Nobel Peace Prize Goes to Three Women Activists

Tripoli, Libya – The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to three women activists, two from Liberia and one from Yemen, in recognition of their nonviolent campaigns toward peace and women’s rights in conflict zones.

The 2011 laureates are: Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of Liberia; Leymah Gwobee, also of Liberia; and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni civil society campaigner who’s played a vocal role in her nation’s months-old uprising against the government.

“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 to reporters by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee.

This year’s winners were the first women since Kenya’s late Wangari Maathai was named in 2004.

While analysts praised the Nobel panel for acknowledging the courage of women activists, some in the Arab world were disappointed that the prize wasn’t awarded to participants in the so-called Arab Spring revolts that have challenged authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East.

“This might be interpreted as a slight to the Arab world,” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution’s Doha branch, told al Jazeera English. He called the decision “surprising and disappointing.”

It would have been difficult, however, for Arab protesters to fulfill the Nobel panel’s requirement that the prize go to an individual or organization. The uprisings, which first erupted in Tunisia and have now spread in some form to most of the Middle East and North Africa, involved millions of protesters and countless activist groups.

Also, even though the Arab protests began peacefully, some of them spiraled into armed rebellions when government forces used lethal force to crush them.

Jagland, however, was more pointed in his remarks about the Arab Spring, which has seen women activists sidelined in Egypt and hasn't reached some countries where women are still struggling for fundamental privileges.

When Jagland was asked by the press after the announcement why the committee selected an activist from Yemen, he said “she showed courage long before the revolution started’, and that it was “a signal to the whole Arab world that one cannot set aside the women if one wants to build democracies”.

Sirleaf’s landmark election in 2005 after Liberia's brutal 14-year civil war demonstrated to Africa's growing number of female legislators, Cabinet ministers and other politicians that the top offices in their countries were no longer marked “Men Only.”

“My victory gives much more encouragement to women to seek the highest political office,” Sirleaf told a McClatchy reporter in an interview at the time, “and I expect quite a few will make it in this decade.”

Liberia's women counted on Sirleaf to make their lives better after a devastating 14-year civil war. Liberian women are less likely than men to attend school, hold a job or know how to read.

Throughout Africa, women suffer disproportionately from HIV/AIDS and malnutrition, and they form the majority of the continent's refugee population.

The Nobel citation credited Leymah Gbowee with organizing 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.”

The nod to the Arab Spring came in the committee's citation to Yemen's Karman. “In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the 'Arab spring,' Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, has been at the forefront of anti-government demonstrations since they began in Yemen more than six months ago. Her feisty, eloquent speeches and persistent leadership have earned her the title of “mother of the revolution,” and for many inside and outside of the country, Karman is symbolic of hopes for a more prosperous and democratic Yemen.

Born into a family with ties to Yemen’s Islamist opposition, Karman had gained a reputation as one of Yemen’s most outspoken human rights activists since founding the group “Woman Journalists without Chains” in 2005, remaining unfazed in the face of death threats and threatened prison sentences.

Reacting to her win, Karman dedicated her prize to the “martyrs and wounded” of the Arab spring.

Yemenis remain polarized over the anti-government movement she has partially led, and mention of her prize appeared to be absent from state-run television. Still, for many here, Karman’s win represented an important international recognition of one of Yemen’s most admired women.

“It’s a great moment for Yemen,” said Rana Jarhum, a Yemeni female activist. “The books of history will remember Tawakkul as a great activist and leader. She has brought pride to all Yemenis—both men and women.”

The winners of the $1.5 million prize were announced in Oslo, Norway.

(Allam, McClatchy's Cairo-based Middle East correspondent, is on assignment in Tripoli, Libya. Special correspondent Baron reported from Sanaa, Yemen.)

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services