The women are united. When we say `no’, we mean `NO!’

 

Around the world, forest dwelling women are organizing and mobilizing, and leading agrarian movements, land rights movement, and more. They are part of a global movement of rural women workers who are seizing the threats of multinational corporations and big money, turning them upside down and inside out, and shaking them to see what falls out. Often, what fall to the ground are the seeds of democracy.

In Ecuador, for decades, Wuaroni women have been organizing to stop the degradation and theft of their lands and lives. Ten years ago, they organized formally into AMWAE, Asociación de Mujeres Waorani de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, to make sure they represented themselves in ongoing struggles and negotiations. In particular, they have been organizing against Texaco’s, then Chevron’s, incursions into Yasuní National Park. From the start, women of AMWAE argued that the loss of water, land, and home would hurt everyone and would target Wuaroni women. Recently, they have worked with the YASunidos campaign for a popular, and extended, consultation on the fate of the Yasuní area, foregrounding its residents. At the same time, they have affiliated with another new group, Colectivo Miradas Críticas del Territorio desde el Feminismo, who have just published their report, La vida en el centro y el crudo bajo tierra: El Yasuní en clave feminista. The report found that along with the contamination of the local ecology, one of the richest in biodiversity in the world, the assault on community increased inequality between men and women by rewarding and subsidizing patriarchal structures. At the same time, the poisoning of the waters has been a direct assault on women’s labor and bodies. In linking with feminist and women’s movements and with women in online advocacy movements, as well as others, rural indigenous women are opening spaces of common and mutual dialogue, action, and vision. And, little by little, they are winning.

From petroleum to the dirty business of palm oil, women are engaging in the struggle for autonomy, respect, and dignity. In Liberia, the Jogbahn Clan has been organizing to stop British palm oil company Equatorial Palm Oil PLC (EPO) from stealing their forest lands. While Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has declared that the land under question is to be considered community land, and thus protected from external interference, reports claim EPO is still cutting down trees, surveying the land, and intimidating the Jogbahn Clan. In a recently released video, Deyeatee Kardor, the Clan’s Chairwoman, explains, “There’s no happy relationship with the company. From the time they arrived, there’s been nothing, just nothing for those who were evicted. All they have done is try to divide us. They identify important people, then offer them a little money to convince them to change others’ minds. As owners of the land we were intimidated because we stopped the company from taking our land, grabbing land. Now they must not expand their plantation onto our land. The women are united, not divided. When we say `no’, we mean `no.’ We stand together and say no! I am very happy my land is free, because when our land is free, we are all free.”

The women are united, not divided. When they say `no’, they mean `NO!’

 

(Photo Credit: IFADTV / You Tube)

Leymah Gbowee identifies humanity as the subject of peace

 

Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee

I once heard the photographer Harry Mattison discuss the difficulty, the near impossibility, of photographing peace. For Mattison, an award winning photographer of conflict, this was an epiphany. Peace is difficult, representing peace is near impossible.

The Nobel Prize Committee today awarded the Peace Prize to three women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia and currently based in Ghana; and Tawakul Karman, of Yemen. First, congratulations to all, and thanks to the Nobel Committee for not repeating the mistakes of recent Peace Prize recipients (Barack Obama, the proponent of “just war”, for example). Thanks to the Nobel Committee for increasing the pool of living women Nobel Peace Prize winners by a whopping 50%. Where there were six, now there are nine. Good news, hopefully, for the Nobel Women’s Initiative … and the world. (Since its inception, in 1901, 15 women have won the Peace Prize.)

The New York Times coverage of the announcement, and its implications, suggests the truth of Mattison’s epiphany. The Times devotes 33 paragraphs to the news, a substantial article. Johnson Sirleaf gets eleven paragraphs, large chunks early on and then again at the end. Karman receives five paragraphs, which begin about a third of the way into the piece. Gbowee receives a scant three paragraphs, and they don’t show up until the 24th paragraph. You have to want to read the whole article to find out who Leymah Gbowee is.

Leymah Gbowee is a “militant pacifist”, a “peace activist”, and a real mover and shaker. She is a woman who recognized that women had to organize, across all barriers and across all divisions, that women had to transform themselves and one another if they wanted to change the world. They had to learn to participate in peace negotiations, for example, by refusing the symbolic chairs and other morsels offered them, by confronting the materiel of war and violence with the human force of peace, compassion, and love. When the Big Men of Liberia met in Accra to negotiate “peace”, Gbowee and her sisters in white t-shirts raised a ruckus outside, and just about held the delegates hostage.

