Three women who fought injustice, dictatorship and sexual violence in Liberia and Yemen accepted the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday, calling on repressed women worldwide to rise up against male supremacy.
“My sisters, my daughters, my friends — find your voice,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said after collecting her Nobel diploma and medal at a ceremony in Oslo.
Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female president, shared the award with women's rights campaigner Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman, a female icon of the protest movement in Yemen.
By selecting Karman the prize committee recognized the Arab Spring movement that has toppled autocratic leaders in North Africa and the Middle East. Praising Karman's struggle against Yemen's dictatorship, Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland also sent a message to Syria's leader Bashar Assad, whose crackdown on a monthslong rebellion has killed more than 4,000 people according to U.N. estimates.
“President Assad in Syria will not be able to resist the people's demand for freedom of human rights,” Jagland said.
Karman is first Arab woman to win the prize and at 32 the youngest peace laureate ever. A journalist and founder of the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains, she also is a member of the Islamic party Islah.
Wearing headphones over her Islamic headscarf, she clapped her hands and smiled as she listed to a translation of Jagland's introductory remarks.
In her acceptance speech, Karman paid tribute to Arab women “without whose hard struggles and quest to win their right in a society dominated by the supremacy of men I wouldn't be here,” according to an English translation of her comments in Arabic.
She directed most of her criticism against the “repressive, militarized, corrupt” regime of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but also lamented that the revolution in Yemen hasn't gained as much international attention as the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.
“This should haunt the world's conscience because it challenges the very idea of fairness and justice,” Karman said.
No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees.
Sirleaf, 73, was elected president of Liberia in 2005 and won re-election in October. She is widely credited with helping her country emerge from an especially brutal civil war.
The 39-year-old Gbowee long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape, challenging Liberia's warlords. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters, who continued to prey on women, despite a peace deal that should have ended the 14-year civil war.
“We used our pains, broken bodies and scarred emotions to confront the injustices and terror of our nation,” she told the Nobel audience in Oslo's City Hall.
She called the peace prize a recognition of women's rights.
“We must continue to unite in sisterhood to turn our tears into triumph,” Gbowee said. “There is no time to rest until our world achieves wholeness and balance, where all men and women are considered equal and free.”
Last year's peace prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was represented by an empty chair at the awards ceremony as an infuriated China would not allow him to travel to Norway.
The other Nobel Prizes — in medicine, chemistry, physics and literature, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences — were to be handed out at a separate ceremony Saturday in Stockholm.
Worth 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) each, the Nobel Prizes are always handed out on the anniversary of award founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
Nordstrom reported from Stockholm.