I’m always impressed by tough women and sweet men. When I come across individuals who hold those qualities they always stand out in my mind. I think it has something to do with the fact that they go against gender norms and undermine societal pressures to conform to a certain standard of behavior. That’s the type of subversion and rebellion I can really get behind.
The three ladies who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last week definitely fall into that tough lady category. Firstly, there is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current president of Liberia, first female president in all of Africa, nicknamed the “Iron Lady.” She shares the award with her compatriot, Leymah Gbowee, founder and executive director of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, who fought to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia, which is the focus of the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. And finally Tawakkul Kamran, the youngest of the three, currently one of the leading activists fighting to bring peace and democracy to Yemen, has been arrested several times and received numerous death threats.
In one of the articles I was reading about these Nobel Prize winners, the author was lamenting the fact that women’s issues are still considered separate issues to be highlighted and defined as its own category. It is funny that women’s issues are considered a special interest when women are actually the majority of the population. But I find myself turning to cynicism sometimes when I read the news so I don’t want to be cynical about this. At the same time though it’s a point worth mentioning because it should help us remember that women’s issues don’t exist in a vacuum. When President Sirleaf promotes mandatory primary education for all Liberians, she does it to help ensure that young girls get to receive an education but she also recognizes that promoting the interests of young girls is not a standalone issue, that she has to be a promoter of education so that these girls (and boys) can help create a better future for themselves and for their country. When Leymah Gbowee mobilized Liberian women to fight to bring about the end of the war in her country she knew that the end of war would ensure peace for of all of Liberia’s people. When Tawakkul Karman protests on the streets of Yemen she does so knowing that her rights are intrinsically tied to that of all Yemenites.
I don’t mean to downplay what these women have accomplished in the field of the advancement of women by discussing the impact their courage has had on more than just women. But the point is that working on women’s issues is working on everyone’s issues. These Nobel Prize winners know that in their push for women’s rights, they are working for the advancement of whole communities, whole countries. That’s the reason why they dedicated their wins to all their people, both men and women, of Liberia and Yemen.
Upon handing out the prize to these three women, the Nobel committee explained, “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.” Actually, I’d go a little further, because I don’t just think achieving the same opportunities as men is exactly the end goal these women are working towards. They aren’t working towards creating spaces alongside men in broken institutions; they’re demanding new institutions and social practices that ensure the prosperity of all. That’s why they are undercutting the status quo. And that’s what being a tough lady is all about, after all.