Women as Catalysts for Peace

September 29, 2016
Leymah Gbowee. / Photo: Michael Angelo
Leymah Gbowee. / Photo: Michael Angelo

Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts that led to ending the Liberian civil war. On Thursday, October 6, she will come to HDS to discuss her experiences and insights into peacebuilding as part of the Religions and the Practice of Peace monthly public dinner Colloquium Series.

Gbowee’s talk, “Women as Catalysts for Local and Global Spiritually-Engaged Movements for Sustainable Peace,” will take place at 6 pm in the Sperry Room. RSVP is required.

Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, trained social worker, and women’s rights advocate. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which brought together Christian and Muslim women in a nonviolent movement that played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s civil war in 2003, is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers (2011), and in the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008). She is founder and current president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, and is currently named a Distinguished Activist-in-Residence at Union Theological Seminary. She travels internationally to advocate for human rights and for peace and security.

HDS communications recently spoke with Gbowee about her work, how one can help bring about peace, and how her Nobel award has changed her life.

HDS: What made your efforts in Liberia successful? What challenges did you face there and how did you overcome them?

LG: I believe strongly that our efforts in Liberia were successful because of the interfaith, interethnic, and diverse political composition of our group. We came from different backgrounds, and we just came to that place where we made a commitment that we’re going to move beyond the things that divide us and embrace the things that brought us together. The first thing we did was identify what brought us together, and it was the war—the consequences of war. And there were similar traits we held that sustained us being together, as well as our common humanity. It was very, very crucial for us to do the work that we did.

In our group the first thing we did was to hold three days of consultative meetings. The first day we brought only Christian women, and we went back into the Bible to find those things in the Bible that women did. We wanted to really show them (Christian women) that God had a way of using women and that there’s a place for women in turning around the history of their nations. So, we took them to the Bible, and we used women of faith as examples—Esther, Deborah, Rahab the Prostitute—who had done great things to turn the tide. We used those women as the springboard for really mobilizing women.

The second thing we did was to bring the Muslim women together and go through he same process, but with the Qur’an. We used that as a means of mobilizing. We would talk and read some of the descriptions that talk about how to treat women better and live a nonviolent life, we also use Khadijah, the wife of the prophet Mohammed.

The third day was the most difficult. Trying to bring these women together as faith women to see where we had a common denominator to work together. Once we brought them together, we asked the groups of women to write all of the negative stereotypes and prejudices they had of each other and also all of the positive ones. We asked them to walk around the room and read what the other group had written about them. Each group recognized that they held a lot of misconceptions about each other, so we had to sit down and hash that out.

The second thing we wanted to do was to let them see that beyond faith there can be a relationship. I was fortunate to be in a place where my grandmother, who is still alive and now over 100 years old, had a friend in the neighborhood we grew up in who is Muslim. My grandmother is Christian. They were best friends through marriages, through divorce, through having children, losing children. We brought those two women together to sit and talk about their relationship and friendship. During the session, one of the women asked what role faith played in their relationship. And those two women just looked at each other [as if to say] “What?” The friend asked my grandmother, “When you see me, do you see a Muslim?” My grandmother said no. And my grandmother asked her, “When you see me, do you see a Christian?” The friend said no.

I think of all of the work that we did, that conversation was the turning point for the women. Each of the women went on thinking: Here were two women who never considered the way each other prayed, or whom they prayed to. It was about somebody being married to an alcoholic, abusive husband, and the other person being married to someone who didn’t have any drive at all. In essence, what they were saying was that we forged a sisterhood because our pains were similar.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t other challenges. Even afterwards there were some Christian women who believed the process started in the church, that it should continue that way, that the Muslim women shouldn’t be with them, and that the women couldn’t pray together. All of the trivial things. At some point we had to say to people, if you can’t work together you need to leave, and some people left, but the rest of the group stayed, and more people came.

The other challenge we had was funding. It was very difficult to get anyone to trust the work enough to want to fund us.

