OSLO, Norway – Leymah Gbowee confronted armed forces in Liberia to demand that they stop using rape as a weapon. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first woman to win a free presidential election. Tawakkul Karman began pushing for change in Yemen long before the Arab Spring. They share a commitment to women’s rights in regions where oppression is common, and on Friday they shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored women for the first time in seven years, and in selecting Karman it also recognized the Arab Spring movement championed by millions of often anonymous activists from Tunisia to Syria.
Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said it would have been difficult to identify all the movement’s leaders, and that the committee was making an additional statement by selecting Karman to represent their cause.
“We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context,” Jagland said. “Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy.”
Karman is the first Arab woman ever to win the peace prize, which includes a $1.5 million award that will be divided among the winners. No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees.
“I am very, very happy about this prize,” said Karman, who has been campaigning for the ouster of Yemen’s authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2006. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”
Sirleaf, 72, won Liberia’s presidential election in 2005 and is credited with helping the country emerge from a brutal civil war. She is running for re-election Tuesday in what has been a tough campaign, but Jagland said that did not enter into the committee’s decision to honor her.
“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Sirleaf said Friday. She said Liberians should be proud that both she and Gbowee were honored.
“Leymah Gbowee worked very hard with women in Liberia from all walks of life to challenge the dictatorship, to sit in the sun and in the rain advocating for peace,” Sirleaf said. “I believe we both accept this on behalf of the Liberian people and the credit goes to them.”
Gbowee, who took a flight to New York on Friday, said she was shocked to learn she had won. “Everything I do is an act of survival for myself, for the group of people that I work with,” she said. “So if you are surviving, you don’t take you survival strategies or tactics as anything worthy of a Nobel.”
One of the first people she told was a fellow airline passenger. “Sat by a guy for five hours on the flight and we never spoke to each other, but I had to tap him and say, ‘Sir, I just won the Nobel Peace Prize.’” AP