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Changing the Biological Chemistry of Nonviolence Movements: Women on the Front Lines

March 5, 2011

by Judith Hand

Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

It’s pretty certain that if we want to abolish war, for example, the last 10,000 or so years of history indicate that we’re going to have to do something different. Here’s something very different: citizens pushing nonviolently for any kind of social transformation should consider putting women on the front lines.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

These are women demonstrators in Egypt during the 2011 uprising. TV footage of surging masses of men leave the impression that the protestors were virtually all male, but this is in part because the men push themselves into the spotlight. Articles from reporters indicate that many women were not only present in Tahrir Square, they made significant contributions  (RFE/RL, Ahmed, Global Post , Saoub). It is arguably possible that the presence of a critical mass of women was in no small part responsbile for the demonstrators’ consistent peacefulness.

Here is a radical proposition, but one worth consideration. Movements committed to pressuring for any social transformation using nonviolence should, whenever feasible, adopt a controversial but potentially very powerful change in tactics. Rather than mobilize men as the majority participants of marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, work-stoppages and so on, women should be the protestors.

New York Suffrage Parade

Why? Because this immediately alters the conflict chemistry. The context is no longer a male contest of wills, which provokes emotions that easily escalate into violence. Instead, men who are the enforcers of the system are facing, and threatening, determined women: their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters.

This single change maximally reduces the likelihood that the situation will turn violent. It does not guarantee it. As with all nonviolent direct actions, there will be risks for the activists, perhaps even arrest or beatings. If their opposition is led by a brutal dictator—a Hitler or a Kadafi—the risks may be to life itself.  But women roused to a worthy cause do not lack courage.

Force-feeding a suffragist

In a nonviolence movement, keeping a protest from turning violent greatly magnifies the protestors’ power. As an added plus, it does not require laborious training of men in how to respond nonviolently when attacked, something that is essential to well-planned nonviolent protests where men are going to be the chief protestors; women are already strongly inclined to avoid turning physically violent.

Consider that the successful U.S. women’s movement to secure the vote was nonviolent…but required determined and courageous women. As a recent, real-world example, study the peace campaign of the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement.

Liberian Women Rock! 

Liberian Women's Peace Movement

Liberia isn’t a “natural” African nation. It was formed when freed slaves from America returned to Africa at the end of the U.S. civil war. This movement didn’t last very long, but it resulted in a country with a constitution, a democracy, and a name.

Things did not go well.  Over time, Liberia degenerated into a tyrannical dictatorship, most recently under the presidency of Charles Taylor. In 1999, a “second civil war” broke out. This set off the barbaric use of rape, mutilation, and murder, something seen elsewhere in Africa as well. Some studies indicate that 90% of Liberian girls and women would experience rape in the lifetime.

After eight years of this mayhem, social activist Leymah Gbowee had a dream one night and when she awoke, she decided to call the women of her church together to pray for the end of the war. 

Leymah Gbowee

 By the end of the meeting the women had pretty much decided that something more than prayer was necessary. They decided to begin a campaign, a nonviolent campaign, in which they would seek to have an audience with Taylor, to convince him to join in peace negotiations. They would wear white T-shirts and turbans, they would stake out the road along which his caravan drove each day, and they would stake out the market. They would not give up until Taylor conceded to see them.

Then a woman stood up to say that, the fact was, she wasn’t a Christian. She was a Muslim, and she knew a lot of Muslim women who felt exactly the same way. Women of the two faiths joined together and began their “action.”

It was said of Charles Taylor, who put on a great show of piety,  that he was so evil that he could “pray the devil out of hell.” An inspiring film entitled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” documents how things worked out, including how the women of Liberia held the warring men hostage until a peace agreement was signed.  It also shows how the women were supported by men of good will who were also eager to see the bloodshed cease.  The support of good men was also the case with the U.S. suffragists; for example, a great deal of the money for the movement came from men, most of the women having no money of their own.  But the women were the front lines.

But that’s not the end of the Liberian story. When it came time for the next election, the women of Liberia helped elect Harvard Educated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first elected women head of state on the African continent.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

At this time (2009), Johnson-Sirleaf and Liberia’s men and women struggle to build on this wonderful transformation in a land that is bitterly poor and crippled with a debilitating history of strife. But clearly, a determined and savvy application of nonviolence could cut through a nasty, brutal, violent civil war even in this day and age. And such a movement can be achieved by determined women who have the support of men of good will.

Many if not most men and women will initially respond negatively to this reversal of traditional roles.  We are used to men being the leaders and women being the helpers. But women seeking change and wanting to do it nonviolently should not automatically dismiss the potential for tactical advantage of putting themselves on the front lines whenever conditions allow. And men should be smart enough, and humble enough, to support them in every way possible.

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One comment

  1. We would do well to remember the courage of the Liberian woman as you so aptly remind us. First came the dream, but they didn’t stop at dreaming. If you can dream it, you can do it. A. B. Curtiss



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