In the year before her death, Rosemary Nelson pleaded for help from several international delegations. Last summer, Toronto lawyer Cindy Wasser saw the piece of paper she carried upon which the death threats were written. But Nelson said her family had urged her to continue her work “She was fearless, brave kind, very much a family-oriented woman, in love with her husband and a great mom,” Wasser said. She also had lived all her life in the midst of “the troubles,” both personal and political. When she was younger, said Wasser, one-half of Nelson’s face was badly scarred from a fire. A measure of the hate directed toward her was that after the blast, several neighbours said: “Oh, that’s just half-face Nelson.”
Around the time Nelson was killed, half a world away, Aung San Suu Kyi was awaiting news of the death of her husband, Michael Aris. An admired professor, he had stayed behind in England when she went home to Burma in 1988. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s (now Myanmar) famous independence leader who was shot dead at 33, has now lived without her husband and two sons for more than a decade.
A delicate and stylish woman in her 50s, she once wrote her husband a letter. “I ask only one thing: that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.” That duty meant staying in Burma while her sons grew up in England without her. It meant winning a massive victory in an election the generals of the army refused to recognize and enduring six years of house arrest. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
When Suu Kyi’s husband was in the final stage of cancer, the military would not let him into the country to see his wife one last time. And, knowing they would never let her back in, Suu Kyi would not leave to go to him.
And so, she gave up those things that make one human – to be at a loved one’s bedside when he dies, to see her sons grow up. Is it harder for a woman to give up those things than for a man? I don’t know the answer to that; I don’t even know if I should be asking the question. I only know that I couldn’t give them up.
While Rosemary Nelson was being buried and Aung San Suu Kyi grieved for her husband alone, Louise Arbour, 52, the daughter of a Montreal boutique owner, was tenaciously changing the face of geopolitics. As Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, Arbour, a francophone lawyer and a smart and stunningly direct woman, was investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. NATO bombs were dropping on Kosovo, refugees were pouring into Albania and Arbour was carefully building cases against some very dangerous men. First, she indicted a thug known as Arkan, who publicly called her a bitch. There he was in the newspaper, staring straight ahead with his cold bright eyes. “She would probably stare right back at him,” says Toronto lawyer Marlys Edwardh, a longtime acquaintance.
By late May, Arkour had indicted Slobodan Milosevic, the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. As her name was splashed across front pages around the world, I wondered whether Arkour, one of whose three children lives with her in The Hague, worried about her own safety. (Arbour will leave Europe soon for the relative safety of a Supreme Court of Canada appointment.)
Machismo isn’t a popular word these days. But there is one hell of a lot of it running dangerously rampant in the world today, as young men, badly led by older men, torture and bully and oppress and occupy in the name of ancient hatreds and property rights. These men hate women like Rosemary Nelson, Aung San Suu Kyi and Louise Arbour. They threaten them, they lock them up, they spread sexual slurs about them. And if that isn’t enough, they kill them.
“I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end,” Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in another letter. I’m not so sure about that these days, but if you are looking for female heroes, there are some pretty big ones on the world stage today.