3 Women, 1 Prize: Priceless Courage

Joint Nobel peace prize winners Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakul Karman, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hold hands after receiving their honors Saturday.

Liberian president and Catholic Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, Liberian “peace warrior” and graduate of Eastern Mennonite University Leymah Gbowee, 39, and Yemen’s Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman, 32, accepted their Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday. As all three women make clear in their acceptance speeches, they represent millions of women around the world who decide every morning that today is the day they will fight for justice, risk for peace, and defend human dignity. Thank you all …

Below are quotes from the wonderful Nobel lectures offered by these three.

From Tawakkul Karman’s lecture “In the Name of God the Most Compassionate and Merciful”:

What Martin Luther King called “the art of living in harmony” is the most important art we need to master today. In order to contribute to that human art, the Arab states should make reconciliation with their own people an essential requirement. This is not merely an internal interest, but also an international one required for the whole human community. The dictator who kills his own people doesn’t only represent a case of violation of his people’s values and their national security, but is also a case of violation of human values, its conventions and its international commitments. Such a case represents a real threat to world peace.

Many nations, including the Arab peoples, have suffered, although they were not at war, but were not at peace either. The peace in which they lived is a false “peace of graves”, the peace of submission to tyranny and corruption that impoverishes people and kills their hope for a better future. Today, all of the human community should stand with our people in their peaceful struggle for freedom, dignity and democracy, now that our people have decided to break out of silence and strive to live and realize the meaning of the immortal phrase of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, “Since when have you enslaved people, when their mothers had given birth to them as free ones.”

When I heard the news that I had got the Nobel Peace Prize, I was in my tent in the Taghyeer square in Sana’a. I was one of millions of revolutionary youth. There, we were not even able to secure our safety from the repression and oppression of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. At that moment, I contemplated the distinction between the meanings of peace celebrated by the Nobel Prize, and the tragedy of the aggression waged by Ali Abdullah Saleh against the forces of peaceful change. However, our joy of being on the right side of history made it easier for us to bear the devastating irony.

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Why Does a Yemeni Woman Have Pictures of Gandhi, King, and Mandela?

Tawakkol Karman in Saana, Yemen.

“Tawakkol Karman sat in front of her laptop, her Facebook page open, planning the next youth demonstration. Nearby were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These days, though, Karman is most inspired by her peers. ‘Look at Egypt,’ she said with pride. ‘We will win.'”

When I read this in Sudarsan Raghavan‘s Washington Post article yesterday on Yemen’s women activists, I was reminded that America’s very best export is the civil rights movement.

There is an intellectual and spiritual lineage from the 20th century that is being played out on the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Riyad, and elsewhere today.

In the 1850s, Russian aristocrat Leo Tolstoy became disgusted with violence after doing tours of duty in Chechnya and after seeing a public execution in Paris. His conversion toward nonviolence and Christianity led him to write The Kingdom of God Is Within You (published in 1894).

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to the Hindoo laying out a plan for a massive nonviolent civil resistance campaign to free India from British imperialism. The letter fell into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and in the beginnings of becoming an activist. This prompted an exchange of letter between the two that was foundational for Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy. Gandhi listed Tolstoy’s seminal work The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the top three influences on his life. He called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.”

Less than 10 years after Gandhi was assassinated, a young American conscientious objector named James Lawson went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed.

In 1955, Lawson returned to the United States and was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., who had also studied Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. King told Lawson to come South, telling him “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Lawson began implementing large-scale strategic nonviolent civil resistance training that was deeply rooted in Christian faith and spiritual principles. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States became one the most massive civil resistance movements in U.S. history.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, South African freedom leader Nelson Mandela was entering his fourth year of his life-sentence for “sabotage.” It took awhile for the news of King’s murder to reach Mandela in prison. Over the course of his 27 years in prison, Mandela studied deeply the work of Gandhi and King. Mandela was uncertain that the tactics of either would work in the South African context.

But the church leaders leading South African freedom movement outside of prison – particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu – were highly motivated by both Gandhi and King. South Africa’s freedom struggle became known for taking the power of song to the streets. It became an image iconic of the freedom movement to hear South African children singing “We Shall Overcome” – an anthem of the American civil rights movement – and dancing the Toyi-toyi.

Thirty-one years after being imprisoned, Mandela was elected president of a free South Africa. Coretta Scott King was in the audience for Mandela’s acceptance speech as the new president.  He looked at her and said: “This is one of the most important moments in the history of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy–pride in the ordinary humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now with joy we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops–Free at last! Free at last!” Mandela quoted the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.

Somewhere in Yemen today, Tawakkol Karman is sitting in front of her laptop. She’s received death threats. She fears for the life of her three children. And she is determined to shatter perceptions of women in Yemen’s conservative society (and around the world), while emboldening a new generation of Yemenis to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 30-year grip on his country.

Inspired by civil resistance in Tunisia and Egypt, Karman said upon her release from detention, “We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis” Karman spoke these words to hundreds of protesters who were demanding the release of other detainees.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her are Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. They’ve all been where she is now. They are cheering her on. And so are we.

For more information:
Tolstoy and Gandhi: Light as Darkness Approached by Rene Wadlow

An excerpt of the exchange of letters between Tolstoy and Gandhi