2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners Tawakkol Karman, left, Leymah Gbowee, center, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. / Photo: Pierre Hauser

HDS: What were some of the religious and spiritual resources and practices that helped you and sustain you during this effort?

LG: Prayer. Regular time for prayer. The women who were my spiritual mentors were the older women in the movement. They were the ones who really inspired me.

As for spiritual practices, we spent a whole morning in prayer. There were times in the journey when I would get tired, and I thought maybe we needed to change the leadership. Those women would come, kneel down, and would pray and lay hands on me and ask God to give me strength.

I started to really develop a more intimate relationship with God as a result of that. I grew up in a Christian home, but I realized that in order for me to walk the walk with the willing, I had to beef up my prayer life and to be able to understand where God was taking me. When it came time for the prayer and the laying of hands, it wasn’t just the Christian women who were doing it. Some of the older Muslim women we had asked to join them to do those things.

It’s really strange that for all of the times I’ve talked about this work, this is the first time someone has brought me back in an interview to remember some of the spiritual things that we did.

HDS: What do you see as the biggest threat to peacebuilding?

LG: The misinterpretation of faith and different religions and religious practices and how people are using it as a means of mobilizing the rest of the world to hate. People take one event, one terror attack, and instead of seeing it as evil, because that’s what it is, they try to pin that evil to a religious group.

What it is doing to the world, because we are all in line to some kind of faith practice, is divide us more and more, and a divided world can never achieve peace. It is only in interconnectedness, or coming together as united bodies, that we can find peace.

Unfortunately, if you use politics, you won’t get everyone, because it’s not everyone who is a practicing politician, or something like that. If you use education, you won’t get everyone. If you use ethnicity, you will get the world mobilized in anger, but faith and religion is something that everyone has some feeling toward. People’s beliefs are the core of their existence.

This misconception, misinterpretation, and the use of faith as a means of creating conflict, this is the biggest threat to global peace.

HDS: How do you see colleges and universities having a role in the peacemaking process?

LG: Let me give you an example. On June 12 you have the Orlando shooting and if you watched CNN or BBC, there were many commentaries about the Orlando shooting. The role of academic institutions is to say, let’s stop for a moment. On June 12, you had this thing happen, but let’s research and see what else happened in the world so we create an understanding with our students that this is not peculiar to America, or particular to France, or particular to the UK.

On June 12, during the Orlando shooting, there was a bomb blast in Libya, and Boko Haram attacked in Nigeria. In different parts of the world there were about eight attacks on that same day that claimed lives, too.

The thing is to educate students in a way that they are able to see that certain things are not unique to certain parts of the world. Educate them to see and understand that the Muslim community has suffered more than any other religious group in the world from ISIS attacks.

Educate for peace. Educate for compassion. Educate to awaken humanity for good. Don’t educate a group of people to reinforce the things that make war or conflict.

HDS: What part does forgiveness play in the peacemaking process?

LG: Forgiveness is one of the crucial elements toward reconciliation. There is no way that a community that has suffered can heal itself if the people do not go through a process of admission and forgiveness. While forgiveness is crucial, I think having compassionate dialogue is a key factor because people, when they are traumatized, they are stuck at a place. It’s very tough for either the offended or offender to move forward, and that kind of progress can only happen if there has been some level of forgiveness.

HDS: What’s the most important tool you use when you try to negotiate peace or some resolution to a conflict?

LG: The first thing anyone can do in order to begin the process of peace is inclusiveness. Get everyone to understand that they have a stake in the process. For me, peacebuilding is a journey that people take and that journey can never be successful if you do not have a collective agreement on where you are going as a people.

You cannot start the journey with one group and leave another group out. Understanding that it is an all-inclusive process—everyone should be on this journey, not just a selected few. Once you have everyone’s permission and they all agree to mobilize and take the journey, then you are on the best journey, but over time, in our world, what we’ve seen is people doing peace the way they do war. Leaving out certain groups of people and thinking that, if I leave out this group, then I will have gotten what I want, but it never works. It has to be everyone involved.