From the outset, Leymah Gbowee identified humanity as the site of her struggles and organizing. That means organizing structures, such as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, followed by the Women In Peacebuilding Network, or WIPNET. From there, she has gone on to organize the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana. Gbowee’s vision of women is African, from Cape to Cairo, and from coast to coast.

Peace and justice, child by child, person by person, space by space, and beyond. That’s what Leymah Gbowee has been organizing. That’s what is so difficult, if not impossible, to represent. That’s what The New York Times missed. But you don’t have to. On Tuesday, October 18, in the United States, PBS will broadcast the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the work of Leymah Gbowee. Don’t miss it. It’s inspiring, as is its subject.

 

(This starts a new collaboration with Africa Is a Country. This post originally appeared, under different title, here)

 

(Photo Credit 1: PBS) (Photo Credit 2: AFP / BBC)

Kenya Imagine Women: Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Review)

The rebels fought for resources. Charles Taylor fought to stay in power. Young boys were recruited to fight in a war they barely understood. And the women of Liberia, they fought for survival, theirs and Liberia’s.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a gripping, tear-jerking, yet empowering story of the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity of our survival instinct to triumph over the greatest challenges.

The film’s early scenes are set in 2003 when a group of Liberian women begin organizing themselves to get an audience with President Charles Taylor. Taylor was disinterested: his full attention lay in proving his military prowess as he fought rebels across the country. The women persisted: dressed in white dresses and white headscarves they gathered in hundreds and waited by the roadside for Taylor to pass by and notice them. For days, they continued meeting, until he finally relented.

Leymah Gbowee was one of these women. She says she was exhausted by war’s sorrows and destruction and yearned for a return of normalcy. Together with other women groups she formed the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of women’s groups that included both a Christian and a Muslim women’s association. They were up against men who were not afraid of raping or killing women in their community. Their religious conviction was not unique however. As Gbowee says of Taylor, who would later be charged in an international court on actions committed during those violent times, “he could pray the devil back to hell.” Taylor like many Liberians went to church and prayed.

So these women took courage, prayed for peace and believed their prayers answered when Taylor finally agreed to meet with African leaders in Ghana for peace talks. Gbowee and hundreds of other women followed him there in eager anticipation.

To their dismay however, Taylor and the other warlords were not interested in ending the war. Resolving never to quit, the women decided to press on in faith, and thus began the sit-ins.

I spoke with the film’s award-winning director Gini Reticker.  She says, “the role of women is often neglected when telling history.” For years, international journalists covered the Liberian war, yet Reticker found very little footage on the struggle of the women of Liberia to end the war; this in spite of their very open and significant. It was not difficult to find them, they sat in market places, called on the president and even traveled to Ghana for peace talks. They were central to the peace effort, and it would be difficult to overstate their importance to the peace effort, and to compelling progress at the peace talks.

Reticker says she “made a point not to include violent images… its almost pornographic.” Instead through five women, of different vocations and backgrounds, the story of Liberia is told, or told anew. This retelling is different from the story most people know, for as Reticker says, the traditional approach has been informed by the fact that “the sight of a young Liberian man holding a gun is a more compelling story than that of a woman organizing for peace.”

In times of increasing global tensions, and endless news of strife and crises within countries, conflict and the potential for conflict threaten to disrupt more lives than they have in several decades. The example of this group of women in Liberia, determinedly waging peace against great odds gives many communities around the world, besieged by the trauma of war, the hope that they too can prevail.

For this reason, the film has among other places been shown in the Congo, in Iraq and in Darfur. Following the film’s screening women in Kurdistan and Georgia have written peace agendas for the future of their communities.

For victims of war, and particularly raped women, the film undoubtedly takes them back to those traumatic times, opening up old wounds, but perhaps also uniting and emboldening them and the rest of society in common resolve in their present struggles. These empowering stories, and the accounting of a lengthy healing process, are a testament to how far Liberia and the survivors of its civil war has come.

And for others the film will offer courage, hope and a determination that no struggle is too big to overcome.

 

(Photo Credit: Global Citizen Journey) (Video Credit: YouTube)

“Eclipsed” Last 10 days! See it now!

“Eclipsed” Last 10 days! See it now!

