From Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi to Yemen's Tawakkol Karman, Women Lead in World Politics

When this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners were announced, it was impossible to read coverage unheralded by the fact that all three are women.

With each breathless article, it was hard not to grate that so much of the focus seemed to be on the recipients’ gender, instead of their accomplishments. Was another broken glass ceiling really more important than the reforms in Liberia and rebellion in Yemen these women helped usher in? 

In a year when the world convulsed with the labor pains of prenatal democracy, and despots desecrated human rights in an effort to stunt it, women helped reshape the contours of advocacy to fit this brave new world. It has been said that women’s issues are global issues, but 2011 also showed many women who are turning global issues into women’s issues. Herewith, several women who illuminate what the post-revolutionary order will not stand for:

1) Harvard-educated President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s only female head of state. Elected president in 2005 and the winner of a bruising re-election bid in 2011, her administration has focused far beyond traditional “women’s issues.” She has been credited with bringing foreign investment and relative calm to a country that had been wracked by civil war for decades, made primary education free and compulsory, written down Liberia’s debt through cooperation in international financial institutions, and created a cabinet of rivals. She has shamed the many countries in the developed world yet to anoint a woman as head of state, without denigrating her accomplished as gendered in the slightest.   

2) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may never have been elected were it not for Leymah Gbowee. A prominent activist in Liberia during the brutal Second Civil War in the 1990s and early 2000s, Gbowee gathered women in mosques and marketplaces, passing out leaflets urging women to rebel. Taking a page from Lysistrata’s handbook, Gbowee decreed a sex strike, and in a precursor to the Arab Spring, occupied public squares with thousands of women, who were eventually joined by the full forces of opposition. She is widely credited with having paved the way for Johnson’s election, by removing the complicit former president from power, and in creating a milieu in which women could be seen as effective leaders.

3) Tawakkol Karman: Along the destitute Gulf of Aden, Karman is known as the “mother” of Yemen’s ongoing revolution. Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005 to protest a lack of freedom in the press, and has been a vocal critic of government suppression of dissent ever since. She has been leading protests in the Yemini capital of Sana’a’s Tahrir Square since 2007, and when protestors joined her en masse last winter, her experience helped marshal frustration into an organized vehicle for dissent.

4) No female activist has received such broad attention as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Credited with bringing about the recent thaw in relations with the West, Ang San Suu Kyi endured house arrest for years as she protested Burma’s military state. Suu Kyi is the Secretary General of the National League for Democracy, and painted the prospect of her release as a symbol of progress against the military dictatorship. As a result, Japan, Britain, and the United States all made her release a contingency for diplomatic relations and foreign investment. Upon her 2012 release, she successfully negotiated for the release of political prisoners and the legalization of trade unions, all the while helping thousands of other Burmese find voices they never knew they had.

5) Perhaps no group is more odious in their irreverence for human rights than al-Shabab, the Somali group seeking to impose Sharia law across the Arabian diaspora — cutting off the hands of thieves and arming child mercenaries with AK-47s after gang-raping and killing their mothers. Somalia’s weak central government has been hopelessly ineffective in curtailing the Shabab, to the extent that Kenya, Ethiopia, and the African Union have been compelled to launch a campaign against the Shabab in order to protect their borders. In this morass of violence and lawlessness, Fartuun Adan, who heads the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace Center, is fighting the stigma that goes along with rape one woman at a time. Adan’s husband was killed by warlords years ago, so she knows the perils of being a single woman in Somalia firsthand. Aside from the easy targets solitary women make, women are routinely killed after being raped, if for no other reason than “violating” their matrimonial contracts. Adan has taken on the dangerous work of healing these women’s psychological and physical wounds, providing them with shelter, and helping them build new lives as best they can.

She may receive a few scattershot profiles in the news media, but she is unlikely to become an Aung-San-Suu-Kyi-style focus of international attention. But the Fartuun Adans are indispensible in paving the world’s way forward, by standing up for themselves and others in the line of guns and in the darkness of opposition, not because of the spotlight, but despite its lack.

Photo Credit: Prachatai

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Elizabeth Nicholas

Elizabeth Nicholas is a freelance writer and editor focused on politics, policy, history, literature, and the arts. Her writing has been featured in Policy Mic, Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, The Aspen Idea, The Harvard Crimson, and Archetypes.com. She received her B.A. from Harvard University in 2009, with a concentration in History. An avid traveler, she lives in Paris, France.

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