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Hallelujah! The Nobel Prize Committee Blesses Feisty, Spiritual Women

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Hallelujah to the Nobel Peace Committee! By honoring three brave, determined women - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakul Karman, they shine light on true heroines of our time. This prize of prizes points to two realities that politicians, academics, and media have long downplayed. Women and those they care for suffer disproportionately in war and conflict. But they are also at the forefront of work for peace. Women tend to be shoved to the sidelines when it comes to negotiations and treaties,barely visible in photos of the peace tables across the world. But where it really matters you find women at work. The Nobel trio honors hundreds of thousands of unsung heroines in far flung, often dark corners of the world.

Happily women's suffering, the unthinkable brutality of war and rape as a common weapon, women's creativity and potential, and women's rights to respect and power get far more attention today than a decade ago, not least because people like the three new Laureates have forced change.

But there's a special dimension that gets precious little attention: religion as an inspiration for women's work for peace, and the support they get from their faith communities. Religious peacemakers like Archbishop Desmond Tutu (whose birthday we celebrate today) and Mahatma Gandhi are icons among peacemakers. But women in religious communities, working doggedly to bring peace, are often invisible. With formal religious leadership so heavily dominated by men, it's the men who are generally at the forefront. But, if you look more carefully, you find the women.

Sometimes women welcome a shroud of invisibility: they cite modesty but also the benefits of being unseen and unremarked. But women's invisibility matters, and nowhere more so than within religious circles and communities. Women often see avenues that the male leaders miss. They also can tap reservoirs of strength and ideas that women and men who work outside religious mindsets and institutions can ignore. It's not a simple matter as the boundaries among categories are blurred. But it's a strong tendency that needs to be addressed.

Putting faith at the fore adds new perspectives. It forces a deeper look at what peace means because true peace is far more than just silencing the guns. Looking at peace more broadly brings in many fields where women are active and that are truly essential to peace--from development and public health to political advocacy--all contribute to creating stable, just, and peaceful societies.

Women provide social services, help the needy, engage in trauma healing or reconciliation, and help to rebuild communities. They look to the marginalized groups like orphans, informal workers, migrants, and widow. They see the violence outside wars, in domestic violence and trafficking. They are more likely to see conflicts coming, to try to head off spiraling tensions. Ela Bhatt, Indian leader and passionate advocate for women, says: "[Peace] is about the ordinariness of life, how we understand each other, share meals, and share courtyards. And that is what women do. That very ordinariness and the kinds of livelihoods that so many women pursue are absolutely central for life. That is what keeps communities together." All this is where religious communities are fundamental as they are a vital part of the social fabric. Where the fabric tears, conflict erupts.

Both Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee are part of what has become the Liberian legend of women seizing the initiative for peace. Neither of them fell into the trap of ignoring the power of religion. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave powerful witness to women's roles and their deep spiritual motivation at the Washington National Cathedral when it set out in 2007 to create an alliance of women and religion for peace and development. And Leymah Gbowee exemplifies the capacity of women to reach across the divides that traditionally separated Christians and Muslims, helping the women to see a common cause. She galvanized them to act together, with a determination that drew on spiritual power and a determination that a better life was possible. When the formal peace talks were stalled, Gbowee promised to "keep them in that room without water, without food, so they at least feel how we feel." And by threatening to strip she and other women like her brought some shame into soldiers who had lost their capacity to feel and to reason.

Three partners, the United States Institute for Peace, Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue (working with many other partners) are helping to fill the large gaps in knowledge, understanding, and imagination that have kept women, their faith inspiration, and their courageous and dogged work invisible. It's vitally important work because the work of their gutsy, down-to-earth, but spiritual women is a large segment of the path to true peace.

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