'What’s the Point of the Revolution if You Can’t Dance?'

leymah gbowee and other women at conference

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee (center) with participants of the Claiming Our Space convening in Liberia. Photo: Mbali Donna Khumalo

By Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland

Nobel Peace laureate and Women, Peace and Security program executive director Leymah Gbowee co-hosted a historic summit in Liberia from April 30th to May 3rd with emerging young feminist leaders and fellow Nobel Peace laureates from around the world. The summit, entitled Claiming Our Space: Emerging Feminist Voices for Peace, was co-hosted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Gbowee Africa Peace Foundation. It convened women peace builders to share strategies and stories from across a range of contexts and to deepen current peace work.

Young women from 20 countries gathered alongside Nobel laureates Leymah Gbowee, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Tawakkol Karman and Rigoberta Menchú Tum to build and strengthen a global multi-generational feminist peace movement.

The summit sessions dealt with topics that ranged from historical analysis and strategies used during the Liberian peace movement, to the role of decolonizing feminist leadership and power — and ended up engaging and producing several critical feminist insights of great contemporary relevance. As Mbali Khumalo, program associate for FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund, noted during her panel, “it is so important to write about the struggle while the struggle is happening, or people will try to claim that space from you. Women are always involved and always leading but the history books don’t reflect that.”

At a public lecture during the final night of the summit, each of the Nobel laureates shared their stories of what led them to win the prize, and reflected on what it means to do global activism in this current political moment. Tawakkol Karman, one of the main public faces of the 2011 Yemeni Uprising (as part of the Arab Spring) was the first Arab woman and second Muslim woman to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. She told the audience, “I stood against a dictator and against corruption. I am not afraid of a dictator. We defeated him with flowers and peaceful demonstrations.” Karman urged the audience not to think about peace work just in terms of the absence of war, but also as the fight against corruption, poverty, and injustice.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the globally renowned human rights activist from Guatemala, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her extraordinary work mobilizing for women and indigenous rights, shared some advice during a workshop about natural resources in conflict. “Some lessons: do your research. Write your history. Doing work with organizations is very important — join the struggles of others. Choose your own contribution to the world.”

In a panel about global feminist leadership, Shirin Ebadi noted: “Go forward, raise your voice, say what you want to say. We as Nobel laureates will support you.” Ebadi was one of the first female judges in Iran, the first Iranian woman to achieve chief justice status, and the 2003 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic efforts for women, children and refugee rights.

WPS Peace and Social Change fellows Riya Yuyada from South Sudan and Gillian Chinzete from Zimbabwe joined as participants in the summit. Each led powerful workshop sessions and panel discussions. During a plenary session featuring Leymah Gbowee and Riya Yuyada — entitled “What’s the point of the revolution if you can’t dance?” — Gbowee noted: “we can’t be honest with the world if we can’t be honest with ourselves.” Both Gbowee and Yuyada challenged the room to use emotion and anger as fuel for social change work, but also to take care of oneself, and each other, to ensure long term sustainability of both the activist and the cause she is working for.

Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland serves as the program director for the Women, Peace and Security program at Columbia University. Luttrell-Rowland had the immense pleasure of participating in this event in person, and sharing the work of the WPS program with laureates and allies. She moderated the conference plenary panel about global feminist leadership with the laureates and facilitated an enriching workshop about militarism and gun violence.

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