Earlier this morning, we sent a tweet from the She’s the First account labeling Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as one of the women we’d most want to interview if we had the chance—and received a response from a follower who linked to this Guardian article, published on Monday, with a video of the Liberian president acknowledging that she is not in support of repealing anti-gay laws, as Liberia has “certain traditional values that we would like to preserve.”
First, a little background on Sirleaf, and why this comes as such a shock: She was the first woman to ever be elected in Africa, and has over 25 years of political experience both in Africa and in the international realm. She’s largely credited with starting the healing process for Liberia after years of civil war, rebuilding infrastructure and institutions within the country while working to pay off their international debts. She was re-elected as president in 2011, when she also won the Nobel Peace Prize (along with two others) for her work in promoting the health, safety, and equality of women in Africa (who, by and large, drive her to victory in both elections). Her memoir, This Child Will Be Great, chronicles not only her own path to the presidency but Liberia’s struggles over the years to reach stability. It’s safe to say that she’s been heralded in the international community as a great politician, a remarkable leader, and a strong voice for women.
And now, this:
So here are our discussion points:
• Can a Nobel Peace Prize winner be anti-gay? The honor is bestowed upon those who fight for human rights—and without a doubt, Sirleaf has been an amazing advocate for women’s rights in her own country and throughout Africa. If women’s rights are human rights, should gay rights be human rights, too? Currently, the law punishes anyone charged with “voluntary sodomy” with up to a year in prison. Should a president who accepts that law be considered on par with Elie Wiesel and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or does her extended good works for the people of Liberia in a time of healing and for women across Africa cancel this out?
• It would probably be political suicide for her to repeal these laws. Liberia is not a liberal country. My guess is that should she come out in favor of repealing these laws, or make it a part of her goals for this term, she would find herself facing repeated backlash (and riots) from her own electorate, with a smattering of international applause. Her first responsibility is to follow the will of her people, and she’s doing that here. Of course, this is her last legal term as President, but her 25 years of past political experience suggests she doesn’t plan on quitting the arena anytime soon. Leaving her personal feelings for the issue aside, is it okay for her to leave these laws on the books if it means that ultimately, she can do more good for her country and her people in other ways (education, infrastructure, job creation) that those before her have utterly failed to do?
In the end, she’s still at the top of my list for women I’d want to interview: Her tireless work for women and for Liberia has to be respected, and while I absolutely disagree with the current Liberian laws and her stance on their repeal, it would certainly make for an interesting tête-à-tête, wouldn’t it?
Comment time: Tell me what you think.