Friday, October 7, 2011

Twakku Karmen of Yemen - Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Tawakku Karman of Yemen

"I am very very happy about this prize," said Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three who heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. She has been a leading figure in organizing protests President Ali Abdullah Saleh that kicked off in late January as part of a wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that have convulsed the Arab world.

"I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people," Karman told The Associated Press.

Karman's father is a former legal affairs minister under Saleh. She is a journalist and member of Islah party, an Islamic party.

The Woman at the Head of Yemen's Protest Movement
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011,8599,2049476,00.html

Sometimes revolutionaries don't look the part. Tawakul Karman, Yemen's most active activist, favors long, loose-fitting gowns and coordinating headscarves. The 32-year-old mother of three looks, well, like a mom. And she acts like one too.

Between weekly protests in front of Sana'a University, the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that defends human rights and freedom of expression, including the freedom to protest, can often be found trying to get other protesters out of jail. It's a place she is familiar with as well, having been there several times herself. And she is fiercely protective of Yemen's youth, decrying (often at the top of her lungs) a leadership that she says has robbed her generation of not only their future, but also their honor and their dignity.

"We are suffering from a ruler who tries to control the country with constitutional amendments that will change Yemen into a monarchy," she tells TIME. Yemen, like Tunisia and Egypt, she adds, needs an end to a dictatorship in the guise of a presidency. Indeed, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power since 1978 — one year longer than Mubarak. "The combination of a dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment has created this revolution," she says. "It's like a volcano. Injustice and corruption are exploding while opportunities for a good life are coming to an end."

More than 5 million Yemenis live in poverty, and nearly half are illiterate. Oil is scarce, and water reserves are declining (it's an often repeated statistic that Yemen will be the first country in the world to run out of water, sometime around 2025 at current rates of consumption). Yet the government seems unable, or unwilling, to address the fundamental problems of the people, says Karman.

She says she has protested hundreds of times, both in the country's north and the south. But it was the refusal of the government to intervene in the case of the Ja'ashin, a group of 30 families that were expelled from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to the President, that launched her on the revolutionary path. "I couldn't see any sort of human rights or corruption report that could shake this regime. They never responded to one of our demands. It made it clear to me that this regime must fall." Tunisia has Mohammed Bouazizi, the man who set himself on fire, and Egypt has Khaled Said, the victim of police brutality. For Yemen, says Karman, it is the Ja'ashin. "Their slogan was 'Ali Abdullah Saleh made me hungry.' They've become icons."

On Tuesday, the fifth straight day of protests, government supporters armed with sticks and knives attacked pro-democracy demonstrators calling for Saleh's ouster. Karman, however, does not believe in matching force with force. On her office wall hang portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. "We refuse violence and know that violence has already caused our country countless problems," she says. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has its base in Yemen, as does Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist preacher who is suspected of inspiring a whole host of would-be jihadis, including underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The U.S. considers Yemen to be a key counterterrorism ally, and has pledged some $300 million to the government for pursuing al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

The international community is supporting the wrong people if it wants to reduce the threat of extremism, Karman argues. "The peaceful policy of the youth is the only way out against terrorism. There is no other solution." If she succeeds with her revolution, she says, the world will be safer: "We refuse the movements of the extremist elements — even if they have good and just demands. We refuse groups like al-Qaeda because they have no real goals except for blood."

Karman has been protesting every Tuesday since 2007, but she says watching the dictators in Tunisia, then Egypt, fall has given her, and the protest movement, a renewed energy. "The goal is to change the regime by the slogan we learned from the Tunisian revolution, 'The people want the regime to fall.' We are using the same methods and the same words from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They taught us how to become organized." (Saleh has promised not to seek a new term as President in 2013. But the protesters want him to leave now. The Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, too, had promised not to try to extend their terms in office — but even that limit did not appease the crowds who went out into the streets in Tunis and Cairo.)

They also taught the Yemenis the power of social media. Facebook and Twitter posts have called thousands more to the streets, as has a more old-fashioned medium: xeroxed flyers rolled out at Sana'a University. Positive coverage from satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al-Hurra have helped, both by encouraging Yemenis to protest and exposing them to the support of the outside world.

