Tag Archives: women

In Which I Meet a Nobel Prize Winner

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

“The world is upside down; your society is upside down—it’s time to turn it right-side up.”  

It might be ironic to some that these words were uttered by a woman from a country which was ravaged by civil war from 1989-1996 and then again from 1999-2003–and stranger still that these words were directed toward the West and the United States specifically. Ironic indeed, that this country is that of Liberia, the very creation of which is quite solidly linked with the United States — Liberia was mostly colonized by freed slaves from the U.S., and the structure of its government was inspired by that of the United States’.

Irony, I’ve found, has its uses. The woman who spoke these words had a captive audience, riveted to her words. She is a formidable lady and a phenomenal speaker, and I had intended to hear her talk about her book (which is quite an amazing read). The course of events that day shifted in perspective when I awoke to check my email that morning: the woman who I was planning to hear that day had just been announced as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Leymah Gbowee, it would seem, was quite a popular person.

She’s the type of woman who would shrug this off, and I found myself – along with many others – entranced and amused by her candidness, and hanging onto her every word. She is by no means alone in the world for the work she has done, promoting peace in Liberia and the world around us. She is the subject of Abigail Disney’s riveting documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, along with many other amazing women, named and unnamed who relentlessly strove for peace in the war-torn country. (Sidenote: this documentary was featured in the U.S. as part of a five piece series called “Women, War & Peace”. Please do check out the links and episodes!) She is a relentless organizer, and formidable enough that she earned the nickname “General Leymah” for organizing her ‘troops’ — hundreds upon hundreds of women in Liberia who repeatedly stood in rallying for peace, calling for then-president Charles Taylor to go to negotiations in Ghana, talk with the leaders of rebel groups, and seek peace for Liberia.

It has been a long journey, for both Leymah and Liberia. The country has finally escaped from the dismal grip of warfare, and elected Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the second of the trio of women to win the Nobel Peace Prize this last year — she, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, another peace activist). Leymah’s own life has not been the easiest or most glamorous – hardly that. (You can read more about it in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers – quite an excellent read.) Her latest undertaking is heading up Liberia’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, to deal with the stories and reports of what happened during the war.

And so it was with much excitement that I headed over to upper eastside of Manhattan that October morning, arriving early to the Interchurch Center near Columbia University and finding a close seat. I spied a friend of mine, Susan, and sat with her and her friend. Susan was keen to hear Leymah speak, as she herself had lived in Liberia in the 1990s as a mission worker with the Episcopal Church. She met her husband there, actually–David was an aid worker in Liberia at the time, but both of them were forced to leave due to the civil war. I smiled as Susan was happily caught up to speed about the morning’s turn of events — that we would be hearing not just an author and peace activist, but a Nobel laureate at that. Susan in turn informed her friend of my own activities — not a week before I had been arrested at a protest in New York City, a controversial mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge October 1st. (Don’t you worry; blog about that to come soon enough). Amusingly enough, at one point later in Leymah’s talk, Susan and her friend pointedly glanced over at me — I was busy snapping photos and jotting down quotes, and Leymah looked out over the crowd and stated firmly: “Libya has activists, Liberia has activists; what they lack is resources. The U.S. has resources, and lack activists.”

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

I had a chance to hear Leymah speak again in New York City a couple of months later, and even spoke with her for a few minutes. But it was the comments I noted down from her thoughts in October (the link is given in the above paragraph) that stuck with me the most, and I would like to share a few of them with you all.

  • “We wanted to do justice in our communities; we didn’t set out to conquer the world, but transform our societies.”
  • “[People are] going to Uganda to teach kids to read when down the street in the Bronx, children don’t know how to read.”
  • “[Peace comes from] tearing down all the walls of division and coming to the place…worth looking at…[we must] tear down the walls of demonizing the other.”
  • “No matter how comfortable we are, things we do affect people adversely.”
  • “[The] problem of the world is the world’s problem because one day the world’s problem will be at the doorstep…[we must] bring discussion to the doorstep.”
  • “Bring it home; touch their daughters, sisters, mothers.”
  • “[There is] nothing comfortable about the objectification of young people in media as sex objects, rape victims or beaten women…the media is killing your young people.”
  • “No way in the world that violence has ever solved any problems.”
  • “When people decide to ignore intelligence of a whole  continent and conduct their own business, something is wrong”
  • “Use local experiences for global peace.”

