Women, Peace, and Feminism

By Chan, Shun Hing | Women in Action, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Women, Peace, and Feminism


Chan, Shun Hing, Women in Action


Whenever you hear the word "peace," do you immediately think of "war," and men? To many people, "peace" is often an antonym to "war" "Peace" events we see in the media often involve leaders of various nations shaking hands or signing peace treaties. Sometimes, United Nations envoys an shown diligently resolving conflicts among ethnic groups or nations. The envoys and leaders in those scenarios are usually men, as if they were the only ones who make peace after wars are started--by men.

When Wangari Maathai, an activist struggling for women's rights and environmental conservation in Kenya, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, some were displeased. The dissatisfaction however did not come from the fact that Maathai is a woman, but from the concept that "environmental conservation" has nothing to do with "peace." Yet, here was Maathai's answer to the criticisms, "many of the wars that are being fought are over resources: oil and water in the Middle East; minerals, land and timber in Africa. I think what the Nobel Peace Prize is doing is going beyond war and looking at what humanity can do to prevent war." Insightfully she also added, "In managing our resources efficiently, we plant the seeds of peace." The Nobel Peace Prize Committee also described her interpretation of the ideal of "peace" from a gender perspective. "She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular.... Maathai combines science, social responsibility and political activities. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development."

Maathai is not the first woman to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the 12th in more than 100 years' history of the Prize. Among the twelve women award-winners were successful political activists, such as the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and the two Northern Ireland peace movement leaders, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, who were jointly awarded in 1976. The list also includes famous female human rights leaders such as the winner of 2003, Shirin Ebadi, who is a human rights lawyer from Iran, and Mother Teresa from India, who had much of her work devoted to the suffering humanity and was awarded in 1976. In terms of ethnic origins, in the early years, female winners were mostly from European countries or North America. For example, both the 1931 winner and the 1946 winner, Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, were the American members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Despite the various backgrounds of the winners, it is worth noting that the concept of "peace," manifested in the male and elitist dominated Nobel selections, has seldom gone beyond the prevention of conflicts and wars between nations, religions, or ideologies, even though the concept might have extended to concerns regarding post-war damages and issues such as landmines, diseases, instability, and cold war. Although occasionally there were exceptions, people and organisations like Mother Teresa or Doctors Without Frontiers, it is difficult to transgress this dominant concept of peace.

When Maathai won the award this time, though it still bears the mark for "elite" winners (Maathai has a doctoral degree in biology and is Kenya's Deputy Minister for Environment and Natural Resources), the selection has nevertheless opened a new possibility for the peace movement. It acknowledges environmental protection and human rights awareness as strategies in preventing wars, which are generally started with conflicts over resources. In addition, it sees environmental conservation, women's movements, and political movements as working hand in hand. In this sense, the basis for "ecologically sustainable development" that the Nobel Prize Committee has referred to would of course include the change in humanity and ecology brought on by the tree-planting movement. …

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