Vital Voices

06.07.12

Women Who Rock the World: Activists Gather for Vital Voices Awards

Firebrands from far-flung corners of the planet converge in D.C. for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards. But one Saudi activist is forced to stay home amid death threats. By Abigail Pesta.

Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman started a revolution in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night. The Yemeni human-rights activist rallied a packed audience at the annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards to join her in a rousing chant to vanquish dictators.

“One, two, three, four. Bashir, Assad out the door,” she said in reference to the leaders of Sudan and Syria. “Five, six, seven, eight. Stop the killing, stop the hate.”

The crowd of 2,000 at the Kennedy Center Opera House joined in—somewhat tentatively at first, then more forcefully as Karman kept chanting.

Organizers of the event, hosted by the nonprofit group Vital Voices, which trains women leaders around the world, said afterward at the dinner that they had no idea the rallying cry was on Karman’s agenda. It’s just what happens when you bring together some of the planet’s most powerful voices for peace and human rights.

Karman, who won the Nobel Prize this past fall for her fight for freedom of the press and human rights in Yemen, joined four outspoken activists from across the Middle East onstage: Libyan human-rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis, Yemeni journalist Shatha Al-Harazi, Tunisian blogger Amira Yahyaoui, and Egyptian women’s rights activist Marianne Ibrahim. All have put themselves in harm’s way through their work, with journalist Al-Harazi receiving death threats after suggesting to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh at a face-to-face meeting that he resign. The four women shared the Global Trailblazer Award.

A fifth recipient of the award, Manal Alsharif—who caused an uproar in her native Saudi Arabia last year by posting a YouTube video of herself driving a car, in a country where women are famously forbidden to drive—could not attend. Alsharif told organizers of the event that she felt it would be too dangerous for her to do so, as she had received death threats for her activism. Credited with igniting the women's-right-to-drive movement in her country, Alsharif was profiled by Newsweek this past spring in its "150 Fearless Women" portfolio.

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Newsweek & The Daily Beast's Abigail Pesta interviews Alyse Nelson.

In another poignant moment, Chelsea Clinton described the significance of the Fern Holland Award, named for a young Oklahoma woman who went to Iraq in 2003 with the Coalition Provisional Authority to support the transitional government. In 2004, Holland was shot dead at age 34, in a car in Karbala, along with American press officer Robert Zangas and Iraqi translator Salwa Ourmashi.

Clinton spoke with poise and also a sprinkling of humor, drawing a laugh when she said her mother wants to make the world a better place for the next generation of women—including the grandchildren she hopes to have, soon.

Clinton and Holland’s sister, Viola Holland-Christianson, presented the Fern Holland Award to a death-defying Pakistani filmmaker named Samar Minallah Khan. Through her documentary films, Khan tells the stories that the militants and tribal elders would rather keep silent—such as the stories of young girls given away as domestic slaves to settle family disputes.

Hillary Clinton couldn't make the event, for the first time in 11 years, as she was on a State Department trip to Turkey, but greeted guests onscreen. She and Madeleine Albright had inspired the nonprofit Vital Voices in 2000, after launching a government initiative in 1997 called the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, aimed at advancing women's economic and political roles.

Chelsea Clinton drew a laugh when she said her mother wants to make the world a better place for the next generation of women—including the grandchildren she hopes to have, soon.

The Human Rights Award, presented by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, went to Rosana Schaack, the founder of a group in Liberia that works to rehabilitate thousands of former girl soldiers. The group, called Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness, recently expanded to help survivors of rape and women displaced by the country’s long-running civil war, which ended in 2003.

The Leadership in Public Life Award, presented by Tina Brown, editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, along with Luis Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, went to Ruth Zavaleta Salgado. One of the founders of Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, which protects and promotes democracy, Salgado works to get women into public office in the country’s notoriously macho-male realm of politics.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and NBC chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell presented the Economic Empowerment Award to Adimaimalaga Tafuna’i, a Samoan entrepreneur who brought products such as coconut oil from remote Samoan villages to the world through partnerships with companies like the Body Shop. She now runs a group called Women in Business Development, which encourages and supports women entrepreneurs. The soft-spoken Tafuna’i wiped away tears as she thanked Vital Voices for “coming to find us.”

Other speakers at the event included Alyse Nelson, president and chief executive of Vital Voices; Melanne Verveer, director of the State Department’s Office on Global Women’s Issues; Susan Ann Davis, chair of Vital Voices; Carol Lancaster, vice-chair of Vital Voices; Wolf Blitzer, CNN political anchor; Claire Shipman, contributor to Good Morning America; actress Jennifer Morrison; and Kay Krill, president and CEO of Ann Inc., the parent company of Ann Taylor and Loft.

Get Involved: Learn about women and girls around the globe at our Women in the World Foundation.