Organizer reflects on Liberian feminism

By ANNA GORDON | February 21, 2019

The Baltimore Museum of Art hosted an interactive discussion called Open Hours: From Liberia to Baltimore on Saturday. Writer and organizer Bilphena Yahwon led the event.  

Yahwon came to the United States in 2001 as a refugee. She spoke about the way women in Liberia mobilized and ultimately played a key role in ending the second Liberian Civil War in 2003.

“Oftentimes when we think about women outside of the western world, we think about them in a very paternalistic way. As if they need western women to come and save them. As if women on the African continent have no sense of agency and autonomy and don’t understand organizing and activism,” she said. “I started to think, ‘how do we challenge that idea of what organizing and activism looks like, specifically for African women?’“

Yahwon explained how she was doing a research project for a college class and wanted to search for Liberian women who represent womanism and black feminism. She came across the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organization and said she was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of pride, especially as a Liberian American herself. 

“No longer was I looking at a movement in abstract. I was looking at a very real, tangible thing,” she said. “I was looking at how these women strategized and organized, and also how they used liberian culture and the clothes that we wear as part of that strategizing and organizing.”

The movement had its origins in the Women in Peacebuilding Network, which was a gathering of Lutheran Christian women who demanded peace during the second Liberian Civil War. They would organize meetings and strategize ways to demand an end to violence. A Muslim woman also attended one of the meetings, and soon created a Muslim Women’s Peace group. In 2003, these two movements joined together to form the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. 

Yahwon noted the unique collaborations that arose from this coalition.

“This was particularly unique because during the Liberian civil war, there were multiple factions of it, but one of the factions was Christian and Muslim. At the time, they did not get along, so this was a huge deal for this Muslim woman to come to this space,” Yahwon said. 

Yahwon explained that the women used many different methods to demand peace as the country waged war. 

“One of the first things a lot of people talk about when they talk about the Mass Action for Peace is the sex strike,“ she said. “Over 3,000 women, most of whom were married to men who were diplomats or in politics, said that they wouldn’t have any intimate interactions until their husbands put pressure on the government to end the war.”

Yahwon believes that the sex strike took a lot of bravery, since many of the women could have been harmed for refusing to have sex with their husbands. 

The women also used other strategic forms of resistance, including regularly gathering at the local fish market in Monrovia and chanting, singing and dancing. Yahwon explained how these methods were effective.

“What a lot of people didn’t know is that the presidential palace had a view...of the fish market. So every time they went outside and they chanted, they specifically did that because they wanted the president at that time to see them,” she said.

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was ultimately successful. The women were able to force a meeting with the then president Charles Taylor and get him to attend peace talks. They were able to bring about a peace agreement in 2003, ending the war. 

In the aftermath of the war, the women also campaigned for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the new president of Liberia. Sirleaf won the election, becoming the first democratically-elected female head of state on the African continent. 

Yahwon felt it was important for people to know the story of women in Liberia. She was particularly grateful for the opportunity to present this topic in the Baltimore Museum of Art. 

“That’s really important, given this space and given the history of museums and what is done to a lot of African countries and people of color in general,“ she said. “To be able to decolonize this space and take it back and actually be in control for once about the narrative that is being told about my country and home, Liberia, is really exciting,” she said. 

After the presentation was over, the audience gathered to eat Liberian food cooked by Yahwon’s mother. 

Rachael Ladele, class of 2018, who is half Liberian, felt that the presentation was very insightful, and allowed her to learn more about her heritage. 

“My mom didn’t talk too much about her story in Liberia growing up. She also came before the civil war really started,“ she said. “I have heard stories from family, but being able to come here and hear someone else’s perspective... I feel like I’ve grown and opened up, and I’m really excited to keep learning more about Liberia, their history, and hopefully learning and understanding  more about the civil war and what it was about, and how it still affects people today.”

Senior Rose Ole-Kuyan appreciate the family and communal aspect to Yahwon’s presentation. 

“I really liked the fact that the presenter brought her entire family, that you saw little kids running around and wearing cute African clothes,” she said. “That’s just incredible, and you can see that this is really a family supporting each other. Especially in a space like a museum where African voices are usually not heard, and African food is usually not eaten. I found that to be very empowering.”

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