Gbowee, who was 17 when the wars started and 31 when they ended, decided to do something about it. Fed up, desperate, and fearless, she organized other women in a peace movement: a “mass-action campaign,” as they called it. In every way they knew, they pressured the combatants to stop fighting. They wreaked “peaceful feminine havoc” on them, to quote Gbowee. The women’s story is told in a 2008 documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
In 2005, Johnson Sirleaf was elected president: becoming the first democratically elected female head of state in all of Africa. Gbowee called this “the icing on the cake” — the icing on the cake of the peace movement and the wars’ end. America’s first lady and secretary of state, Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice, attended the inauguration. George W. Bush gave Johnson Sirleaf the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Born in 1938, she was the daughter of a pioneering politician in Liberia. In her years as president, she has restored a semblance of civilization to the country, although Liberia’s problems are still horrendous. Rape is still a constant. And corruption in government is terrific, clean as Johnson Sirleaf may be personally. Two years ago, I talked to a Liberian official. I asked him whether foreign aid was, on balance, helpful or harmful. He said, “Do you know the difference between AID [as in the U.S. Agency for International Development] and AIDS?” I said no. He said, “The letter S.”
Johnson Sirleaf pledged to serve only one term but, in the manner of politicians everywhere, changed her mind: She was reelected last month, shortly after her Nobel prize was announced. Her campaign slogan was, “Monkey still working, let baboon wait small.” What it meant was, “The president needs more time to accomplish her mission; the opposition can just cool it for a while.” Running for reelection in 1864, Abraham Lincoln had a similar slogan: “Don’t change horses in midstream.”
About the Yemeni laureate, the Nobel committee said, “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, age 32, happens to be the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize. At one time, Martin Luther King was the youngest winner: He was 35 in 1964. Karman cites him as her number-one model.
Like Johnson Sirleaf, she is the daughter of a prominent politician. It stands to reason that women who rise in Third World countries (as we used to call them) should be the daughters of leading political men. They have familiarity with politics, and they have self-confidence. One thinks of Indira Gandhi in India. If she had sprung from a farmer’s family, would anyone have heard of her? Instead, she was the only child of a founder of the modern state. Essentially the same can be said of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma — who won the Nobel peace prize for 1991.
Karman has been agitating for freedom and democracy in Yemen since at least 2005. In that year, she started a group called Women Journalists Without Chains. Last January, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, she led a similar uprising in her own country. The government detained her for a day and a half. The dictator warned her brother that, if she kept it up, she would be killed. She kept it up, and has survived. On the day the Nobel prize was announced, she said, “This is a victory for Arabs around the world. And it will end the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
After 33 years — more than Karman is old — Saleh has promised to leave power at the end of this month. Is the Nobel peace prize responsible? Surely not, but neither could it have hurt. Sometimes the prize makes a difference, sometimes it doesn’t. Lech Walesa told me that his Solidarity movement in Poland could never have succeeded without the prize. On the other hand, the prize to Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t make a dent in Burma.