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.
Women in Tahrir Square - 2011 - The Arab Spring
TV footage of surging masses of men in Egypt's Tahrir Square during major protests in 2011 left the impression that the protestors were virtually all male, but that was in part because the men push themselves into the spotlight. This is often the case when TV cameras show up. Articles from reporters indicate that many women were not only present in Tahrir Square, they made significant contributions. 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.
Changing the Social Conflict Chemistry
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.
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.
Women's Suffrage Movements
Consider that the successful U.S. women’s movement to secure the vote was nonviolent on the part of the women seeking change...but required determined and courageous women. Many were arrested. Several of the major leaders, were subjected to force-feeding. Nevertheless, they persisted. The film Iron Jawed Angels presents one view of this struggle.
Ending a Brutal Civil War
As another real-world example, we can study the peace campaign of the 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 their 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. 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. AFWW provides an educational viewing guide of the film that presents in detail at each stage of the film how the women's efforts demonstrate the best practices for ANY nonviolent social change movement.
The film 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 (2006).
Liberia's men and women continue to 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.
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Dr. Judith Hand writes historical fiction, contemporary action/adventure, and screenplays. Hand earned her Ph.D. in biology from UCLA. Her studies included animal behavior and primatology. After completing a Smithsonian Post-doctoral Fellowship at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., she returned to UCLA as a research associate and lecturer. Her undergraduate major was in cultural anthropology. She worked as a technician in neurophysiology laboratories at UCLA and the Max Planck Institute, in Munich, Germany. As a student of animal communication, she has written scientific papers on the subject of social conflict resolution.
Astronomy image credit: NASA: Full Hemisphere Views of Earth at Night.