herself). As one warlord later reflected:

You have to imagine what would drive your mother to do such a thing, to strip, to offer to cast off her last shred of dignity like that. When they did that there was not one man in that room who did not ask himself, no matter what he had done during the conflict, 'What have I done to bring us to this place?'

Lesson 3: Adaptation = sustainability.

Another lesson derived from Gbowee and her movement is the importance of adaptation. The women learned and adapted, adjusting their membership and tactics as they progressed. They moved from advocating for talks, to advocating for genuine negotiations and settlements. They came to the assistance of UN peacekeepers. They organized around implementation on the ground in each village regarding the treaty. Even today, they stand ready to mobilize if need be. This is sustainability.

Lesson 4: All we are saying is give women a chance.

It's impossible to look at this story and not wonder whether women are the missing link for peacebuilding the world over? While its true that many times women enter centers of traditional power by imitating and perpetuating the dominant militaristic discourse (David Ben-Gurion once described Golda Meir as the only man in his cabinet), history is beginning to show us that when allowed to enter in their own terms, women speak and act for peace in a different voice.

The Nobel Committee's decision to celebrate the role of women in peace does so much more than celebrate three extraordinary heroines. It wakes us all up to the power of women everywhere to transform and sustain a peaceful planet.

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