Peace as a VERB: Being an “actionist” of peace.Posted: July 19, 2012
Yesterday I read THIS piece in TIME magazine, about Tawakul Karman and the continued struggle for freedom in Yemen. As you may know, Tawakul Karman won – along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, of Liberia – the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. A few weeks back I rediscovered a fantastic two part Bill Moyers ‘The Journal’ podcast (2009) about Leymah Gbowee in my iTunes library. And earlier this month, the 6th anniversary of the 2005 London Bombings passed, of which peace campaigner Gill Hicks was a victim/survivor.
You could say concepts of peace, and various approaches to peace activism, have been on my mind lately. Today I’m sharing the varying approaches of three awesome women, in three very different contexts.
Down with Saleh: Tawakul Karman, YEMEN
Tawakul Karman says the revolution is not over. The 32-year-old journalist, human rights activist, and mother of two, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her efforts to help bring down the corrupt Saleh government, fight for freedom of the press, bring about an end to unequal treatment and suppression of females, call for justice, and support fellow members of the protest movement (including trying to get them out of jail, where necessary).
Back in 2011 Yemen faced serious problems. More than 5 million Yemenis were living in poverty, and nearly half were illiterate. Yemen was also parched, with declining water reserves, and an oil scarcity that left them politically vulnerable. The epically long-standing Saleh government, according to Karman (amongst many), seemed unable and unwilling to address these problems of the people.
Karman had been an activist long before ‘Arab Spring’, and had taken part in many, many protests, in the north and south of the country. She had even been jailed many times. In 2005 she co-founded with fellow journalists Female Reporters Without Borders (later re-named Women Journalists Without Chains, or WJWC), a human rights group advocating freedom of the press, including for SMS news services (these had been tightly controlled by the government without legal permission). WJWC, and Karmen personally, had received threats, and government blocks of their initiatives.
But it was a corrupt decision to allow the forced expulsion of a group of 30 families from their village (whose land was then given to a tribal leader close to President Saleh) that compelled Karman to ramp up her own efforts to bring about change in her country. The Ja’ashin, as the 30 families were known, became icons – their slogan: ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh made me hungry.’ Karmen saw that there was no hope of bringing about greater rights through human rights or corruption reports. The Saleh regime simply had to go.
So during 2011 Karmen organized WEEKLY student rallies in front of Sana’a University against the Saleh government. On the 22nd of January, she was detained for 36 hours by security forces, a move that sparked demonstrations in most provinces of the country. The political pressure forced her release, and Karmen then led another protest on 29th January. She was re-arrested on 17th March, but remained defiant, vowing that the protests would continue until the Saleh regime was ousted.
Karmen was (and is) by no means the only female in this movement for change (30% of the protesters were women). But her method’s and calls for defiant marches to the Presidential Palace put her at odds with other organisers. Karmen was also vocal in the press, including on the topic of foreign complicity in the injustices being perpetrated by the Saleh regime. On 18th June, a piece was published in the New York Times, in which she criticised the United States for their support for Yemen’s regime and their self-serving intervention in the country.
Other than grass roots protests, solidarity, and journalism, and particularly after her 2011 Nobel honour, Karmen has increasingly been involved in trying to mobilize world opinion by lobbying through international government organizations. For example, she lobbied the United Nations Security Council and the United States not to make a deal that would pardon Saleh. This contributed to a 15-0 vote in the United Nations Security Council on Security Council Resolution 2014, that “strongly condemns” Saleh’s government for the use of deadly force against protesters. However, instead of making Saleh stand trial at the International Criminal Court, it supported the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative to give him immunity upon his resignation. Of course. Ah, the UN. And the murky world of global politics.
With the departure of Saleh in February and the election of new President Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, Karmen knows it is necessary to remind the world that the revolution is far from over. The immunity deal brokered by Gulf Arab states was hugely disheartening for faithful protesters. Selah’s relatives remain in key positions of power, sustaining his family’s influence on the country. Reactionary extremist groups remain a threat, as Yemen starts to write its new constitution. And the nation’s aforementioned ‘serious problems’ remain.
So Karmen is still outside Sana’a University, hopeful her presence will keep Yemen in the world’s consciousness. The US and the Gulf states, she says, need to help her country rebuild – after 44 years of US and Saudi Arabia-backed Selah rule.
Note: Despite her somewhat controversial membership in a political party that also claims as one of its member Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, Karman has repeatedly stressed her independence from both the party line and foreign influences.
No peace, no sex: Leymah Gbowee, LIBERIA
In 2009, the legendary Bill Moyers Journal program featured an interview with Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist awarded a Nobel Prize last year, and Abigail Disney, the producer of the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, about Gbowee and the amazing role Liberia’s market women played in the toppling of President Charles Taylor, the corrupt and ruthless warlord.
Back in 2002, Liberia was in the grip of civil war. The battle raged predominantly between the government of Charles Taylor and other warlords battling to overthrow him. In the course of the conflict, over 200 thousand people had been killed, and one third of the population was homeless. Children were kidnapped and forced to fight and kill even their own relatives. Rape was a frequently used weapon of war. In Gbowee’s own terms, it was hell on earth: “death, at one point, was better than life”.
Thankfully, then 30-year-old Gbowee was well on her way to becoming a peace activist. In 1998 she volunteered in the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP) in an effort to gain admission to an associate of arts degree program. THRP was run out of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, and the churches of Liberia had been active in peace efforts throughout the conflict. The THRP program brought Lutheran pastors, lay leaders, teachers, health workers and the Christian Health Association of Liberia together to try to repair “the psychic and social damage left by the war”. It was here, upon working with ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor’s army, that she realized that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers”.
In 1999, Gbowee had started reading books in the field of peace building, such as The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, works by “Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa. The following year, Gbowee met Nigerian Thelma Ekiyor, a lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution. Ekiyor told Gbowee of her idea of starting a women’s organization, and a year later, Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) was born. In was the first of its kind – no one else on the continent was focusing only on women building peace. The handwritten organizer’s training manual was replete with exercises designed to draw women out, engage them, teach them about conflict and conflict resolution, and even help them understand why the issues had to be addressed.
By spring 2002, Gbowee was working in trauma-healing by day and as an unpaid leader of WIPNET in Liberia by night. She was now a mother of five children, all of whom were living in Ghana with her sister. One night, asleep in her WIPNET office, Gbowee had a dream: “And it was like a crazy dream, that someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together to pray for peace.” Gbowee was rattled by the dream, as well as its implications – she was not, she felt, someone whom church-goers would deem a good Christian – being an unmarried woman with children. She went to a friend of hers to help her call the women of the churches together for prayer, but was initially reluctant to lead them, until the elders and other women expressed their faith in her ability – and suitability – to lead.
By summer she was the official spokeswoman and inspirational leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Her peace movement had started with local women praying and singing for peace in a fish market. The movement expanded to work across religious and ethnic lines, and Gbowee led thousands of Christian and Muslim women for months, coming together to pray using both Muslim and Christian prayers. Eventually, daily nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins were held, in defiance of orders from President Taylor.
But perhaps the most remarkable – and unusual, to Western ears – tactic that the women employed was the twin threat of A CURSE and A SEX STRIKE (in essence, no peace, no sex, for the men engaging in conflict). The practical effect of the sex strike was minimal (and enforcing it difficult), but the tactic was very effective in drawing media attention to the cause.
Still, the women needed the attention of the President, and with giant balls (or rather, ovaries) they decided to occupy a soccer field, beside Tubman Boulevard – the route President Taylor traveled twice a day, to and from Capitol Hill. All of the women wore white T-shirts with the WIPNET logo and white hair ties, to signify peace, and to attract his attention – which they did. On the 23 April 2003, Taylor granted them a hearing. 2000 women congregated outside Taylor’s executive mansion, and Gbowee spoke, passionately stating their plea to Grace Minor, the president of the senate, the only female government official present, and a secret financial supporter of the movement. Gbowee positioned herself to ensure Taylor could see her face as she spoke.
President Taylor had said from the beginning that he was not going to engage in peace talks with the rebels. But following the 23 April and Gbowee’s address, he made his first public commitment to meet with the rebels in Ghana – a massive development. And the women knew they needed to be there, not just to pressure the negotiators, but to represent the true victims of the war to the world’s conflict – and male – focused media:
“There was another side to this story, the women and children that were affected, because all we saw on CNN were footages of fighting and bombing and interviews with Taylor and the rebel leaders […] We were the victims. So we thought if we stayed back and didn’t go to Accra, we would have defeated our purpose.”
Through fundraising, the women accumulated enough money to go to Ghana in June, but not enough to sustain them (organisers had anticipated a two week trip). Nonetheless, they went (they were there for three months). Their first act was to sit daily in demonstration outside the expensive hotels where the negotiators met, pressuring for progress in the talks. But the talks continued into July, with no progress and continued bloodshed. Despairing, Gbowee decided to lead a group of women – that grew from dozens to a couple of hundred – into the hotel, holding signs: “Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people — STOP!”
Next came the most crucial development. The chief mediator was General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former Nigerian president. Gbowee passed a message to him, that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway of the hotel, holding the delegates “hostage”, until a peace agreement was reached! News reports showed Gbowee stating their position: “we’re going to keep them in that room without water, without food, so they at least feel what the ordinary people in Liberia are feeling at this particular point in time.”
Luckily, Abubakar seemed sympathetic to the women. Mildly amused, he announced: “The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.” Then, when the men tried to leave the hall, Gbowee and her allies, in utterdesperation and with no prior planning, pulled out the CURSE card: they threatened to rip their clothes off. Why is this a curse? Because the act is a profound cultural stigma. “In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself.”
And this act was enough, amazingly, to make these violent warlords comply and return to the negotiating table. Abubakar supported the women to remain sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days. The “atmosphere at the peace talks changed from circuslike to somber.” Weeks later, on August 18, 2003, the war officially ended, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Two years later, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the third winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011) was elected as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.
This is one of my favourite peace stories of ALL TIME. The humble nature of the women who comprised this non-violent peace movement led by Gbowee, so overlooked and disregarded by the world, makes their achievement in the face of despicable tyranny all the more breathtaking. The story also illuminates that cultural understanding can be pivotal in resolving conflicts. What western pundit or politician would have thought that a despairing woman’s removal of her clothing would have had such a profound impact on men responsible for the killing of thousands of people?
Maybe empowering and supporting people to find their own way to peace, rather than prescribing “solutions” from the outside, is the best way to go.
Abigail Disney, the producer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, offered this insight:
I had the most extraordinary moment during the shooting of the film when we had an opportunity to sit with one of the warlords who’d been present at the peace talks. And I asked him, “How is it possible, in a country where fifty percent of the women have been raped, for one woman threatening to strip naked to cause such mayhem? I don’t understand.”
And he said, that you have to understand they were our mothers. And the only way your mother would do that is if she were driven to total desperation. And there was something in that moment there that caused every man in that room, no matter what he’d done during the conflict, to ask himself, “What have I done? What have I done to get us here?”
You can view the interview with Gbowee and Disney HERE.
And check out Gbowee’s website: www.leymahgbowee.com/
M.A.D. for Peace: Gill Hicks, UNITED KINGDOM
“The greatest threat to peace within any country, in my opinion, is division, identity, fear and ignorance.” – Gill Hicks
In 2005, Australian born Gill Hicks was living in London. In the morning rush of 7 July, she boarded a train on the Picadilly Line, and inside the crowded carriage found a place to stand next to a young man, Germaine Lindsay, from Leeds. Germaine, also known as Abdullah Shaheed Jamal, was carrying a bomb. Upon detonating the device on his body, he ended both his own 19 years of life, and the lives of 26 people. And Hicks, almost fatally and horrendously wounded in the attack, was reborn.
Both her legs had to be amputated below the knee, and her injuries were so severe that she was initially not expected to live. The last living victim to be rescued, she had lost 80% of her blood, her body peppered with shrapnel (including car keys in the back of her head). In her own words, her legs just looked like “an anatomical drawing of the inside of a leg that you’d see in a doctor’s surgery”, with the exception of her feet, which were still intact. Her body was so severely compromised that her rescuers could only “suspect” this unidentified person was female until she was properly examined in hospital.
Hicks has been able to describe her own personal experience of “near death” with lucidity. She has talked about sensing, very strongly, two voices: the voice of Death, and the voice of Life, having a conversation in her head and presenting these two options to her. The voice of Death, on one hand, was soft and appealing, urging her to surrender to what she experienced as the “beauty of death” – an encompassing, beautiful feeling she found herself wanting to remain in. The (apparently female) voice of Life, however, was quite angry and agitated at her for even contemplating the idea of death, for the pain it would cause those still living who cared about her. Once she had made the decision to live, the voice of Death left. And her long battle to survive and recover began.
What is most remarkable to me about Hick’s story, even beyond her rescue and long recovery, which she has discussed in various interviews and in her first book, is her steadfast refusal to hate the perpetrators of the London bombings on principle, including Lindsay/Jamal. After the attack she visited Leeds, where most of the bombers came from, and was taken aback by how devastated the people there were. She asked the communities there what they could do, together, to present a united front for peace, at a time where divisions between communities were heightened. They came up with the idea of walking from Leeds to London with her. The premise was that in undertaking this trek, which would be very difficult for Hicks given her amputations, they would use the coverage of this event to encourage people in the towns along the way to come out, walk with them, and talk to people they might believe to be very different from themselves. It was a way of opening up a safe dialogue.
Hicks also began giving talks and seminars advocating for peace as an individual choice and action, using the term “actionist” for peace – as she says, peace should be something we DO. Spurred on by the belief that what is needed in society is to set up environments and platforms for people to just be people, to understand and empathise (there’s that word again) with each other on a human level, regardless of cultural and physical differences, she founded the not-for-profit organisation, M.A.D. for Peace, in 2007. It focuses on “the responsibility of the individual to create an environment in which he/she has choice in every word and action – ensuring that those words and actions are positive and/or constructive. We believe that peace is within – and that peace starts with you.”
I share her whole philosophy, the emphasis on the right use of liberty and our individual responsibility to create peace with our choices, of how we respond to conflict in our own lives and on a broader scale. The internet, a powerful connector for groups, especially terrorist and extremists groups, should be utilised by CHOICE by peace activists (actionists) in the opposing – or rather, transcendent – cause of peace. To this end, M.A.D. launched a major initiative that mimics the networking of terrorist cells – its equivalent being Nests – allowing international communication of constructive messaging and knowledge share.
This is the website:
Back in 2010 I wrote my 35th post titled ‘Alienation & violence’, outlining what is kind of my life obsession: what I believe to be the link between alienation and the choice to commit an act of violence against any other:
“Religion, political ideologies, ethnic identity movements, etc. – all of these are dangerous when:
a) They demands blind faith/adherence and discourage critical and individual, free thinking;
b) They advocate violence against others or even ones self; and
c) They ALIENATE the believers/adherents from others – so that the believer/adherent ceases to see those outside their religion or political grouping (or any other kind of grouping) as equals, and instead view them with suspicion, as enemies, tainted infidels, antagonists. Or even just view them with extreme indifference, as sub-humans. Essentially, the others are not like them.”
The post ends with this:
“But, ultimately, it does all comes down to what is in peoples heads. Somehow, we need to foster an awareness of the sameness of people, a higher consciousness, that inoculates people from being indoctrinated/alienated with dogma of any kind. Which means combating all the conditions that can cause people to be drawn to extremism in the first place.
Still trying to figure out practical ways we can do that…..”
Hick’s M.A.D for Peace, with its goal of building empathic communities, is one of an infinite number of ways peace can be acted out in the world. She has faced hate mail from those who would prefer, shall we say, a less tolerant response by ordinary citizens to terrorism, but both Hicks and her husband are sure of the rightness of their position in contrast to haters of all kinds and at all ends of the political spectrum. In any nation, and particularly in settler societies, where migration is an inherent part of a nation’s fabric, creating understanding and a sense of connection between various communities and individuals is undoubtably one factor necessary for peace. As articulated on the M.A.D for Peace site:
“… we do NOT live in isolation – wherever we are, whatever we do, we interact with and depend on other people….we are, whether we realise it or not interdependent.
And with this Interdependency comes Responsibility, we are each responsible for our own choices and the impact those choices have on people around us.”
Good grief, I’m verbose today!
Check out my dad’s new blog post on post retirement activities – he’s a little more succinct than I am: