There is a great paradox in humanity’s evolution over the last 10,000 years. On one hand, in the fields of science, technology, engineering, medicine and architecture humanity has advanced to heights hard to imagine even a hundred years ago, has explored and discovered myriads of mysteries of nature, earth and space, and has also produced nuclear weapons that may devastate the entire world in a few moments. Now, commodities of comfort and luxury have become available almost as if the recitation of a magical ‘abracadabra’ would suffice, yet mankind has been unable to rise towards world peace with justice and equity. Instead, it has sullied its course with countless wars, has in many countries and time periods exploited and persecuted the weak and the poor, has found glory in the suppression of fellow human beings on the grounds of race, ethnicity, caste, colour, religion, language and other discriminatory criteria, and has exhibited an abominable tendency towards elite rule, if not tyranny to enslave other humans and even nations by spreading colonialism and its tentacles.
Yet another highly disturbing anomalous evolution of humankind has been discernible in the dominance of men. For example, since the inception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, only 17 women (including this year’s awardee Nadia Murad) have been bestowed with this prize. Furthermore, of the 206 nations in the world not more than five percent have women as heads of their governments.
So, when will the world wake up ? Or will it ever wake up? There is little in the history of humankind that may enthuse us to inculcate this hope in us. However, it is satisfying to note that the intrinsic nature of man is to hope and still hope even when there seems to be no hope. Banking upon this intrinsic trait of humans and as an international peace activist and writer I have been humbly credited with criss-crossing the globe to interview living Nobel women peace laureates and authoring a book about their lives entitled Battling Injustice – 16 Women Nobel Peace Laureates published by Harper Collins.
In this book, I have described the magnificent sagas of these 16 women and have shown to how they arose from modest origins, faced numerous and sometimes seemingly unsurmountable difficulties, yet they exhibited uncanny valour, fortitude and steely resolve in opposing injustice with unbound love and empathy for their fellow human beings, thereby revealing the subtle softness of their hearts.
All 16 women hailed from different nationalities: Bertha Von Suttner and Alva Myrdal, both pacifists from Sweden, Jane Adams, Emily Green Balch, and Jody Williams from the U.S., Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire from Ireland, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, Aung San Sui Kyi from Myanmar, Rigoberta Menchu Tum from Guatemala, Wangari Maathai from Kenya, Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, and Mother Teresa from India. They all shed blood, sweat and tears in securing a world of abiding peace where there is no fear, no hunger, no exploitation, and no discrimination, and did all they could for those in need of succor or solace; and above all, they sent a message across the globe of the inherent oneness of humanity, thereby knitting all of humanity into one family.
I shall now briefly touch upon the lives of two of these women to show how much they suffered in their struggles for peace and justice.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Scene I: A girl is born in Monrovia, Liberia, on 29 October 1938. When she is a few days old, an elderly man visits her parents to bestow his blessings on her. Her mother leads the old man into the room, where on the bed, the infant is cheerfully cycling her legs and cooing. The old man looks at the mother in utter astonishment and predicts spontaneously that her child will one day be a great woman, that she is destined to lead others.
Scene II: A young woman is married even before entering her teens, and then burdened with the responsibility of rearing her sons. To feed her family she toils in lowly jobs such as servant in a hotel, mopping floors as her abusive and drunken husband did not care for her. She falls on many horrible days such that once she was put in a cell and at the end of a night, a young tribal naked girl was pushed into her cell whom Sirleaf immediately covered with whatever cloth she could spare from her body to cover the young girl’s nakedness.
Can these two scenes be reconciled? A woman in her early twenties with four sons and an abusive husband seems hopelessly mired by her circumstances, and is most unlikely to ever distinguish herself in public life. Thus, the old man’s prophecy could hardly be about the young woman in Scene II. Nonetheless, these two contrasting scenes do converge into one wondrous life of Ellen Eugenia Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia and one of the three proud recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2011. Whether she was fated to become a great leader of the masses as the old man prophesied or whether she achieved greatness by sheer dint of her own determined efforts is something even Ellen admits that she still ponders. The immense accomplishments in bringing peace to Liberia and the region that merited the award for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could barely be ascribed to good fortune. The year 2011 marked a watershed in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize because, in that year, three women were chosen as prize winners.
During my interview with her I asked her, “As a proud recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and so many other coveted peace prizes, don’t you think as an international peace activist and also as a head of a nation’s government, that no military dictator should ever be recognized by the people of the world and also the governments of the world? Will not such non-cooperation by the people and the nations discourage men in uniform from indulging in military coups?”
EJS responded, “I agree with you and I think Africa is also moving in that direction. Now, people who take up arms and overthrow governments are the exceptions on the continent, and they are not welcomed in the African Union. The military coups very negatively affected Africa’s growth and undermined its stability. Many of the difficulties that our countries face today happened as a result of bad governance under military dictators, especially during the Cold War.”
Iranian lawyer, human rights activist, former judge and founding member of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, Ebadi was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003 and the first Muslim woman to receive the award. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power a draconian era particularly for women began as a seventh century version of Islam was sought to be implemented in Iran. As result, Shirin who had been Iran’s first female judge was demoted to a secretarial position simply for being a woman. She personally experienced the Komiteh’s (morality police) bizarre regime of terror and its thuggery towards Iranian women. In the spring of 1989, she had travelled to Ramsar, a small town near the Caspian Sea, to celebrate Persian New Year. While walking near the town square, a Komiteh officer spotted her and beckoned her to board a minibus parked there. Shirin’s protests notwithstanding, the police officer pulled her by her arm and roughly pushed her into the minibus. There, she found three women huddled inside, all arrested for innocently violating the Islamic dress code. Shirin’s fault was that she was found wearing a long coat, baggy pants and a headscarf, which, as per the whims of the morality police, somehow breached the code. One of the women already arrested and put in the minibus was a retired schoolteacher who had reportedly sinned for having worn slippers she wore due to her swollen feet. She only hardened the stern attitude of the Komiteh officer when she protested that nowhere in the Quran is it stated that wearing slippers is a crime for women.
There were innumerable instances of the morality police harassing women – their special focus – as well as all other Iranians – whether Muslims, Christians or Jews. Things came to such a sorry state of affairs that if ever a dating couple wanted to go for an outing, they would have to take with them a young male relative. Thus disguised, they might pass for a family and be ignored by the morality police for defying the ban on a girl’s moving with an unrelated man. Shirin fought every day for the restoration of civil rights and against the abuses and even atrocities that the Komiteh regularly inflicted upon innocent people, especially young women who routinely drew the Komiteh’s ire and summary retribution for such venial ‘offences’ as wearing lipstick. Many Iranian people believed that the morality police officers harassed people simply because they did not have anything else to do. As a lawyer Shirin has been fighting many such cases valiantly and persistently.
In summary, the central message of each of the sixteen female Nobel peace laureates in “Battling Injustice” is: ‘Never submit to evil and suffer… instead, subdue evil with grit and determination.’
Grasping and conveying the courage of these women has been at the core of my entire effort. I have not penned abridged biographies of these eminent laureates, but included all relevant events from their lives that show the purity of their mind. I tried to express the depth of human empathy, which I found in abundance in them all. Truly, each of them is an enigma in herself and has left an indelible mark on my heart, mind, and soul.
By taking a closer look at the incredible life stories of these 16 female Nobel Peace laureates, it is my hope that more people will be elevated to a new height of understanding, self-awareness, and empathy, and will start interacting with the world with a sense of urgency that leads to helping others for others’ sake. Doing so can eventually create feelings of elation, kindness and goodwill that will truly enlighten and invigorate us.
Thank you very much.