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An awkward Nobel Peace Prize

For the most part, the Oslo judges get it right when awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. From Albert Schweitzer to Aung San Suu Kyi, there has been a score of extraordinary awardees. Other choices have been more dubious, even absurd (Henry Kissinger) or perplexing (Obama). Also, a number of lackluster recipients receive a nod from the Oslo committee for not always valid political reasons.

This year’s crop is not impressive for several reasons.

1. Why three recipients? The attribution of the Nobel prize to several scientists who, sometimes working quite independently, come up with the same discovery or insight—a strange but regular occurrence—is only right. But three Nobel Peace Prize winners? That makes the award much like the gold stars distributed to every single kid in a kindergarten class. How does anyone stand out when everyone is equally rewarded? Certainly, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman are all three women of great integrity and commitment to difficult causes. All three disregard personal danger and, Sisyphus-like, push a heavy boulder up the mountain though it may roll right back down and crush them. They must despair often yet a flame burns in them that keeps them going. That said, there are scores of other selfless human beings who, the world over, dedicate their lives to the betterment of the society they live in; they don’t all get a prize. Wouldn’t it have been enough to award this Nobel to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president, who, since 2005, has brought back calm to her torn country? Leymah Gbowee is an admirable woman and a forceful activist but it seems like overkill to recognize not one but two women from Liberia. Also, I take exception to Gbowee’s statement about “the wars that have been paid for dearly on the bodies and the lives of women and children.” Yes, there is a terrible toll of innocent women and children, victims of violence in our world, but what about innocent men? What about the hundreds of thousands of civilian men killed, alongside women and children, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in refugee camps in Africa, in genocidal ethnic cleansing or in the crossfire of drug wars in Mexico and elsewhere? Why are they not as innocent as women and children?

2. Why three women recipients? I see this as a pat on the back, as a way of saying, “of course you’re as good as men,” just as I see affirmative action as telling blacks, “of course you’re as good as whites.” Societies will only grow up when segregation and divisions of all kinds disappears. As a woman, I don’t want women to be recognized, I want people to be recognized when they deserve to be. I would have less problem with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize had one of the three awardees been a man—human rights activist, street protest organizer, NGO founder, freedom fighter, surely one could have been found as equally worthy as the three women selected.

3. My third reason for being uneasy with this award is the predictable reactions of the Muslim world which sees Tawakkol Karman, the brave Yemeni opposition activist and third awardee as morally superior to other women simply because of belonging to the kind of society she belongs to. Nadia Bilbassy, a correspondent for MBC TV and a guest on the Diane Rehm show this past Friday had this to say when she held forth on the many reasons Karman deserved the prize: “She’s not one of those women who smokes or wears mini skirts. She wears the hijab, she raises her children, she’s the real deal.”

The “real deal”? So there are women who are the real deal and others (especially those who smoke or wear mini skirts) who aren’t. Just as for Gbowee women and children are the real deal and men aren’t. Peace, I thought, is for everyone. We are equal in the face of adversity. We all suffer when we are hurt. We are all afraid when the world is dangerous. See why I am of two minds about this award?

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