ladies, stand up

“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.

It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.

It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.

gbowee
Leymah Gbowee

Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.

Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.

PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL
Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.

These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.

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the ethics of the bystander

As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.

Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.

In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.

Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.