Leymah Gbowee was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Takkul Karman from Yemen. I first heard Leymah speak last August when she participated in a panel discussion on the upcoming PBS series Women, War & Peace. And I had found a new hero.
War isn’t restricted to the front line. The strategies for fighting include horrific violence targeting women and destroying entire communities, but peace talks have excluded women time and again. That’s changing slowly and it’s due in part to women like Leymah Gbowee, President Sirleaf and Karman. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to these women sends a clear message that wartime strategies like rape are intolerable and that women are vital to the peace process. Hopefully this will resonate firmly and clearly throughout Africa, the Middle East and everywhere conflict resolution is sorely needed.
Leymah was in Los Angeles recently for an ALOUD program as part of her book tour. Here’s an excerpt from the Prologue to Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation At War:
This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land.
You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories rarely are told.
I want you to hear mine.
Leymah goes on to tell the story of how the war in Liberia and the atrocities imposed by Charles Taylor, his army and the rebel groups that vied for power almost destroyed her country. In bringing together Christian and Muslim women, Leymah and others found the way to peace through non-violent means. Leymah went on to introduce methods for women to share and begin healing from the horror they had endured and to support each other in finding solutions to the pressing problems faced by their communities. Mighty Be Our Powers is a story, a moving, personal account that spirals out to help and inspire others. For Leymah, she describes the book and writing process as therapeutic.
“I see this book as my therapy. That’s how I see the entire process, unpacking everything I had packed in my mind, in my heart, in my soul, in my spirit. And I say to Carol [Mithers] who helped me that there is no way this book could have come out any other way. I could not water down the truth as painful as it was. As painful as it is to talk about some of the issues of my childhood, my family, there was no way I could have done it any other way, because it was taking out those things that had been imbedded so deeply in there, that had been dysfunctional. But also that I used that as a springboard for pulling myself up. It was a process of healing. But beyond that, I also see it as, a guide to healing or a guide to empowerment. So I…see it as a guide to transformation.”
I knew I wasn’t going to have much time to speak with Leymah so I dove right in with a question that had personal resonance.
I had been at dinner with friends and we were discussing current events, specifically the situation of Kainat Soomro in Pakistan. Soomro had been gang raped when she was 13. Her family supported her in accusing her attackers and would not participate in the “honor killing” of their daughter that is traditional in the culture. The resistance put up by her family has resulted in retaliation beatings and is possibly connected to the murder of Soomro’s older brother. The family has been forced to leave their village and is under threat. Someone I was with at dinner commented that things just won’t change over there.
I asked Leymah how she would respond to that because, in my view, she is living proof of change.
“The only response you can give is to ask them to look back at the history of this country. And look at the history of women in this country. And if you step way back into time, you find out that the situation was exactly as it is in some parts of the world. It changed. It changed because people stood up. That girl’s family, they are the change now because they’ve resisted. If it wasn’t going to change, they would have killed her. But that they’re on the move, they are the change. They are the defiant ones.
So if anyone ever asks you or says to you, ‘It will never change.’ Let them look at their own personal history and look at things that have happened to them. If they tell you it never changed, then you can give them some perfect examples of this country, the slave trade, the whole feminist movement. All of the different groups are a clear indication that definitely there can be change. A black president…You cannot compare the progress of a lot of these nations to the progress of nations in the developed world. Just as your progression was slow and it’s still slow in some areas, as compared to other countries, their progression is also slow. But I don’t see that it’s not changing.”
In Part 2 of my interview with Leymah coming out on Tuesday, we talk about the special role mothers play in social change and the need for action here in America.