Written by Danai Gurira, directed by Liesl Tommy, world premier at the Woolly Mammoth, Washington, DC, until September 27, 2009 

In case you’re only going to read this one paragraph, I’m going to jump the gun. Don’t be put off by the subject of this play – five Liberian women in a rebel commander’s compound. Don’t file this event under “worthy but arduous.” Because this is the real deal: credible breathing funny characters emerge within minutes. You know them from the first volley of dialogue and action, and you understand the situation. This shack exists to serve and service CO, the commanding officer aka warlord who issues orders from just off stage to wives who call each other Number One and Number Three. As the lights come up, they are concealing from CO and the other men in the camp a third woman, a girl really, who has fled the fighting. The war, largely offstage, presses down on the play, as it did and does on Liberia. 

I like information, analysis and argument as much as the next woman, but the things I really know – outside my own experience – I learned from stories, through the powerful engagement that conjures empathy. The emotions experienced inside a story’s world burn into you and, fire-tempered, that knowledge stays. Such a story and such a world has Zimbabwean playwright and actress Danai Gurira written. 

A photograph from the conflict, featured in a New York Times article, sparked the play: three women combatants sporting tight jeans, attitude and AK47s. Gurira filed away the image and all it evoked. Years ago, she says (but it can’t be that many; she’s an elegant slip of barely 30), Gurira resolved to create stories about African women as real characters, not the usual stereotypes. If you were fortunate to see “In the Continuum,” the two-hander she wrote as her NYU drama school graduation project and performed in 2006 across the US and in her native Zimbabwe, you know she’d already begun to make good on that promise. Then, in 2007, she headed to peace-time Liberia to run workshops and interview numerous women about their experiences as combatants, wives, and survivors, as well as Peace Women in the mass movement credited with forcing the adversaries – Charles Taylor and the warlords opposing him – to the negotiating table and finally to a settlement. (As an innovative marketing strategy for “Eclipsed,” Woolly Mammoth held two screenings of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a powerful documentary about the Peace Women.) Gurira taped many hours of interview and promised the women that she would tell their story. 

Pledging to do justice to real, live women’s experiences makes perfect moral and emotional sense, but compromised drama, right? In this instance, happily, wrong! I could tell you about Bessie, the wise Fool of the piece, and her wig (“it still mek me look like Janet Jackson oh”), or about Maima, wife Number Two who takes the war name Disgruntled when she becomes a soldier (“now Disgruntled do whot Disgruntled like and no man come do no stupid ting to me or tell me whot to do”), or about the girl, who “can read and write and do all dem book ting,” reading juicy snippets from the biography of a certain American president, or about Rita, the peace woman, and her double quest in this particular camp. But you’d do better to meet them yourself, embodied with great skill and conviction by five African American actors. Five of the twenty – as South African director Liesl Tommy points out – who are employed in productions of “Eclipsed” in Washington, DC, in New York, in Los Angeles, and at Yale. Under Tommy’s direction and through a process of physical and visual immersion, the actresses at Woolly Mammoth (especially Uzo Aduba playing Helena, Number One) move like women who pound cassava, who kneel to scrub clothes in a tub or on a river bank, and who carry water in buckets on their heads, that swaying gait that gives African village women such straight-back carriage. 

What is this, you’re asking, a commercial? Where’s the critique? Ok, then. My major beef with Gurira is titles. “In the Continuum”? “Eclipsed”? These could name just about anything, including the latest soft-focus teen vampire porn series. Then, one of the actresses is more difficult to hear than the others. More interestingly, on Q+A night, an audience member was concerned that the wider context wasn’t clear enough from the play – although the ties between Liberia and the US – “America our fada,” says Bessie – are woven throughout. Political artists and audiences want it all – the art and the analysis. Think of 1986’s “Place of Weeping,” Darrell Roodt’s first film: one slim story staggering under the burden of representing all of apartheid South Africa’s types and tribulations.

I wonder, too, how Gurira will fare with male African critics. We don’t see a single man in the play, but like the war itself their presence surrounds the stage. Of the men of the LURD army and their demand for village girls after fighting, Maima/Disgruntled tells the girl, “Dey is beasts and beasts need to be fed. It dat simple.” Will Gurira, like novelists Alice Walker and Tsitsi Dangerembga, be accused of betrayal? Or have we moved on? And/or does the context of war qualify the situation – and therefore men’s behavior – as extraordinary? Perhaps Women In and Beyond the Global will make space for more discussion on this. Once you’ve seen the play, that is. The Woolly Mammoth run ends on September 27th. I’m all done pressing and exhorting. It’s up to you now. Except, to close, a few predictions:

You will leave Woolly Mammoth after a performance of “Eclipsed”

  • speaking like a Liberian (at least inside your head) for many weeks to come – “Ya dat funny oh”
  • your hands tingling from applause (and you might still be crying)
  • with a new awareness of women and war
  • living with and thinking about five characters, as if they were women you’ve known well and laughed with and care about, which by now they are. 

