By Arab News
In the past 100 years, until yesterday, only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Women have, on the whole, been sidelined by the political prize makers. Now three women have been awarded it jointly. That was deliberate. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni political campaigner Tawakul Karman is a direct appeal to Africa and the Arab world to embrace women’s rights. It is also a clarion call in support of democracy in Africa and the Arab world. Specifically, it is a ringing endorsement of the Arab Spring.
It is hardly a secret that the award panel intended to focus on democracy and women’s rights in Africa: President Sirleaf had been widely regarded as the frontrunner and rightly so given what she had done to return Liberia to good governance, decency and democracy after the nightmare years under the brutal Charles Taylor. But the panel also knew that it could not ignore the winds of change blowing through the Arab world. They had to be acknowledged. In honoring Mrs. Karman, they do so. She is singled out because she is a woman and, as the citation says, the Nobel Committee’s hope is that the award will “help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realize the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent.” But she clearly stands for more than just Arab women. She represents all those Arabs, men and women, who have stood up this year for freedom — on the streets of Tunis, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in Benghazi, Misrata and Zawia, in Syria’s cities and towns, in Sanaa and elsewhere. Most of all, as she herself said yesterday, this is an award for “the martyrs and wounded of the Arab Spring.”
Those who say that, unlike the 2010 award given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, this year’s is uncontroversial are wrong. It is a direct challenge to those who deny women their rightful role and status in Arab society as in African societies. It is a challenge too to those who oppose the Arab Spring whether in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or elsewhere.
It is specifically a challenge to those who support Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They will be deeply discomforted over this. Tawakul Karman has campaigned for political and press freedom in Yemen for the past five years as head of Women Journalists Without Chains and as a prominent member of Yemen’s opposition Al-Islah party. She has been imprisoned several times for doing so. Her nonviolent, peaceful campaign is endorsed by this award and, as a result made that much more effective.
As such it is bound to encourage the wider anti-Saleh uprising and, now that Libya’s revolution is nearing its culmination, will focus greater international attention on events in Yemen. But most particularly it will focus attention on the rights of women in the new Arab world that is emerging.
It is not just in those countries where the political order is being shaken that those rights have to be reassessed. It is throughout the Arab world.