There are a number of topics, and sentences I could have made in which to incorporate these quotes, but they inspire me enough by themselves that I wanted to share them with you as they were. I also invite you to listen to her speech in its entirety in the Youtube link given earlier. I am ever inspired to have heard such a woman speak in person twice, and to have had the pleasure to have met her. She has inspired me to persevere in this task of peacebuilding, peace-seeking, and to not give it up. I am thankful for her and the countless other women and men, known and unknown, who fervently strive for such great things. May we all be so inspired. ~ Nina

Countdown to IWD: Empowering Girls Everywhere for Tomorrow’s Strong Women

Tomorrow is the 101st International Women’s Day and around the world, many girls and women do not have their basic rights. However, even in the developed nations, we are still far from being fully equal – we are bombarded with messages about womanhood, femininity, sexuality, behaviour, and this has an impact on the way we see ourselves and our individual and collective self-esteem. Many girls live in poverty, but it is often hidden and ignored because poor bashing is easier than having meaningful solutions for social issues that impact not just individuals but families and communities. A lot of this is so common sense that will probably be redundant. But in a place where I grew up and in many parts around the world – a strong girl is a radical idea.  So I invite you to challenge sexism and misogyny by empowering the girls in your life to be strong and resilient and here are some obvious ways to do it.

So today, here is my do and do not do list for girls’ empowerment that you can start doing right away.


  • Teach her critical thinking skills.
  • Teach her self-advocacy skills
  • Teach her that her body is not shameful and dirty.
  • Teach her that making mistakes is okay – constructive feedback should not be punitive criticism
  • Show her what healthy relationships look like
  • Encourage a love of learning and reading
  • Spend time with her
  • Listen to her dreams and goals and help her figure out her path in life
  • Encourage her to be a leader
  • Demonstrate and teach her empathy and compassion
  • Encourage independence
  • Listen to her feelings and validate them
  • Encourage her to explore and use her talents
  • Respect that her views as she gets older may differ from your own
  • Teach her equality and demonstrate it
  • Talk to her about what’s going on at school and in her life
  • Get help from local women’s and youth centres if you don’t know where to start
  • Talk to boys about respecting women
  • Support organizations that empower girls globally (after of course, checking out their work and development model!)


  • Call her names and diminish her
  • Value boys and men over her
  • Silence her if she tells you she has been abused (she may use different words for that)
  • Tell her she will never be (insert career/profession/choice here) because she is a girl
  • Teach her that all or most her energy must be spent on physical appearance and/or acquiring a mate
  • Punish her if she prefers to play with Legos rather than dolls
  • Ignore her when she needs your support
  • Tell her that there is only one way to be a woman
  • Abuse her if she has different goals from you
  • Criticize her for not being perfect
  • Ignore her questions about sexuality: being informed will go further than if she  information from porn culture
  • Think that she isn’t watching what you are doing: you are a role model and she does take hints

This is only a short list of things we can do right now. We can listen, we can nurture, we can offer love and support and help girls become strong women, leaders and decision-makers in their communities because without strong girls and women – the world suffers and alienates half of its most valuable resource.

Photo credit: Imago Dei Fund Website

Happy International Women’s Day!

Reducing the Gender Gap in Muslim Societies: A Lecture Reflection

In the past few months, I have been involved with a project which aimed to look at reducing the gender gap in Muslim majority countries, with a focus on Pakistan which is usually near the bottom of major reports and indicators, such as the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. This talk was sponsored by the University of British Columbia International Relations Students’ Association and the Maria Helena Foundation (MHF). Along with Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, UBC Professor Emeritus and President/Founder of the MHF, Ana Komnenić, Eliana Chia and I have spent a few months preparing for this presentation which was held on February 23.