 Reviewed by Annie Holmes, knowledge coordinator for JASS (www.justassociates.org) and writer (www.pembaproductions.com)

Links

More about the play in Woolly Mammoth program notes:

http://www.woollymammoth.net/performances/show_content/Eclipsed_program_notes.pdf

Danai Gurira on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112636506

“Eclipsed” rehearsals in LA:

http://www.playbill.com/news/article/132140-PHOTO_CALL_Gurira%27s_Liberia-Set_Eclipsed_Rehearses_in_L.A.

Washington Post Review:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/07/AR2009090702044.html

Variety Review:

http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117940982.html?categoryid=33&cs=1

Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It

[Editors’ note: There’s been much talk and writing on the current `sex strike’ in Kenya. Here’s one version. Thanks to Kenyaimagine, www.kenyaimagine.com, and to the author, Nekessa Opoti, for permission to publish and for sharing.]

I must be getting wrong. Or maybe most people are missing the point of the sex strike.My first reaction when I heard about the sex strike was: how bold! what a statement! Still, I questioned their use of sex as a tool. And then I began to watch in dismay as the country reacted. Perhaps we all agree that Kenyan politicians need to get their act together. But sex is still a taboo; unspoken.

The backlash from Kenyans is not surprising. The chatter on social networking sites, and in email conversations, shows that many Kenyans do not believe that this was the right strategy.  But first let’s look at examples in recent history where women have gone on sex strikes to make political, human rights and economic statements.

In Naples last year, Neapolitan women sought to prevent their men from exploding fireworks at Christmas and New Year celebrations by denying them their conjugal rights. The campaign had the support of the local authorities as well as the Church; it seems to have succeeded.

In Colombia, there have been two serious attempts at the Lysistrata strategy.

In 1997 the BBC reported that, “Studies found that local gang members were drawn to criminality by the desire for status, power, and sexual attractiveness, not economic necessity, Colombian radio reported.”:

the chief of the Colombian army, appealed on national television to the wives and girlfriends of the Colombian left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. He urged them to deny sex to their menfolk until a cease fire was reached. At the same time, the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus Civicas, declared the city a women-only zone for a night, suggesting men stay at home to reflect on violence. The Communists ridiculed these initiatives, pointing out that they numbered more than 2,000 females among their own ranks. Nonetheless, the measure, combined with democratic and diplomatic approaches, achieved a brief cease fire.

And in 2006,

…dozens of wives and girlfriends of gang members from Pereira (Colombia), started a sex strike called “La huelga de las piernas cruzadas” (the strike of crossed legs) to curb gang violence, in response to 480 deaths due to gang violence in that coffee region. According to spokesman Jennifer Bayer, the specific target was the strike was to force gang members to turn in their weapons in compliance with the law. According to them, many gang members were involved in violent crime for status and sexual attractiveness, and the strike sent the message that refusing to turn in the guns was not sexy.

In Poland in 1992:

….a newly elected Catholic prime minister made abortions illegal for the first time since the 1950s: since contraception was not widely available in the country, abortions had traditionally been the most prevalent method of birth control. When this became illegal, birth rates fell dramatically: Polish women refused sex for fear of getting pregnant. Since then, an anti-clerical government has replaced the Catholic one, at least in part as a result of the pro-choice backlash.

The following two cases have perhaps been the most effective.

In Liberia while the peace talks that eventually ended the civil war were in progress, it became clear to a group of concerned women that Charles Taylor’s side wasn’t taking the talks with the seriousness they deserved. So the women camped outside the parties’ door and refused to leave until a deal was made. The Ghanaian president met with the women, assured them of his support for their initiative, and promised that he would do his best to ensure that the talks would be taken seriously. The women, then, had external support. Watch (video below) the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” where the women explain how their sex strike worked: pressures in personal relationships pushed men to action against rebel leaders and prayer. Atieno Demo makes a powerful case for why the personal is political.

