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How the Women of Liberia Beat the Devil
Posted Nov 25,2008


During the final days of Liberia's civil war, women whose only authority consisted of the silk-screened logos on their T-shirts helped bring the country back from the verge of national suicide. The "Women's Peace Building Network" practiced a shrewd and audacious African brand of feminism that won the activists a voice in a society that long barred women from power. They did this despite the degradations of a conflict that cast women as displaced people, rape victims, and helpless bystanders doomed to watch their husbands murdered, sons conscripted, daughters violated, and children forced to go without food. Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a film that will be screened in at least ten U.S. cities, documents the gentle but determined uprising. If you want a feel good movie, this is it. If you're in the mood to think, this is it, too.

To make themselves heard, the women first off embraced religion--both Christianity and Islam. They put on their version of "sackcloth and ashes": white T-shirts with slogans, head ties instead of elaborate hairdos, no makeup, little jewelry, and white lapas (cloths wrapped around their waists as skirts). Then they took their message to churches and mosques and the streets. When challenged or thwarted, they used their traditional roles for leverage. Wives refused to have sex with their husbands until the war ended. They demanded respect from police and soldiers. Turning the passivity that had been their lot into a tool to shame those in power, they gathered by the main road leading from President Charles Taylor's house into the capital of Monrovia and sat there day after day, in the hot sun, and in the driving rain, until he was forced to take notice.

The climax of their struggle came in mid-2003, six years into Taylor's corrupt and brutal rule. Rebels were closing in on the capital of Monrovia. The women's dogged petitions and protests had helped bring both parties to peace talks in Ghana. But negotiations were going nowhere. Taylor, indicted for war crimes, had just left the bargaining table and fled to Liberia, vowing to fight to the end in the besieged capital. A top  rebel commander promised to kill everyone in Monrovia and repopulate the city with his supporters. The women were sitting outside the room where the negotiations were being held seemingly to no effect. They continued to chant and sing for peace, but some were breaking into tears of frustration. Finally, one of their leaders, Leymah Gbowee, decided they must blockade the hall and force the men inside to experience the hunger and thirst people in Monrovia were suffering—the misery the women heard about everyday as they phoned home. So the activists formed a human chain across the entrance. Immediately, a security guard arrived to arrest Gbowee. It seemed as if the women's act of civil disobedience would quickly be defused. But in a moment of cultural genius, "General Leymah" undid her head tie and made as if to strip naked. The officer stopped dead.

"What?" readers in the U.S. may be wondering. But, as the film explains, it is considered a curse in West Africa for a man to see his mother naked, especially if she has purposely taken off her clothes. Gbowee, assuming the role of the guard's mother, asserted her control of the situation (in West Africa, younger men often address older women who have children as "ma," as a sign of respect, even if they are not their actual mothers). The women's blockade continued until they extracted a pledge from the rebel and government leaders to be more serious. After this pledge, the tone of the negotiations changed and progress became possible. Soon, there was an enormous breakthrough. Charles Taylor agreed to go into exile on August 4, 2003, and the rebels agreed to halt their offensive and allow U.N. peacekeepers to enter Monrovia. Thousands of lives were saved.

It is hard to communicate the courage of these women. The film does a good job by repeatedly showing the sinisterly impassive face of Charles Taylor, eyes hidden behind sunglasses—a charismatic rebel leader turned president who was single-handedly responsible for the war's beginning and many of the conflict's atrocities. Taylor never displays a hint of guilt or remorse. The women have to literally face down this ruthless, increasingly paranoid ruler. "Come out!" Taylor taunts them in a radio announcement. "I'm waiting for you. Nobody will get into the street to embarrass my administration." Viewers of the film might think that perhaps the women activists drew some sense of security from their appeals to God and their white dress, with its religious symbolism. But there was nothing sacred in wartime Liberia. At the start of the conflict in 1990, St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, where the group's leaders were often shown rallying women to their cause, had been the site of a terrible massacre. More than 600 civilians who sought sanctuary were slaughtered by soldiers of the soon-to-be-overthrown Doe government firing their guns into a cowering crowd. In 1992, five American nuns, beloved for their service to the poor and thought to be immune from the violence because of their nationality and high profile, had been brutally murdered by Taylor's rebel forces in a suburb of Monrovia. Their white habits did not save them.

Here is the film's challenge: Who among us is more powerless than these women were during the midst of the war? Who is more at risk? If they could turn their position around and so influence those in power, any of us can. There is no excuse not to act.

-Karen Lange

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (0)
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