“Right here, in this conference room,” said a woman in her early twenties to Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace prize winner. “Only around five or six women are black, among a hundred or so. As a black woman yourself, what do you think we should do about the exclusion of black women from spaces like this?”
After years of speaking in conferences about her experience in the women’s peace movement in Liberia, Leymah had the answer at the tip of her tongue. Standing on the stage in her motley trademark dress and headdress, she looked at the young black woman straight in the eyes and assertively answered he charged question.
“We are all women, and we must stand together as women. We should not look at the colors between us, but fight together as a gender for each other’s’ interest. That is the way to inclusion.”
Leymah knows all about unity. In that particular moment, she was talking about intersectionality, which is just really another word for unity – more specifically, unity of women.
That’s how she brought peace to her country during the Liberia civil war. Leymah looked at others as well as herself. She recognized that though all women suffer because of their gender, all women have their own personal difficulties well. And though personal focus might change from woman to woman, the answer is to stick together and help each other overcome all hardships.
When Leymah yelled and protested against the civil war in Liberia, she rallied both Christian and Muslim women together to reach one goal – peace. They handed out flyers that illiterate women could understand, with simple drawings that conveyed their message. They were tired of violence, murder, rape and longed for unity.
Together, they stopped a war by protesting and going on a sex strike. They changed their world.
I heard Leymah speak in a conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil called Real Women Who Transform (Mulheres Reais Que Transformam). She looked strong and determined, occupying her ‘space’ – as she says – confidently. It was impossible not to pay attention, but I think more people should have been there to listen, and that it’s important to spread the message beyond that conference room. Brazil needs intersectionality more than anything, and that room was full of already successful women – women who were glad to meet such an inspirational icon, I am sure, but who didn’t exactly need that incentive.
Brazil is a country of diversity. Slavery was only abolished in 1888 and as a destination of runaways and people looking for a new, better life, it is rich in both culture and racial diversity. According to the 2010 census, out of 191 million Brazilians, 15 million are black, 82 million mixed race, 2 million Asians and 817 million native indians.
Still, the majority of successful men and women are not of colour. Indian natives are treated horrifically by the people who colonized them hundreds of years ago. The president of the Human Rights and Minorities Committee is an outspoken homophobe, racist and sexist.
The culture of individuality in Brazil is dangerous and has to change. As a Brazilian woman, I believe it can start with us, just like it started with Leymah and her friends. It doesn’t take much to be united, and look out for each other, no matter what our difficulties are – similar or completely different. It’s time to stop calling each other slags, and start seeing that even in a small scale we can help each other be bigger and better in life.
Perhaps it is a little presumptuous to think that as a 22-year-old I can change anything on a global scale. However, I do believe I can change something in my space, just like Leymah did. She is an example to all of us, but I took a few months to understand what she was about; she kept saying “Stand in your own space, and change that before doing anything else. Plant your feet in your space and don’t move until something changes.”
Once it was pointed out to me that women don’t support their own sports, and that’s why they don’t get nearly as much coverage in the media – men’s football is mainly supported by mena. We should do the same for our gender!
We need unity, women. Wake up.
Photos taken and edited by Nicole Froio.