Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Courage of Women: The Market Women of Liberia

No informed person doubts that Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is a despot, guilty of war crimes and human rights abuses. Witnesses against him are legion. Fewer people may be aware that courageous women, some of the Christian faith and some Muslim, joined hands and placed themselves in jeopardy to bring down Taylor and put an end to the Civil War he oversaw.

See the story of these women by buying or renting the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, by Gini Reticker and Abigail E. Disney. You may also visit http://www.pbs.org/moyers/ journal/06192009/profile.html to see an interview with Ms. Disney, the producer of the documentary, and Leymah Gbowee, a woman whose vision inspired other women to trade their daily domestic duties and fear in a war-torn region for civil disobedience, transforming themselves from victims to defenders. These women may never have taken up arms, but they fought effectively and tirelessly to return peace to their homeland, one that is now led by a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Ms. Gbowee had a dream of peace, and she spoke from a Lutheran pulpit to share her dream, asking women to come together to pray for an end to the civil strife and rape as a weapon of intimidation and brutality. A Muslim woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, joined Gbowee, pledging to gather Muslim women. Soon women of both faiths, women who had fled their villages and now lived in squalid refugee camps, joined to stage peaceful protests at the fish market in Monrovia, a place that Charles Taylor passed each day on his way from his home to his public quarters. Perhaps the women hoped that their presence would arouse the conscience (MLK, Jr.) of Taylor, but he ignored them.

Next, the women’s civil disobedience included a refusal to have sex with their husbands. In this way, the women applied pressure to the entire nation for now men joined the women in praying for peace--although the men’s motive was likely self-interest. Nevertheless, with both genders now desiring peace, efforts to bring about peace began, first with a formal petition submitted to Taylor, then with negotiations between war lords in Sierra Leone, and finally, with deliberations in Ghana.

There, the peace process moved agonizingly slowly, especially for the women who traveled to Ghana, leaving their livelihoods and families behind. Their sacrifice was becoming intolerable, yet the men felt no sense of urgency to end the civil strife.

The women had one final weapon: their nakedness. The men of their nation believe it a sin to see their mothers naked so these women, the emblematic matriarchs of Liberia, the consciences of their nation, threatened to bare themselves if the men did not return to peace talks and earnestly undertake them. The women’s tactic worked. They made the men ashamed for their inaction, and the men finally negotiated a treaty for peace.

When we doubt our abilities to make a difference, we should reflect upon Atticus, King, Mandela, and the Market Women of Liberia, especially upon Leymah Gbowee, the spiritual initiator of the protest and the one selected to read a petition to Taylor who had finally agreed to hear the women’s protest. Gbowee was not sure that she could stand so close to the nation’s tormentor and read the petition without giving voice to her rage and disdain. She wanted to tear the man apart rather than speak to him civilly when he had done nothing to insure safety and civility for his people. Gbowee then thought of all the deaths, the bloody violence imprinted on the hearts and minds of children. She thought of the sacrifices made by the protestors, and she subjugated her own desires, restraining them long enough to deliver a message for peace and hope.

We should hope that our characters are strong enough and brave enough to make such a stand for freedom, equality, voting rights, and peace. We should ask ourselves if we can act for the good of others in an uncertain future, then we must turn from fear and strive for the next generations.