Oslo Scholars Program

enabling tomorrow's human rights leaders, today

Challenging Power, Challenging Narrative

The following post is written by Alice Pang. Alice is a Senior from Tufts University majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. She is a 2013 Oslo Scholar and will be working with Liberty in North Korea. 

Sitting back in Somerville after a whirlwind trip to Norway for the Oslo Freedom Forum, I feel like I need to take pause and reflect on what I’ve experienced. Its difficult because I am exhausted and the weather is so perfectly warm here that my brain wants to melt. The one thing that does stick out when I think about the forum is the essential power of narrative in challenging power.

Challenging power means shifting the dominant narrative – the narrative of those in power and control. This does not simply mean evil dictators out to rule the world (although in many cases this is true) but can mean the dominant mindset or preconceived notions that are accepted.

When the status quo is challenged, it means that there is another story at play – a different one of greater possibility. At the Oslo Freedom Forum, the narrative that was constantly asserted was that of human strength, rights and a better world for all – not just some.

For example, Jenan Moussa did not only challenge power in Syria but challenged the Western conception of rights and what it means in other countries. She argued for the possibility that rights, specifically women’s rights, might look different in other contexts and cultures and the Western point of view should not be imposed on others – challenging power.

Ali Ferzat, the Syrian cartoonist, challenged and continues to challenge the on going discourse of Syria. By using humor, Ferzat is able to portray the authority in power as something to be unafraid of and in doing so, he is able to instill courage in the public, while also publically discrediting the regime to the international community. Ferzat challenges not just the regime, but its story and what it means.

Srdja Popovic used data to show how the non-violent revolutions are possible and must be considered a plausible, effective solution in empowering people to stand for their own human rights. He is empowering people all over the world to take hold of their own story and to fight for it, peacefully, instead of leaving it up to high politics.

Lee Ann De Reus explicitly stated that the narrative of the Congo must be changed because currently those who are survivors of gender-based violence should not be pigeon-holed to be the product of solely the singular act of violence, but of an entire system that is exploitative of them and their perpetuators. By establishing and perpetuating this simplistic narrative is both untrue and disrespectful for those who are experiencing systematic, structural violence. By shifting the narrative, we can give dignity to the survivors while being able to think of their situations holistically to offer better and more concrete solutions.

Hannah Song’s talk was all about shifting the narrative of North Korea to not that of nuclear weapons and diplomatic risks, but of the people. She and her organization, Liberty in North Korea, challenges this notion by bringing attention to the people under the North Korean regime and the possibility that change can come from within. That is definitely not a narrative that most people think of when North Korea comes to mind.

The Oslo Freedom Forum and all its participants and attendees are calling for a better future by saying what is current is not the only option that is possible. Challenging power is about challenging narrative – it means there is a different way of looking at the system and that there is possibility for a different present and future. Challenging narrative is about hope.

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