- BY MICHAEL BIRNBAUM AND SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN

The Washington Post

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded Friday to three influential women from Africa and the Middle East, a decision intended to draw attention to the suppression of women’s rights around the world and spur their fight for greater equality in male-dominated societies.

The winners were Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in post-colonial Africa; peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in Yemen’s populist revolt this year who inspired thousands of women to rise up in a region where women are considered second-class citizens.

This year’s award arrives as women in Africa and the Middle East are trying to break away from a history of restrictions fueled by culture and traditions. While women have become more visible in government and social activism, deep challenges remain in many areas, including education, employment and access to health care.

And although women have played crucial roles in the protests still rocking the Arab world, a conservative backlash in places such as Egypt has prompted efforts in some instances to push them out of the spotlight.

The Oslo, Norway-based committee described the award as an important siren call for women the world over. In its citation, read by its head, Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, the committee said that “we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”

Men have overwhelmingly won the award in its 110-year history; only 12 other women have been honored, including Mother Teresa, American philanthropist Jane Addams and Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner, who died last month.

Karman called the award “a victory for our revolution, for our methods, for our struggle, for all Yemeni youth, and all the youth in the Arab world in Tunisia, in Egypt, everywhere.”

“This will give the people more strength, and to recognize that peace is the only way, that making a new Yemen must come without violence,” she said, speaking by telephone from her tent in Change Square, the focal point of the uprising in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

Wearing her trademark pink floral head scarf and using text messages, Facebook and other social media, Karman was among the first activists to galvanize Yemeni youth when protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule began in January.

A vocal critic of Saleh’s government since 2007, when she ran a human rights group called Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman was detained briefly in January, but protests forced authorities to release her. In recent weeks, she has been unable to move about freely because of concerns that she might be kidnapped.

n Johnson Sirleaf has been involved in Liberian politics for more than 30 years. A Harvard-trained economist, she was briefly the country’s finance minister in 1979. As president, she worked fervently to promote development in Liberia and the rights of women and girls.

“We are now going into our ninth year of peace, and every Liberian has contributed to it,” Johnson Sirleaf said at her home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. “We particularly give this credit to Liberian women, who have consistently led the struggle for peace, even under conditions of neglect.”

n Gbowee, the other Liberian laureate, organized Muslim and Christian women who, wearing white T-shirts, demonstrated together in large numbers. They were instrumental in bringing an end to Liberia’s civil war in 2003. Now living in Ghana, Gbowee heads the Women Peace and Security Network Africa.

“I’m shocked, I’m numb, I’m still really feeling like it’s all a dream to me,” Gbowee said in New York, where she is on a book tour. “There is no way we can negotiate peace and security if we leave out the women of the world.”