Issue 1: transforming tomorrow
/ 3. Interview with Margrit Wettstein
"All the women here have done something about it, something that has made a difference"
Margrit Wettstein works for the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm. Only few people know better than her, which women ever received the Nobel Prize and which fates are behind these women. Alexander Görlach asked Margrit Wettstein to tell us, who she thinks are the most important award winners.
An Interview by Alexander Görlach
Görlach: Ms. Wettstein, how many women have received a Nobel Peace Prize?
Wettstein: So far, there have been given 100 Nobel Peace Prizes, to 24 organizations and 107 people. Only 17 of these 107 people have been women.
Görlach: Who was the first woman who got a Nobel Peace Prize?
Wettstein: Bertha von Suttner was the first one and she got her Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. Bertha von Suttner was a pacifist and she detested any kind of war. She became a peace activist after reading Darwin and getting the idea that also mankind could go through a natural selection and eventually become peaceful! Evolution did not merely explain human creation, there must be an evolutionary process of peace, Bertha von Suttner thought, hatred between countries could be exterminated through the spread of cosmopolitan ideas. For Bertha von Suttner, peace and acceptance of all individuals and all peoples was the greatest ideal and theme. Bertha von Suttner devoted herself in full to the international Peace movement. She would be the only woman at male-dominated gatherings.
Görlach: Is it true that Bertha von Suttner knew Alfred Nobel and that she gave him the idea of a Peace Prize?
Wettstein: Yes, she knew Alfred Nobel and most probably, she gave him the idea to include a Peace Prize in his last will. In his will Alfred Nobel stated: “… one part shall be given to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.”
Görlach: Which of the Nobel Peace Prizes given to women do you think is the most important?
Wettstein: There are several Nobel Peace Prizes given to women who worked to make things in their own vicinity better for women and children. The first one I want to mention is the Prize given to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976. In August 1976, Mairead Corrigan’s sister lost three children in a shooting incident in Belfast and Betty Williams witnessed the incident. Corrigan and Williams started to organize marches and about 10,000 both Catholic and Protestant women attended. Now, why would all these women march? In Northern Ireland, there was a tradition among Protestant men to march, said to be religious processions but often interpreted as a provocation against Catholics. The women’s marches became like a mirror but with a completely different message – that violence must be stopped, all violence. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were two ordinary women who decided that they had to step in and try to stop the violence around them affecting everyone.
Since 2003, several Nobel Peace Prize have gone to women working to make the world a better place. For example, Shirin Ebadi, the first female Peace Prize Laureate from the Islamic World “for her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children.” Shirin Ebadi was one of the first female judges in Iran. She served as president of the city court of Tehran from 1975 to 1979 and was the first Iranian woman to achieve Chief Justice status. She, along with other women judges, was dismissed from that position after the Islamic Revolution in February 1979. As a lawyer, Shirin Ebadi has taken on many controversial cases defending political dissidents and as a result has been arrested numerous times. In addition to being an internationally-recognized advocate of human rights, she has also established many non-governmental organizations in Iran, including the Million Signatures Campaign, a campaign demanding an end to legal discrimination against women in Iranian law. Shirin Ebadi stated: “Human rights is a universal standard. It is a component of every religion and every civilization.”
„Seventeen women from different countries in the world, with different religious backgrounds and different life experiences, in different ages and with different educational levels they have however something in common: a vision, a drive to act and the ability to endure even under massive criticism, threats and imprisonment!”
Only one year later in 2004, Wangari Maathai got the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977 she started the Green Belt Movement and she encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically. Her message is clear! Every single one of us can make a difference!
Never before have three women jointly received any Nobel Prize! In 2011 it happened when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. Women often suffer most when wars and conflicts erupt.
The motivation for the Peace Prize for 2011 mentions Resolution 1325 which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was involved in drafting. In that resolution, rape was made a war crime for the first time and it emphasizes the need for women to become actors in the same way as men in the peace process and in peace work in general. The award focuses on women’s rights and emphasizes the importance of women’s full participation in the democratization process in order to ensure lasting peace. In Liberia, women’s movements played an active and crucial role in ending the long and bloody civil war that plagued the country for 14 years. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female, democratically elected president in Africa.
Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia became a peace activist in the midst of a burning war, provided trauma care to child soldiers and organized both Christian and Muslim women to challenge the warlords. Among other things, she founded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, an organization that was strongly committed to ending the war. As a mother of five, she says she has realized that Liberia’s mothers must act together, no matter what religious believe each and every one had.
Tawakkol Karman was the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Tawakkol Karman a journalist from Yemen, took to the streets and with the help of a simple megaphone, showed her resistance to suppression of women in Yemen and demonstrated against the authoritarian rule of President Saleh. Tawakkol Karman helped found the group “Women Journalists Without Chains” and during “the Arabian Spring” she intensified her, and the Yemeni-people’s demands for democracy and respect for human rights.