Iceland’s movement in in 1975 also received national prominence resulting in one of the first equality legislation in the world. Known as the “Women’s Day Off “, this was more than a sex strike: women stayed home from work to protest discriminatory wages.

 Several women organizations in Kenya, including FIDA, have banded together in a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government. Other groups in the coalition are Caucus for Women’s Leadership and Maendeleo ya Wanawake. (You can read their press release here ). The following are the demands from these women’s groups:

  • President Kibaki and Mr Odinga respect the people and nation of Kenya by “ending forthwith the little power games” that undermine the dignity, safety and democratic spaces of our country;
  • The President and PM give respect, full intent, interpretation and observation to the spirit and letter of the National Accord and Reconciliation;
  • A responsive, sensitive and people-driven leadership and coalition government that is decisive, clear about the country’s priorities, willing to sacrifice individual ambition for the greater good of the nation, a leadership that inspires confidence amongst the country’s people;
  • Fast-tracking of the reforms agenda, and,
  • Resignation of Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and refusal by him to be used to defeat the National Accord.

In Kenya, the situation is not as extreme as in Liberia; the behaviour which they want to stop has no direct connection with sex, as it seems to have had in Colombia; and, unlike Iceland, Colombia, Poland and Italy, Kenyan women don’t already have the power that might make the threat a threat a plausible one. Still, all that is necessary for the strike to succeed is for it to have an impact. And that it certainly will. It has drawn attention to the difficulties which Kenyan women face, and it has shown that they will not hesitate to use what power they have to collectively improve their lot.

There’s an argument to be made that Kenyan men interact with women intimately only when having, or seeking, sex. Women are deliberately shut out of almost every other influential position: decisions in the home, and state, are not only not theirs to make, they cannot even significantly influence them. So it seems that a woman’s power is limited to her relationship(s). But not even always, since we know that many women do not have the right to say no to sex, with their husbands, boyfriends, or bosses.

The feminists of G10 want them to use it, since that’s a key part of the power that women are able to command. It could be argued that this choice plays directly into the hands of antifeminists who will take it as confirmation of the stereotype that women are wily, good for nothing and so on. On the other hand, women are entitled to use the weapons at their disposal, within reason. There is nothing wrong, of itself, in witholding sex. And the antifeminists would find reason to oppose conceding women their rights whether or not women chose this strategy.

So why think that the strike will be a success? And, if it isn’t a success, what’s the point of engaging in it?

A double-edged sword: sex and power. By forcing a national conversation on a taboo topic, these Kenyan women have turned the lens back to Kenyans.

A theme begins to resonate: that a woman’s power only lies in her sexuality. The Daily Nation runs this headline: “The Strength of a Woman,” casting women as sex objects, that even when they are denying men sex, they can essentially only give and take away sex.

But sex is not what the strike is about. The strike is calling to action a government that is  not serving people.

A white-haired man, interviewed on television the next day, proclaimed, with no shame or embarrassment, that a woman’s duty from birth is to serve God and her man. And because women were denying men their rights, well, they should be beaten up. Several other comments I have seen are unworthy of discussion. But I will mention them nonetheless. That feminists are breakers of homes. Yes, the very feminists who are on strike because they are afraid of a repeat of the post election violence. That they might be lesbians and have no husbands or boyfriends; a very tired and irrelevant argument. That Kenyan politicians only sleep with their wives once or twice a year: power displaced.

Many people have wondered why non-political men should be “punished” for the sins of Kenya’s political class. If we are to use this argument then teachers, nurses, doctors, policemen and other civil servants should never go on strike because their pupils, patients et al are not responsible for their grievances.  Sex, unlike medical treatment and education, is not even a right. But wouldn’t it be great if men supported this strike, and demanded more from their government? The beginning of the framing of a continuing national crisis: a self-serving political class. But this, I understand, is wishful thinking on my part.

It is not just men who have missed the point of the strike. Muslim women in Mombasa, and Kenyan churches, have called the strike a reckless pronouncement that would lead to men divorcing their wives. A shame isn’t it? That sex, the kind in which a woman has no choice, is the glue that holds our families together.

I am afraid the joke is on us.

In Nigeria, Ekiti women have taken to a more expressive strike: women took to the streets half-naked last week as they protested delayed election results hoping to shame them into action, afterall noone wants to see their mother, grandmother, or aunts naked.

(Photo Credit: Pewee Flomoku / SFGate)