Yemen is no different from any other country, says Karman. "The future is unknown." But what is known is that Yemen is part of a community of nations that is finally starting to shake off a plague of dictators. "The spark started in Tunisia," says Karman. "What stabilized this revolution was Egypt. It gave light and hope and strength to people everywhere. Now there's a race between Yemen and Algeria to see who will be next. And if we succeed here, and I believe we will, revolutionary movements in every Arab country will grow stronger." And more revolutionaries will start looking like Karman.

Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni activist, provides thorn in side for Saleh
32-year-old mother of three has faced death threats and prison, but devotion to cause has earned international acclaim

Tom Finn – The Guardian

Tawakul Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, may seem an unlikely leader of the fight to overthrow the president of Yemen.

But the outspoken journalist and human rights activist has long been a thorn in Ali Abdullah Saleh's side, agitating for press freedoms and staging weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail – a place she has been several times herself.

Now inspired by the uprising in Tunisia and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, she finds herself at the head of a popular protestmovement which is shaking the Yemeni regime to its core.

"With two civil wars, an al-Qaida presence and 40% unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office now," she says, claiming that Yemen, like Tunisia and Egypt, needs an end to a dictatorship in the guise of a presidency.

"This revolution is inevitable, the people have endured dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment for years and now the whole thing is exploding," she says.

Karman has many grievances against her government but it was a sheikh's tyranny against villagers in Ibb, a governorate south of the capital, that ignited her activism. "I watched as families were thrown off their land by a corrupt tribal leader. They were a symbol to me of the injustice faced by so many in Yemen," she says. "It dawned on me that nothing could change this regime, only protest."

While she identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen's alienated youth, she is also a member of Yemen's leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah, a group that has caused alarm in the west, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former Osama bin Laden adviser considered a terrorist by the Americans.

Karman has a mixed relationship with the Islah. She says it was the best party in Yemen for supporting female members but last October she ran into trouble after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17.

"The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I'm trying to take women away from their houses."
Some of the student protest leaders have accused her and her party of trying to hijack their movement to make personal bids for power.

Karman says: "Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organize. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don't want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one."

At the protests, her husband, Mohammed, can be seen at by her side, patiently answering her phone while she gives interviews to al-Jazeera television and shakes the hands of tribesmen.

"You can't imagine the respect people give me when I'm outside," she says. "All the people respect me, even tribes and soldiers. They stop and salute me. I faced many obstacles but I overcame them," she says.

Last year, a woman tried to stab her with a jambiya, a traditional Yemeni dagger, at one of the demonstrations. Karman says her crowds of supporters helped her survive the attack.

Like most Yemeni women, Karman used to wear the full face-covering niqab but she dropped it a few years ago when it began "getting in the way" of her activism. She remembers unveiling in public for the first time, minutes before stepping up to deliver a speech at a human rights conference in Washington.

"I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain," she says.

"People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion to wear the veil; it is a traditional practice so I took it off."

Now Karman wears just a headscarf. Today, she wears a long plain black abaya with beaded cuffs and a pink, flowered scarf. On other days, she dresses head to toe in bright pink.

Her advice for women is not to wait for permission before demanding rights: "If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it's a social revolution."

Her tireless campaigning has earned her international acclaim and devoted admirers around the world. Her seven Facebook pages (she claims six were created by the government) are filled with messages of support and admiration, many from exiled Yemenis. In 2010, she was nominated for a US state department woman of courage award.

The government has used a carrot and stick approach to try to tame her. She was promised a position in government as well as financial compensation last year, but when she said no, death threats started arriving.

"I was threatened through phone calls, letters, even text messages. They said I'd be imprisoned or even killed if I did not stop causing inconvenience. But I consider taking my right to expression away far worse than any form of physical violence," she says.

Karman smiles when asked if she would consider running for president once Saleh stepped down.

"My aim for now is to lead a peaceful revolution to remove this regime," she says. "I think if I can be in the street with the people I can achieve more than if I am the president."

No comments:

Post a Comment