HDS: That’s something that can be easier said than done. How do you bring people together who may not be willing participants, when having them at the table is crucial to making peace?

LG: Well, the one thing I can say is that when you talk about participants of war, is it just those who shoot, or is it those also who are in the community ensuring that things are stable, the ones who keep the communities together? As long as you live within a war zone, whether you are an active fighter or noncombatant, you are still crucial to the peace process because how do you talk peace if you don’t bring the perspective of those who are observing?

Why do we have referees as crucial parts of matches? They aren’t playing, but they are there. They are observing. Maybe it’s not the right metaphor, but at the end of the day when the league has ended and the teams carry their trophies, the referees are commended, too, because they were there.

And you can say, oh they are active participants, the referees are the peacekeepers, but in the absence of the peacekeepers, there are those men and women in the communities who are not taking part, they are not fighting, they are on the sidelines, they are talking to fighters and the way they conduct themselves—helping to save people’s lives in some instances, negotiating life, or negotiating for food or negotiating for safe passage—they are not just bystanders there.

I met a young man from Syria. He said to me, “I use my voice now. At my house I sit with the soldiers and listen to them talk, and I will find one person that’s willing to listen to me. Gradually I get that person from being a notorious killer into someone who begins to ask questions before shooting.” Is this man not crucial? Is this man not an active participant in this conflict to a certain extent? So who determines who is an active participant? Those who are being raped and abused, who are suffering from the blasts, are they not active participants?

What the world needs to do is to begin to redefine active participants in conflict.

HDS: The title of your talk here begins with “Women as Catalysts for Peace.” What can women bring to the table in peacemaking efforts that may be overlooked or different from a process that only includes men?

LG: One of the things that I say in my work as an activist is that the peace processes that women are a part of, for them, it’s not about the jobs, it’s not about the evils, it’s about really and truly bringing peace in the interest of the community. The women in peace processes will think about the need for schools to begin operating, the need for food, the need for medical supplies. For them it’s bringing life to the center of the peace process. What they are looking for is just bringing the communities back to normal. That’s a huge difference.

The women, they bring heart to the peace process. Hearts of flesh, not of stone.

HDS: There are religions and societies where women are not viewed as being equal to men. How do you involve women in the process in situations like that?

LG: Sometimes it’s important for you to create an understanding. It’s very difficult when you work in certain communities to get people to understand that the women are equal parts of everything they should aspire for.

There are simple exercises and very crucial exercises to do. For example, one year we had to do some work with some community leaders and have them understand gender equality and what was needed of them in terms of working with people.

One of the things I did for them in that course was to ask them what contributions women made, and 90 percent of them said nothing because for them as long as the women were not bringing in cash their being at home was useless. The exercise we did was put monetary value to women’s contribution in the home against their pay, and most of the time the women’s value was more than what the men made.

Most times there were these wide-eyed moments. Once you get them to understand it from that perspective, then you start to broaden their perspective on how women can engage at the national level and with the political order.

HDS: How has your Nobel award changed your life?

LG: I travel a lot. There’s a lot of pressure for my time.

In terms of the way I live and the way I see myself, I think I’ve always maintained that where I am today is because of God’s grace, and I don’t ever want to take His grace lightly. So every day, I pray for humility because it’s easy to lose your head when you’ve gotten a Nobel Peace Prize. Every day I ask Him to keep me humble and not let this get to my head.

RPP is grateful to the following donors for their generous support for this keynote RPP Colloquium: the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities at Harvard University; the Susan Shallcross Swartz Endowment for Christian Studies; the El-Hibri Foundation; and the Rev. Karen Vickers Budney, MDiv '91, and Mr. Albert J. Budney, Jr., MBA '74.

To learn more about Religions and the Practice of Peace at Harvard Divinity School, visit the RPP website. To receive RPP event announcements, join the RPP Mailing List.

—by Michael Naughton