And the latest woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize is Nadia Murad who got it 2018 “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Nadia Murad was born Kojo, Iraq and she belongs to the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority. When she was 19 years old, the Islamic State attacked her village and killed 600 Yazidi men, including several of her family members. Murad and other young women were taken prisoner and subjected to beatings and rape. She managed to escape and make her way to a refugee camp. As a victim of war crimes herself she refused to accept the social code that forces women to remain silent about the sexual abuse she has been subjected to. Nadia Murad has shown incredible courage by telling about her own suffering and by daring to stand up for other victims. She now works to help women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking.
These are some of the seventeen women who between 1901 and 2019 have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Seventeen women from different countries in the world, with different religious backgrounds and different life experiences, in different ages and with different educational levels they have however something in common: a vision, a drive to act and the ability to endure even under massive criticism, threats and imprisonment! They have courage. They have proven that women’s presence, experience and expertise is highly needed in Peace Missions. Albert Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing”. All the women here have done something about it, something that has made a difference. The struggle continues, but they have proven that hundreds of years of struggle to achieve independence and equality for women have changed the world and will change it even more in the future.
„The struggle continues, but they have proven that hundreds of years of struggle to achieve independence and equality for women have changed the world and will change it even more in the future.”
Görlach: What do you think about the tension between religion and science, which we all know historically, but which discharges again in the context of Covid-19?
Wettstein: We are in the middle of the year 2020, this year will be remembered as the Covid-19 year, the year that changed everything people took for granted. 2020 is the year when we needed to not only learn the word “social distancing” but also practice it. 2020 is also the year when religious meetings are described as Coronavirus super-spreader events, the year, religious people once again are pointed out as the ones spreading a disease. So, there we are again, discussing the tension regarding science and religion. But is there really? Do we need to take sides like in a football game or is it actually possible to combine the two? I cannot answer the question if it works for everyone but one example of someone who adheres to the values of both science and religion is Francis Collins. Francis Collins is the director of the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) and he is working on finding a vaccine for COVID-19, and he is also a born-again Christian. He has also written a book about his own journey from atheism to faith. Francis Collins sees faith and scientific reason as natural complements and for his effort to bridge the gap between science and faith, he has received the 2020 Templeton Price. For me, he is a good example that science and religion believes actually can coexist.
Görlach: What is your opinion about the DNA evidence kit?
Wettstein: Sexual violence against women is a huge problem in the whole world. It occurs in every country and it affects millions of girls and women each year. The level of its acceptance is different in each of these countries, however, the cause of sexual or physical violence directed against women in all countries is gender inequality. In order to make things better for women everywhere but especially in regions where patriarchy is the norm and where health care centers are scarce, women need to be given a tool and the understanding how the tool works and how it is used as evidence in order prosecute perpetrators. The idea to make DNA evidence kits available to women in rural areas is a fantastic initiative and it will be under the sponsorship of Ring for Peace. The DNA evidence kit helps raped women to preserve DNA without needing to undergo gynecological examination by a physician. With the help of an applicator containing a swab that is included in the DNA evidence kit, women can under supervision of an NGO staff examine themselves. The hope of course is that the DNA evidence kit not only is a tool to preserve DNA from perpetrators but that its pure existence prevents men from raping women.
Sexual violence against women has been a problem for centuries. As long as it exists, half of the population of the world is in constant danger and without gender equality, there is not really peace in the world for everyone. The Foundation Ring for Peace is aware of the power and strength within every woman. To provide women with the possibility to preserve DNA with the help of the DNA evidence kit means that they can take things in their own hands, it is the tool that makes them help themselves. Eliminating sexual and physical violence against women in the world is, in my opinion, like eradicating a disease. The world would be a more peaceful place if women in the world would be allowed to partake in decision making in their own families and societies alongside their male counterpart instead of being oppressed by them. The Foundation Ring for Peace hopes therefore that that the DNA evidence Kit Initiative will help women to get new strength when they see that they are not only listen to but also taken seriously. Sustainable peace starts in the grassroots and not in the clouds above.
Margrit Wettstein has been working at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm since 2001. She meets visitors and gives tours. But her main task is to collect artefacts for the museum’s collection. She loves her job, as she tells us. She gets to ask questions about the things given to the museum. Hence, Wettstein does not only collect things, but also stories that belong to the objects.
She received her PhD from Uppsala University in 2009, her dissertation has the title: Liv genom tingen: Människor, föremål och extrema situationer (Things that matter: Objects and People in Extreme Situations). Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion, Stockholm/Stehag 2009.