Leymah Gbowee loves to talk about the power of women.
In the five years since her women’s rights activism earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, the Liberian activist has crisscrossed the world sharing her message of how the women in her native Liberia used prayer to help bring peace after two long civil wars.
Ms. Gbowee's activism began in 2002, more than a decade after Liberia’s second civil war erupted – eventually killing more than 250,000 people. Although she was not a religious authority, she had a dream in which she says God gave her a task: to gather women together and pray for peace.
Her challenge was stark. Years of war left then-president Charles Taylor – who has since been found guilty of war crimes by the Hague – unwilling to engage with rebel warlords. Gbowee's use of prayer as activism, coupled with a now-famous sex strike that women presented to their husbands as part of their prayer-based fast, created a women’s movement that forced both sides to the negotiating table. This, the Nobel Prize committee said, eventually moved the peace process forward. Gwobee and current Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf later became the second and third African women to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Gbowee was at Northeastern University's inaugural New England Interfaith Student Summit earlier this month. She spoke to The Monitor about the role of women and prayer in bringing peace to violent conflicts. The interview has been edited for length.
Question: What did you bring to the table as women that had been lacking in the peace process?
Answer: What we brought to that table was a lot of humanity. We were really concerned about the actual individual living in conflict, and not concerned with how many jobs or which natural resource we were using. I think that was a game-changer in 2003.
A lot of the major news outlets were primarily just looking at how war was destroying this place. When we stepped out, we gave it a different view with the human part of the war, and we brought that to the global discourse on Liberia.
Q: Intractable conflicts continue in other parts of the world. What made your efforts in the peace process effective?
A: When people talk about building peace or changing a dynamic of the community from war to peace, most often it’s linked to them wanting political power. We never came for that. We were solely interested in peace and peace alone. In most places – even with women activists – you find leaders who say, ‘Oh we want peace because we think we can be leaders too.’ But our movement was tied primarily to having a healthy and wholesome society. Once you have these faith-based people, it was like the passion was linked to their spirituality, so this was like a divine calling, and we cannot let God down.
Q: How did this devotion to God factor in the interfaith work?
A: There could have been any other group that could be called to do this work, and he chose us, and we had to make the best of it. But also when we started the resocialization training phase [for the diverse women involved in the peace movement], most times we used examples from religious practices of women who had gone on to change the world – their world. We talked about Deborah, who was a judge and a prophetess, but who also fought.
We talked about Esther, we talked about Rahab. In the Quran, we talked about the prophet’s wife Khadija, and as women who had always read these stories on the basis of the masculine narrative of either Christianity or Islam, we took it and ‘feminized’ it, and we said, ‘Let’s go back; it was all God’s book.'
And after it had settled, no one could tell those women, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’
Q: How did this changed understanding of your role as women influence your prayers?
A: There were examples within the Bible and within the holy writings that women had done these things before to transform their societies, so these women could do it.
When we read Esther in the Bible, we realized that a key aspect of the work that she did was linked to the power of prayer. So we used that also. The ‘sackcloth and ashes’ – that’s how we came up with the white and no jewelry and no fancy dress and no makeup, because we felt like, for the times that we were doing this protest action for peace, we were also on a spiritual journey of seeking God’s divine intervention, so we had to be in that ‘sackcloth and ashes’ mode.
Q: How were your prayers answered?
A: I remember before the peace talks we had $5,000, and in three weeks we ran out of money, and we were not sure we could continue because we didn’t have money.
At that point we got a grant. We did not write a proposal. There was a women’s organization – and I remember vividly that we spent time praying about this particular issue – and that morning we got a call that the African Women’s Development Fund wanted to meet with the leaders of the protest, and they said, ‘Oh we have been following you,’ and that they had made a decision to do an emergency grant of almost $10,000 to us.
But many times we would be called to a place, and we would say, ‘Oh we don’t have money for transportation,’ and someone would give us money, or when we needed water for the women, someone would stop their car just to give us water.
There were numerous occasions where I could tell anyone, without an ounce of a doubt or an inkling of a doubt, that God was truly there, his hands were in the work that we did because we never struggled a lot for logistics.
We didn’t have abundance, but whenever the need was there, [God] was ready, too.