The Gender Gap report lists Muslim majority countries as being the worst in terms of gender equality. The bottom 20 countries have a Muslim majority with Belarus as an exception. The report doesn’t penalize countries based on their economic development, so it measures gaps rather than levels, and it quantitatively looks at four useful dimensions where we would expect to find measurable gender differences. Namely, those categories are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. So what did we mean by equality during this presentation? Using the  definition from Human Development Report (2006), equality is defined as equal access to “opportunities that allow people to pursue a life of their own choosing and to avoid extreme deprivations in outcomes”.

Globally, across all income levels, the gender gap in Muslim majority countries is the highest. On Thursday, we wanted to look at why the gender gap was so high and what we could do about a problem that impacts a large segment of the world’s population. Culture (both pre-Islamic and contemporary) and religion are foundations for institutions which shape people’s lives. This is not exclusive or unique to Muslim majority societies, but it seems to be more notable in non-secular societies, where a combination of religious and cultural forces controls every aspect of women’s lives, especially in areas where extremist interpretations of religion exist (Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia). Moreover, in many areas religious and cultural practices are immune from criticism to the point that they may even be punishable by death or at least result in social exclusion and violence.

Culture and religion have an enormous impact on values and how they are expressed and institutionalized. In Pakistan for example, especially in rural areas, parents do not always send their daughters to school and due to structural and cultural barriers, and many Pakistani girl are not literate and do not work in professional fields. Prevention from equal participation in society seriously impacts their personal growth, health and their and childrens’ health, families, and communities.

Varying levels of socioeconomic development also help explain a high gender gap: rural areas are generally less developed, women may have less access to health services, education, and employment.  This is especially true in war-torn countries where in addition to poor infrastructure, existing infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. According to the 2011 World Population Data sheet, most of the population growth occurs in the less developed countries where high fertility rates could mean that families may not be able to educate all their children, or have to choose, where preference is often given to boys.

Muslim societies also have varying levels of women’s social programs and opportunities which support and encourage girls and women’s development and participation in their society. For instance, girls and woman in Afghanistan may face violence for attending school, while women in Bosnia although not fully equal to men have achieved a certain degree of equality. For instance Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, has elected a female mayor, and women have a greater degree of freedom than women in societies with a Muslim majority (and those gaps will be addressed in future posts). Such differences can partially be attributed to differences in local cultures and governance structures as well as external political factors. In many societies, religion is a mandatory way of life which cannot be separated from government and morality and as such, addressing religious fundamentalism is a key aspect of fighting for women’s rights.

A woman in the audience asked a very interesting question: she said, given that a lot of these numbers are not giving an optimistic picture [because of slow and sometimes backward progress], and given that women in Iran and Saudi Arabia have attained high levels of education, how can we be sure that any of this will work if they still are oppressed and cannot do much without male permission and control?

My response to her was that although the numbers seem discouraging because social change happens very slowly or sometimes takes a step back,  we have to keep fighting. I remain optimistic because if we look at the history and women’s place in it, there was a time where it was unimaginable that women would be able to vote, work, or be considered persons rather than property. I reminded her that I was encouraged by history and progress which we know is not linear, but is still there. I was encouraged by the brave women of the Arab Spring, and I remain optimistic that there will be a chapter in history where women in the Muslim world  (and elsewhere) would also be equal to men.

Remembering the definition I used above, it’s important to note that I’m not referring to an illusion of equality based on a social contract where women are protected in exchange for obedience, or separate but equal in their duties to someone higher up on the hierarchy. I remain convinced that it is the women in these countries that must lead their own movements  and that men must support this struggle. Naturally, when we offer our support, we should be respectful of their goals and ideas because no woman is free if the control of her life only changes hands, rather than remain in her own.

I’ll digress here and I welcome your comments, suggestions, and ideas and ask: How do we achieve gender equality?  Post your comments below, or get in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter!

You can view the presentation slides here:

Note: This post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Maria-Helena Foundation or any of the participants in the February 23rd lecture. This is a broad personal reflection on the subject and should be treated as such.