Land of the Free: Taking A Leaf Out of Liberian Women’s Book

The documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell by Abigail Disney is narrated by Leymah Gobwee

The latest development in Lebanon have put a never ending stream of questions into my head, the loudest one being What Can We Do? What can we do as women, as feminists and human beings against the escalation of violence, against neo-liberal policies and interests going hand in hand with oppression and corruption, against sectarian systems and dispossession of the less privileged? 

The feeling of helplessness was unbearable, so I decided I’d focus on women who did something about their situation in a quite extraordinary way, women who screamed enough without shedding a drop of blood. Women form whom freedom was not only the name of their country; it was the air they breathed and their daily bread. 

I decided I’d focus on Liberian women. 

The oldest African republic, Liberia “the land of the free” was founded by former Caribbean and American slaves in 1847. The country sadly became a fixture in international headlines from 1989 until 2003 during the civil war that left over 250 000 people killed and many more thousands displaced. Social injustice, unequal allocation of power and resources resulting in bitter and long term rivalries between political and ethnic factions and corruption were the triggers of the conflict that turned into an intensely complex war where militias split in and between themselves, most of the times following their interests over control of the numerous resources the country possesses. While warlords competed over control of Iron ore, rubber, timber, diamonds, gold, and tin, child soldiers were abducted and enrolled and women were being raped, as documented by a government study undertaken in 2005-2006 in 10 Liberian counties following the conflict, which showed that 92 per cent of the 1,600 women interviewed had experienced sexual violence, including rape. Evidence of violence against women during the conflict also showed being repeatedly beaten up, tied up, detained and strip-searched.

Hey Lebanese, sounds familiar?

While rape and sexual violence can constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute of 1998 instituting the International Criminal Court that Liberia has ratified in 2004وand while these crimes have been strongly condemned by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820, no significant steps have been taken to prosecute authors of such crimes, even though the aforementioned resolution “calls upon Member States to comply with their obligations for prosecuting persons responsible for such acts, to ensure that all victims of sexual violence, particularly women and girls, have equal protection under the law and equal access to justice”. However, this might change as Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone Brenda Hollis announced ten days ago that “the UN may consider the establishment of a special court for Liberia provided Liberians petition the Government of Liberia (GOL) and the government on the other hand submits such petition to the world body.” Even though a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2006, its findings and recommendations have had a hard time being implemented, as exemplified by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of the 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, still in power even though the Commission recommended she abstained from holding any kind of public office for 30 years for being associated with former warring factions,” with reference to her financial support of war criminal and former warlord Charles Taylor during the first months of the Liberian Civil War. Even though Sirleaf has apologized to Liberia, stating Taylor has misled her, the fact remains that the recommendations of the Commission have not been implemented as of yet.

While the international community was having all kinds of caucuses and producing endless resolutions to resolve the conflict, Liberian women decided to take matters into their own hands and force warlords into peace.

And their courage, wisdom and will was nothing short of awesome.

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace started off with Leymah Gbowee, another 2011 Nobel Peace laureate, going to mosques and churches with her comrades of all faiths: “[We started off] going to the mosques on Friday at noon after prayers, to the markets on Saturday morning, to two churches every Sunday.” Their flyers read: “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!” They also handed out simple drawings explaining their purpose to the many women who couldn’t readi. They had understood something that some Arab intellectuals such as Mehdi Amel and activists turned his voice hoarse saying: we need to go where the people are. And if they are in churches and mosques and beauty salons, then that’s where us activists need to be. Note: this doesn’t mean having to tweak our message, to adapt or corrupt it. Our claims need to be and remain clear: it’s just that we need to get out of our comfort circles and go and meet women we do not regularly encounter in our activists circles.

Other activities of the Liberian women movement included singing and praying in a fish market, eventually leading to demonstrations and sit-ins in front of the presidential palace. Women all wore white to be easily recognizable. To gather media attention, women printed out posters with the threat of a curse and a sex strike (something that will be picked up by Kenyan women in 2008). These actions eventually led to an interview with Charles Taylor during which Gbowee did not look at him, but rather, at the president of the senate and only female in the government, Grace Minor, who ended up donating a large amount of money in support to the women’s movement. The hearing with Taylor ended up with him agreeing to attend peace talks in Ghana with rebel groups.

Gbowee saw her action through and went to Ghana with a delegation of dozens of Liberian women, delegation that eventually ended up becoming hundreds. The delegation started their sit-in in front of the plush hotel where the negotiations were taking place. Seeing as said negotiations were dragging on, the women decided to hold their sit-in in front of the glass doors behind which the men were purportedly trying to resolve the conflict, holding signs “Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people — STOP!” 

Gbowee passed a message to the mediators of the peace talks , stating that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates “hostage” until a peace agreement was reached. When the men tried to leave the hall, the women threatened to rip their clothes off, a terrible sight interpreted as a curse: “In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself.” 

The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003

The women of Liberia’s actions not only helped get media attraction to their plight , they also helped apply pressure on warlords to actually seal the peace deal. Their actions prompted a shift in Liberian’s mentality and practice, with many women accessing political participation following the peace agreement, and women’s contribution to the economy and society being taken into account. Their actions prompted changes on the long term as well as achieving their immediate goal: get a cast iron peace agreement.

Thing is, these women did not have super powers. They were not supported by rich husbands, or backed by powerful regimes.

They only had their will and each other. Just like us.

So how about we take a leaf out of our Liberian sisters books, and start talking to one another, in markets, in kitchens, in places of worships, in unions and in the streets?


i  Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers (New York: Beast Books, 2011), written with Carol Mithers, p. 127.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: