Can the Women Do Something?
To become catalysts for peace, start small and bring others along.
Leymah Gbowee at Harvard Divinity School. Photo by Laura Krueger
By Leymah Gbowee
We women in international congress assembled, protest against the madness and the horror of war, involving as it does a reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has labored through centuries to build up.
This International Congress of Women opposes the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare. It protests vehemently against the odious wrongs of which women are the victims in time of war, and especially against the horrible violation of women which attends all war.
This International Congress of Women of different nations, classes, creeds and parties is united in expressing sympathy with the suffering of all, whatever their nationality, who are fighting for their country or laboring under the burden of war.
The women who gathered at The Hague in 1915 expressed these sentiments. Yet these same words, from the end resolution after the International Congress of Women, could be written today. Our world includes similar or even worse atrocities. Activism has increased, but so have militarism and war economies. Peace seems elusive.1
In Africa today, there are 29 countries currently in conflict, with approximately 214 militia or insurgent groups. In Asia, there are 16 countries in conflict and 167 militia or insurgent groups. In Europe, 10 countries have 80 militia, insurgent, or terrorist groups. In the Middle East, there are only 7 countries, but the region has the highest number of military/insurgent groups: 241. In the Americas, 26 drug cartel organizations and terrorist groups are operating in 6 countries. In total, globally, there are 67 countries involved in war, with at least 729 insurgent or militia groups.
If you look at the images from all of these conflicts, you see that women and children bear the greatest brunt of the violence. For example, in renewed fighting in South Sudan in July 2016, soldiers from the presidential palace opened fire on the convoy of the deputy U.S. ambassador who was coming from a reception in Juba. Fortunately, he was in a bulletproof van, and many of the U.S. Marines with him returned fire, so he escaped unharmed. But women who were in Juba working with eight aid organizations and living in a hotel nearby, did not escape. They have told commissions of inquiries about a terrible attack during which they were raped and assaulted—as many as fifteen soldiers raped one woman. These were people who were in South Sudan to provide protection for others, and rape and assault were used against them.
In my home country of Liberia, the situation was no different several years ago. We went to war between 1989 and 2003. Reports from different organizations suggest that about 60 percent of the population of Liberian women were raped during the war. Sixty percent! It was a difficult period for us. Many initiatives came about. Groups of women worked at the local level in different ways to bring an end to the civil war. However, the peace processes—like many other well-meaning processes—were disconnected, and they perpetuated the divisions that separated the country. At the end of the day, nothing changed.
I was seventeen years old when the war started, so thirteen years later, I was thirty years old. There I was in my thirties and looking at the war—I’ve read King, I’ve read Gandhi, I know about nonviolent activism—and I would see activists who could really express themselves elegantly, and I would think: “Oh, this should be our Gandhi!” Or: “Who should be our Mandela?” I was always looking at different individuals and, in my head, rationalizing that the eloquence and the intellectual ability that they possessed qualified them for the work of being an activist who would save the country.
I knew that the war would come to an end only if people used nonviolent means. Because when the war started, like many conflicts, it was just the government and the insurgents. But over time, people began to take up arms. The more atrocities that were committed, the more arms came into the country. If you look at Syria at the start of the conflict, it was just the government and the protestors. Today, there are over twenty-eight insurgent and militia groups operating within Syria. Every time a community is hit, people arm themselves as a means of fighting back.
So I’m looking at my country and telling myself: We will never get to peace as long as we continue to use violence as a means of solving the problem.
I carried this thought for so long, and one day I had a strange dream. My kids had moved out of Liberia. I was in Monrovia working with the church, doing trauma work. I was so depressed, because I started having my children at twenty-one. They were my world. I was very frustrated, so I put myself into my work. I did not own a laptop, so I would write. I wrote everything down; I still do.
One night I wrote this account of my dream: I am lying on the floor in the forest, asleep. A cold wind hits me, and I’m in between sleep and waking, and it’s like someone is telling me: “Wake up and gather the women to pray for peace.”
After I woke up, it seemed so unreal. I looked around and there was no forest; I lived in a house! In the morning, I went to work, where my boss was a pastor. I approached him and said, “Revy, I had this strange dream last night.”
He said, “Come and sit and talk to me about it.”
I said, “In my dream, I heard this voice telling me, ‘Leymah, wake up and gather the women together to pray for peace.’ ” And then I said, “So I am telling you because, as a pastor, you need to go and tell the women in the churches to pray.”
And he looked at me and smiled. He said, “Leymah, the dream-bearer is always the dream-carrier. You have to do this yourself.”
I tried to rationalize with him. I said, “Revy, have you seen my social life? I drink like a fish. I have an alcohol problem. I’m in a relationship with a man that I’m not married to; according to biblical standards, I’m a fornicator. Revy, have you seen that I have children with a man that I did not marry? So I am an adulterous woman. Revy . . .”
He just kept looking at me. He said, “You know what, if you don’t bear this dream, then the next time you see it, you will not recognize it. That’s why it’s important for the dream-bearer to always be the dream-carrier. So I will invite the women from the church to come—but I will insist that you sit with them, and that you drive your dream.”
So we started something called the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. We were just women from the Lutheran Church, which was my religious background. Our first meeting was basically just prayers all day, prayers and prayers and beseeching God. I never tried to rationalize in my head what was happening. I felt that if this was the message, then I shouldn’t move beyond it.
After the first week, someone said, “For this to be effective, we need to invite women from other churches.” So we sent out the word. Women of other churches came. Still, it was just prayer, and more prayer.
Then one day, a delegation from the World Council of Churches came to Liberia. We went to the church, and they asked us to present a statement. We presented this statement: That we were tired of war. That we were going to continue to seek the face of God. But that we were challenging our religious leaders, because warlords were affiliated with every faith background. You had those who went to the mosques, and Taylor went to church. We were challenging them to use the pulpit to speak for peace.
In my head, I was still thinking: Some of these great men are the Gandhis and Mandelas of our time. They need to use their pulpit as a place for advocating for peace and calling their members to order.
Other, non-Christian women came to this World Council of Churches meeting. I witnessed two women stand up and say, “I’m challenged by the Christian women using their faith as a means of ending the war. I’m going back to my Muslim sisters, and we will start a group of Muslim Women for Peace.”
Once the Muslim women came together, they sent for me and said, “Can you guide us? Can you mentor us? Can you do what you did with the women of your church?”
After Friday prayers, they would stay back in a special room, either in the mosque or in a nearby school, where they spent time praying and talking about how to strategically engage. They took the first step of inviting an imam to their meeting, saying to him: “We’re calling you to say this is what we know: in our faith tradition, people always say that women are not supposed to do this.”
This man, an Islamic scholar, said: “People speak out of ignorance. Nowhere in the Qu’ran is it written that women should not do any work for peace. As a matter of fact, it is the contrary.” His statement empowered those women. That one imam became a person who would journey with those Muslim women as they began to do their work.
The core purpose of our work was to bring Christian and Muslim women together to pray for peace, to use our spirituality first and foremost. Eventually, we decided that we would forge an alliance beyond our individual groups. Many of us recognized that other groups had worked separately, and they had not succeeded in effecting change. We asked each other, “How can we extinguish a blazing fire with drops of water?” Because if you have separate work for peace building, that’s what you are doing.
So we formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which was a consortium of Christian and Muslim women coming together to take action. This marriage of Christian and Muslim women was not easy. It was challenging. People brought different spiritual traditions and experiences—and sometimes instead of using their spirituality to build the group up, they used it to break the group apart. Many Christian women, especially, would say things like: what fellowship does darkness have with light? Those are the kinds of scriptural references that people referred to with the aim of fostering divisions.
It got very intense, to the point that we had to say to some of the women, “If you are not satisfied with working together, leave! If we are only five consistently doing this work, we are sure we will succeed.”
Meanwhile, our President Taylor had taken a second wife who was a Muslim. Once she knew that this work was gaining traction, she went on the radio calling on the imams in the country to advise Muslim women not to go to protests, because it was not their place spiritually to protest for peace. Some pastors from within Taylor’s network were saying the same things to Christian women.
One day, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church and an Islamic scholar decided to join forces. They came to where we were protesting and brought a whole bunch of media people with them, and they spoke publicly. The archbishop said, “If you are a true Christian, and you fail to join this group, then you are not exercising what Christianity is, because Christianity is a religion of peace.” And the imam put the challenge out there, that every God-loving Muslim woman should come and join us, too.
The next day, our numbers tripled.
Once all of these women came, we continued to do our work. But though we did the strategic planning, having daily meetings to discuss where we would target next for our picketing and our other activities, we never abandoned the spiritual part.
When I was being interviewed before I came here [to HDS], I was asked, “What are some of the spiritual rituals that you all did?”
I replied: “In all the years I have done this work, this is the first time that anyone has asked me about my spiritual rituals. I’m honestly shocked that you asked this question.”
The first thing we did every morning at 6 am, with the earliest group that gathered on that airfield, was that we started a time of praise and prayer. We would sing Christian songs and pray, and then the Muslims would pray. It was a collective time of prayer. We did not separate anything.
Sometimes we had vigils. I remember there was one night when we had a candlelight vigil in front of the city hall, from 7 pm to 6 am the next morning. As we sat there with our candles praying for peace, we had one pastor and this Islamist scholar with us. The pastor came and strengthened us with a word from the Bible, and the following hour the Islamic scholar would come and strengthen us. We would break out in songs, either Christian or Muslim, and this is how we spent the entire night.
We decided that the act of being heroes—or “she-roes” or whatever you want to call us—was a test of our consciences.
I have a vivid memory of that night, because at around 5:30 am—the vigil was supposed to end at 6—this heavy downpour of rain came. And we just sat there. The Islamic scholar was in the middle of his exhortation. I remember seeing this man standing there, and the pouring rain came on him, but it was like he was standing in the sun because he did not even miss a beat in what he was saying. He continued to encourage us.
Beyond the vigils, one of the things the women did was look for leaders in the group. Of course, I was still looking for a way to get out of this dream thing. So I said to them: “I am the one who has read King, Gandhi, everything; I will write for the group, so go find your leader.” The other women, both Christian and Muslim, looked at me and said, “You are the leader.”
I said: “No, no, no. Can’t you people see that this is a public thing, and my life is not good? I don’t want it in the public eye.”
One of the older women turned to me and said, “God uses the foolish things of this world to confront the wise.”
I’m looking at these women and saying to myself, Oh my God, they’ve missed it, they’ve really missed it.
They said, “Let’s pray about it,” and they kept praying. For the next week, every morning they went into the Bible for an exhortation. They picked a character who was weak and told the story of how God used this person. At the end of this period, they came to me with oil. They said to me, “We want you in the circle.” And they said to the group, “If there is anyone in this group who is against her being a leader, we are giving you an opportunity to leave.”
This was the first time I was not in charge—they were telling me what to do! Some women got up and left. Then the rest said, “Let’s hold hands.” Christian, Muslim, everyone held hands and declared, “We’re going to anoint you the leader of this group.” They took the oil and anointed my head, my hands, and the bottoms of my feet. They prayed—Christian and Muslim prayers—and afterward they said to me, “You’re good to go.”
It was a difficult task. But this is the point that I want to drive home here: People in this world today tend to want to separate the spiritual part and rationalize in their heads that this is just a coincidence, that everything we did was because we were strategic. It’s true; we were very strategic in everything we did. But given the conditions and situations that we lived and worked in, had we not had that spiritual part, we probably would not have made it. It was our deeply rooted sense of our faith that kept us together when everything else failed us. When we could not get money, when there were days we would just sit and cry and look at each other and say, This is not working, someone would take a scriptural verse or a Qur’anic text and use it to edify the entire group.
Another thing we did sometimes, to show a sense of sisterhood and collectivity and togetherness, was to wash each other’s feet, regardless of ethnicity.
ONE DAY, WE WERE SITTING on the airfield after we had prayed, just keeping each other company. I would often go around asking the women: “So, why are you here? Why are you doing this?” The idea was that I would write a book that told their stories.
One of the women said: “I’m here because my son was killed. My son was killed, and he was butchered. They made me buy every single piece of his body before I could bury him. And you know who did it?”
And I said, “Who?”
And she turned and pointed and said, “This woman’s nephew.”
And another woman sitting there said, “Yes, it’s true. And that is the reason why I’m here. Because I don’t know how to apologize. I don’t know how to say sorry, but maybe if I put myself in front of all this, and if by some accident I get killed, maybe it will be good enough to make amends for all of the people that my nephew killed in that village.”
Some of the women sitting there had brothers who were key warlords. These men would say to their female siblings, “You join that group, and we will decide to shoot in that group . . .”
One of the girls who came with us every morning lived with Taylor’s wife.
So we were women who came together across ethnicity, political diversity, however you want to describe it. But we had one thing in common: our common humanity, held together by our faith in that higher power.
We continued to do our work strategically. We understood that we could not separate our sense of patriotism from our personal welfare from national politics. This is what people also miss in today’s world. They see churches and religious institutions as spaces where people should not be politically involved. But the opportunity to change the tide is so great in these institutions. For us, coming together as a holistic group, these religious spaces were important. We decided that the act of being heroes—or “she-roes” or whatever you want to call us—was a test of our consciences.
We were able to bring peace to Liberia. All of the narratives of the end of Liberia’s war tell this story about the women’s involvement. All of the media say: “Had these women not put aside their differences and used their faith to come together, we don’t think we would have been here.”
Let me tell you a funny story. Sometimes, we used to carry on fasts. Some of the women would say—I don’t know where they got they story from, don’t ask me—but they would say we should lie on our backs and face the sun. I remember the first time we did that. People stopped and parked their cars to look. According to the story, someone called President Taylor and said, “The women are facing the sun.” And the question he asked was, “Do you think they are cursing me?”
But it was far from that. “This is the god of the sun” is the explanation the women gave. And if looking to you, god of the sun, would give us some semblance of peace, we will look to you. We would lie in that position for hours, praying, facing up to the sun; no umbrellas, no shade, nothing. Because throughout the entire process of peacebuilding, we used the brokenness of our bodies, the pains we had gone through, to confront those who had done all of the wrongs to us.
When the women went to The Hague a hundred years ago, it was a journey of risks. When we protested, it was a journey of risks. When they went to The Hague, it was a moral venture. When we protested, it was a moral venture. At The Hague, even women who did not come from countries that were involved in the war said that the cries of soldiers on their deathbeds asking, “Can the women do something about this?” haunted them and drew them to the protests.
More than a hundred years later, the question is the same: Can the women do something? Can the women do something in this world in which we have all of this horrific violence—in South Sudan, in Central African Republic, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan? In places and spaces where it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier? Can the women rise up and challenge governments that spend millions on wars while their citizens die from the lack of resources to meet basic needs? Can the women do something about the thousands of girls and young women who are trafficked and forced into prostitution in very wealthy nations? Can the women do something about the rising wave of fundamentalism in this country and many other parts of the world? Can the women do something about the wave of unarmed killings of civilians by law enforcement officers? Can the women do something about the degradation of our environment? Can the women do something about the rising wave of hate politics that we see in the United States and other parts of the world?
My answer is, yes. Yes we can, yes we are, and yes we will continue to do something.
On a daily basis, despite the dreadful stories and statistics of how difficult it is for women to function in countries where there are conflicts, you hear stories of heroism. Stories of women who are challenging the status quo.
A few years ago, I found myself in DR Congo, within an active war zone. There we met Julienne Lusenge, who had set up a free hospital for victims of rape, men and women. She had established a buffer zone where people could come after they had run away from whatever abduction they had suffered, and women were there to welcome them to this clinic. Not only did she provide medical care for them, but she provided small amounts of money so they could start a life.
I sat in a room with one hundred women, and each of them told their story of rape. At the end of my trip, I described these stories as “the beauty in the middle.” Because as these women told their stories, they would come to the middle, and it was: “And the women came. And I moved from disappointment, I moved from sadness, to hope. They gave me new clothes, they gave me new underwear, and they gave me hope. Today, I am standing up for another woman who will get free.”
This is what women are doing. They are acting as catalysts for peace in places where rape is the order of the day.
Here is the question I bring to you: Is there a dream that you have to transform a situation? It doesn’t have to be an all-out war. It doesn’t have to be AK-47s shooting all over the place. Sometimes that dream, that whisper in your ear is just, Mentor a child. And in mentoring that one child, you are saving him from prison, or from killing people. Maybe the whisper in your ear is just, Go to a homeless shelter and serve a hot meal.
How many times have you heard that voice in your ear as you walk past someone homeless? Next time, stop and say hi. Sometimes when we talk about being catalysts for change, or agents of peace, or being strategic for peace, people think it’s a huge thing that you need to do. But everyone who has made a great impact on our world today started small. Those who are great in the eyes of the world as change makers or change agents started small. And the challenge to you who are already involved is to bring others along. Spread your crazy with other crazies. Don’t keep your crazy to yourself.
It is important for all of us to use whatever is within our power to change the tide. It is important for us to stand up when it’s time to stand up. Expect that it will be difficult, because you know what? It can be a very lonely place.
I used to have tons of friends. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking. She said, “Leymah, you know what I realized? You have no friends anymore.”
I said, “Yes, I know. The word came four years ago. But you know the one assurance that I have? That the Lord said he’s got my back. And I trust that.”
One day I was in New York, and I was feeling depressed and discouraged about the trends in my personal and work lives, trends like the loneliness. I was walking to a meeting, and I saw three black boys go into a nail salon. For some reason, I stopped to look at them. They came outside with a pair of flip-flops. Instead of going to my meeting, I followed them in the opposite direction. I walked behind these young men until they got to a place where there was an old white man, bent over, struggling to walk from one place to another because his flip-flops were broken. These were three black boys, and this is the time of Black Lives Matter. This is the time when the conversation around racism is very high, when some people think there cannot be any good between black and white. But these three young men walked over to this old man and handed him the pair of flip-flops.
My heart went out to them. I didn’t know them, but I ran to these young children and started hugging them. Of course their first instinct was, “Whoa, back off.” But I said to them, “I’m your aunty. And I want you to tell your mother that she’s raised very good boys.”
Afterward, I was walking to my meeting that I was now late for, and asking God, What are you teaching me? And the answer was: Your work is not in vain. There are people out there who are looking and seeing not just you, but other good people who are doing work for peace.
The challenge to all of us, including myself, is that we need to stand up to be catalysts for peace. The women in The Hague did it. The Liberian women stood on their faith, persevered, and they made history. You and I may not make history in the global sense. But to a girl or boy, a man or a woman or a community, you could be that catalyst for peace and for great change.
- This is a lightly edited transcript of the Bicentennial Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Keynote Address Leymah Gbowee delivered at Harvard Divinity School on October 6, 2016, as part of the RPP Colloquium Dinner Series. This monthly public series is convened by HDS Dean David N. Hempton and brings together a cross-disciplinary working group of faculty, experts, graduate students, and alumni from across Harvard University and the local area to explore topics and cases in religions and the practice of peace. The event was co-sponsored by the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) and received generous support from the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities at Harvard University; the Susan Shallcross Swartz Endowment for Christian Studies; Karen Vickers Budney, MDiv ’91, and Albert J. Budney, Jr., MBA ’74; and the El-Hibri Foundation.
A 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lleymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, trained social worker, and women’s rights advocate. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers (2011), and in the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008). She is founder and current president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa.