Democracy’s spread and the advancement of poor societies are inextricably linked with women’s rights; and peace, too, lies along this road. These points should not still need making, but they do, and the Nobel committee’s message in awarding the 2011 Peace Prize to three women – two from Liberia and one from Yemen – is very much of the moment.
No one knows what season will follow the Arab Spring, or what women’s role will be. By giving a share of the Nobel to Tawakkul Karman, just 32 years old, of Yemen (she heads a group called Women Journalists Without Chains), the Nobel committee was making the point that the movement toward democracy needs to involve women. “You cannot achieve welfare and prosperity without taking half of the population on board,” the head of the committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, a former president of Norway, told Reuters. He made specific mention of how Islam is used to oppress women in the Arab world.
His point was not to wag a finger at Islam. Ms. Karman wears a hijab but not a full face veil, which makes her unusual in Yemen. She is also a member of an Islamic opposition party, but she has campaigned to raise the minimum age at which girls can marry. “She proves that Islam and the liberation of women can be reconciled,” Mr. Jagland said. He also made the justifiable point that the West need not view Muslim women as a threat to democracy.
The prize also recognizes what Mr. Jagland described as the year’s most positive development – the emergence of women as activists and leaders in their own right. That the committee should single out this development in the year in which often-peaceful protest movements shook the Arab world is striking.
Or, as the title of the memoir of the Liberian peace activist and Nobel Laureate Leyman Gbowee puts it, “Mighty be our powers.” The peaceful movement she led of Christian and Muslim women dressed in white shirts helped bring an end to more than a dozen years of war that took 250,000 lives. She helped paved the way for the presidency of the third Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in Africa, and to several years of stability in that country.
Any society that denies women equal opportunities will be left behind. Mighty are their powers – when tapped.