Early 2011 will mark the first US television broadcast of the critically acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Released in 2008, Pray the Devil back to Hell awakened a global audience to the work of the women of Liberia in bringing about peace in their country after a fourteen-year civil war. The film chronicles Christian and Muslim women’s combined efforts to peacefully protest the war, demonstrating that women are active participants in peacebuilding work and that religious traditions and beliefs can be a vital resource for peace and reconciliation.
I first saw the film in 2009 in Atlanta, just a week before I left for a trip to Liberia. Since then, the film has become something of an international phenomenon—particularly in the global women’s movement. As I have heard at conferences and meetings this spring and summer, the Liberian women’s peace movement demonstrated the significance of international human rights documents, like United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325, which calls for countries to include women in peacebuilding negotiations, post-conflict peacebuilding, and governance. However, the film also demonstrates that it was not only international human rights frameworks that grounded the work of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Liberia. For the women of WIPNET, harnessing religious assets brought a significant contingent of leadership and support for the peace movement.
Leymah Gbowee, a founding member and former coordinator of WIPNET, recounts in the film:
[Charles] Taylor went to church, and the leadership of LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] went to the mosque. Taylor could pray the devil out of hell. And we said, if this man is so religious, we need to get to that thing that he holds firmly to. So if the women started pressurizing the pastors and the bishops, the pastors and the bishops would pressurize the leaders. And if the women from the mosque started talking to the Imams, they would pressurize the warlords also.
For the women of WIPNET, religious traditions, institutions, and practices were a significant factor in their ability to scale mass protests and generate widespread support for their peacebuilding work. Their religious traditions were a valuable source that could be harnessed as they worked to bring then-President Charles Taylor and rebel fighters to the peace table.
As WIPNET member Vaiba Flomo recounts, the women turned to scriptures, finding a model in what “Esther did for her people.” With Esther as an inspiration, the women of WIPNET demonstrated their ritual and maternal authority by wearing all white clothing (signifying peace), going on a sex strike, and threatening to strip naked in front of the men at the peace talks in Accra, Ghana, in order to say, as Flomo stated, “I mean it.” Through songs, prayer, and mediation, the women of WIPNET were able to draw upon the resources of their congregations, as well as indigenous traditions of women’s ritual and political authority, to work for peace.
As tenth anniversary events for SCR 1325 commence and continue throughout the world, Pray the Devil Back to Hell reminds us to consider the ways that religion functions in women’s peacebuilding movements. Key questions for those engaging peacebuilding work happening around SCR 1325 might be: How are communities engaging their religious traditions and practices to work for justice and healing when confronted with war, violence, and trauma? How does religion emerge in the ways women think about violence and peace in their stories, practices, and everyday lives? My next post will examine one method for approaching these questions with communities, offering some reflections on my summer experience of learning about community-based asset mapping in an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.