REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women from Africa and the Middle East who symbolized the nonviolent struggle to improve their nations and advance the role of women's rights throughout the world.
The winners were Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president; her countrywoman Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist who challenged warlords; and Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni human rights leader seeking to overthrow an autocratic regime as part of the so-called Arab Spring.
“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” said the citation read by Thorbjorn Jagland, head of the Nobel committee based in Oslo, Norway.
The award for Johnson-Sirleaf, who is known as the Iron Lady, comes as the 72-year-old president is facing re-election on Tuesday. A Harvard-educated economist, Johnson-Sirleaf has been criticized for supporting former Liberian President Charles Taylor. She has since backed his prosecution as a war criminal, turning him over to a United Nations tribunal.
“Since her inauguration in 2006,” the Nobel citation read, Johnson-Sirleaf “has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.”
The Nobel committee praised Johnson-Sirleaf’s compatriot, Gbowee, for organizing “women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end [in 2003] to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections. She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in West Africa during and after war".
During the civil war, Gbowee organized a “sex strike” to urge men to stop fighting. She told National Public Radio in 2009: "We didn't have the power to go to peace talks, so we just thought, what else do we have to lose? Our bodies are their battlefield. Let's just put our bodies out there because it was just about at that point in time, all of us, the mind-set was we need to do something to change the situation if our children must live in this country."
The Nobel committee’s selection of Karman, a journalist and longtime human rights activist, is a nod to the democratic revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Karman has organized anti-government protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh and in 2005 founded Women Journalists Without Chains to demand wider freedom of expression.
"I am very, very happy about this prize," Karman told The Associated Press. "I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people."
A 32-year-old mother of three, Karman has inspired youth rallies for civil rights and economic opportunities in a conservative and impoverished Muslim nation. She has often criticized religious extremists, including those in the Islamic Islah Party, which she joined years ago. The party is run by radical Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani.
Karman stunned many in the country when she removed her face veil during a human rights conference in 2004.
“I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain,” she told The Yemen Times. “People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.”
Her activism and protests have agitated Saleh’s regime. The government has refused to grant Women Journalists Without Chains a license to start a newspaper. The Ministry of Information blocked Karman from sending out SMS bulletins on human rights. Last winter, as the so-called Arab Spring spread across the region, Karman camped with tens of thousands of demonstrators in what became known as Change Square.
Those peaceful protests, which have been eclipsed by tribal fighting and government offensives, have shaken the country but have not dislodged Saleh from his 33-year rule. The country is slipping closer to civil war and government soldiers and loyalists have increasingly fired on unarmed protesters.
“I was threatened through phone calls, letters, and other means of communication. I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed,” she told The Yemen Times in June. “So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.”
The many activists in the still unfinished revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other countries complicated the Nobel committee’s efforts to award the prize to one person who would symbolize the impact the youth and social media have had on inspiring the uprisings.
In announcing the award, Prize committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said of Karman: "Many years before the revolutions started she stood up against one of the most authoritarian and autocratic regimes in the world."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: From left: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman Credit: EPA, Associated Press, Reuters