OSLO, Norway (AP) -- The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three champions of women's rights in Africa and the Middle East on Friday in an attempt to bolster the role of women in struggles to bring democracy to nations suffering from autocratic rule and civil strife.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee split the prize between Tawakkul Karman, a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to win a free presidential election in Africa; and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who campaigned against the use of rape as a weapon in her country's brutal civil war.
By picking Karman - the first Arab woman to win the peace prize - the Norwegian Nobel Committee found a way to associate the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award with the uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East without citing them alone, which would have been problematic.
After a popular uprising at the height of the Arab Spring, Libya descended into civil war that led to NATO military intervention. Egypt and Tunisia are still in turmoil. Hardliners are holding onto power in Yemen and Syria and a Saudi-led force crushed the uprising in Bahrain, leaving an uncertain record for the Arab protest movement.
Prize committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said it was also difficult to identify the leaders of the Arab Spring among the scores of activists who have spearheaded protests using social media.
"We have included the Arab Spring in this prize, but we have put it in a particular context," Jagland told reporters. "Namely, if one fails to include the women in the revolution and the new democracies, there will be no democracy."
He called the oppression of women "the most important issue in the Arab World" and stressed that the empowerment of women must go hand in hand with Islam.
"It may be that some still are saying that women should be at home, not driving cars, not being part of the normal society," he told The Associated Press. "But this is not being on the right side of history."
He noted that Karman, 32, is a member of a political party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement sometimes viewed with suspicion in the West. Jagland, however, called the Brotherhood "an important part" of the Arab Spring.
No woman or sub-Saharan African had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who mobilized poor women to fight deforestation by planting trees. She died last month at 71. The 2005 prize went to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its head Mohamed ElBaradei of Egypt.
Sirleaf, 72, became Africa's first democratically elected female president after winning a 2005 election in Liberia, a country created to settle freed American slaves in 1847.
Fighting began in 1989, when Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel group launched an armed uprising. His forces and rebel fighters were charged with looting Liberia's small diamond reserves to buy arms, along with smuggling gems from Sierra Leone's more expansive diamond fields for export through Liberian ports.
Even on a continent long plagued with violence, the civil war in Liberia stood out for its cruelty. Taylor's soldiers ate the hearts of slain enemies and even decorated checkpoints with human entrails.
The conflict had a momentary lull when Taylor ran for office in 1997 and was elected president. Many say they voted for him because they were afraid of the chaos that would follow if he lost.
In elections in 1997, Sirleaf had run second to Taylor, who many claimed was voted into power by a fearful electorate. Though she lost by a landslide, she rose to national prominence and earned the nickname, "Iron Lady."
Liberia finally emerged from its civil strife in 2003, with Taylor's ouster.
Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office. She is running for re-election on Tuesday and opponents in the presidential campaign have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges.
"This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation," Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia. "Liberians should be proud."
Jagland said the committee didn't consider the upcoming election in Liberia.
African and international luminaries welcomed the news. Many had gathered in Cape Town, South Africa on Friday to celebrate Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday.
"Who? Johnson Sirleaf? The president of Liberia? Oooh," said Tutu, who won the peace prize in 1984 for his nonviolent campaign against white racist rule in South Africa. "She deserves it many times over. She's brought stability to a place that was going to hell."
U2 frontman Bono - who has figured in peace prize speculation in previous years - called Sirleaf an "extraordinary woman, a force of nature and now she has the world recognize her in this great, great, great way."
Gbowee, 32, has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape, organizing Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia's warlords. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who preyed on women during her country's near-constant civil war.
She was honored by the committee for mobilizing women "across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections."
Gbowee works in Ghana's capital as the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. The group's website says she is a mother of five.
"I know Leymah to be a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare," said Gbowee's assistant, Bertha Amanor. "So fair and straight, and a very nice person."
Karman is a mother of three from Taiz, a city in southern Yemen that is a hotbed of resistance against Saleh's regime. She now lives in the capital, Sanaa. She is a journalist and member of the Islamic party Islah and heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. Her father is a former legal affairs minister under Saleh.
"I am very very happy about this prize," Karman told AP. "I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people."
Long an advocate for human rights and freedom of expression in Yemen, she has been campaigning for Saleh's ouster since 2006 and mounted an initiative to organize Yemeni youth groups and opposition into a national council.
On Jan. 23, Karman was arrested at her home. After widespread protests against her detention - it is rare for Yemen women to be taken to jail - she was released early the next day.
Karman has been dubbed "Iron Woman, "The Mother of Revolution" and "The Spirit of the Yemeni Revolution" by fellow protesters.
During a February rally in Sanaa, she told the AP: "We will retain the dignity of the people and their rights by bringing down the regime."
Though Yemen is an extremely conservative society there has been a prominent role for women who turned out for protests in large numbers. The uprising has, however, been one of the least successful, failing to unseat Saleh as the country descends into failed state status and armed groups take increasingly central roles.
In Libya's and Syria's uprisings, women have been largely absent. And while there were many women protesters in Egypt's revolution, few had key leadership positions.
Jagland noted that while it was hard to discern the leadership of the Arab Spring, Karman "started her activism long before the revolution took place in Tunisia and Egypt. She has been a very courageous woman in Yemen for quite a long time."
In his 1895 will, award creator Alfred Nobel gave only vague guidelines for the peace prize, saying it should honor "work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
Last year's peace prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Krista Larson in Johannesburg, Robert Reid and Sarah El-Deeb in Cairo, Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, Ed Brown in Cape Town, Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed.