By: Rafael Rincon and Sascha Hannig
Women in the Muslim world, and particularly in more conservative societies, have had a public role severely limited by ancient traditions and, of course, by religion. These constraints can vary greatly by country and context.
Politics is precisely one of the most difficult fields, if not impossible, for women and for female leadership in Muslim societies. But a brave Yemeni woman has defied this reality, not only for her own nation; fighting for a democratic Yemen, but also for the entire Arab world. Her name is Tawakkol Karman and this is her story.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Yemen in 1979, in a city called Taiz, into a political family. My father was a lawyer and a politician. I grew up under his teaching and guiding. He raised me to be against injustice and to be a strong woman who doesn’t accept any kind of marginalization. He led me to diffuse all the crisis around me as a Yemeni woman who is proud of it because we were ruled by two great queens: The Queen of Sheba and Arwa.
That gives me the belief on myself as a woman that can do something. So, I refused all the injustice around me since I was a child, and I consider myself responsible for doing something to change the situation in my country. The crisis in security, the political and the economic crisis, etc.So…that led me to be a journalist who wrote very strong articles against the dictator, without fearing banishment and taking my right as a journalist and as a person to write and to fight, embracing my right to express myself, along with all the people around me, against corruption, against war. I used journalism as a tool against the dictator and his system. I created Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that defends human rights in general and especially free speech. That led me to demonstrations, sittings, reports, gatherings, etc. Since 2006 and trough 2011 we are facing a new period of struggle, a peaceful revolution against the dictator.
You are often called the Iron Woman, the Mother of the Revolution. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
To be honest, the title I like the most is the Mother of the Revolution. Since I was a child, even in school, I made many demonstrations against teachers. I’m so proud to be part of this great revolution in Yemen and to be a feminist. But what does it mean being a feminist? To me, feminism is more than calling for women’s rights. Feminism is enabling women to practice rights in a healthy society. That means to me that, when we are fighting for freedom of speech, that is feminism. Fighting tyranny is feminism, fighting for democracy is feminism. So, to be the woman leading this great struggle is feminism, not just calling for some mandatory seats. Women should be at the highest level of decision-making and should work for men and for all human beings.
Many women who are activists in Arab and Muslim societies abandoned religion and the country, but it’s not your case.
I think there is a wave, now in this age, in all religions…lots of young people abandon religion and become Atheist. I believe that religions don’t have anything against human rights, values, democracy or equality. The problem is with people, not with religion. The problem is with all those religious people who are the hand of dictators. For example, in Saudi Arabia, for many years, those religious people said that it is forbidden in Islam for a woman to drive a car, that it is haram. They told their people that this is what God taught. But now, when the new authority came and said, “it’s allowed”, the religious people said “yes, it’s allowed, it’s allowed”. So, those people, those religious people that deny the human rights of women, that deny the rights of people to demonstrate, to say no, they are the problem.
For example, in Yemen, those religious people in the time of the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, they said it´s haram, forbidden, for us the people to demonstrate against the dictator. They said that Islam tells us to obey. But because we know our religion, we told them to shut up, to them and to the dictator. Those religious people harmed the religion as it happened before, in the middle ages in Europe. We are suffering because of them and this is the reality of what is happening now. But believe me…the revolution, the Arab Spring, came as a revolution against all this. We know how to give freedom to everyone. This is the religion, this is what Islam teaches, freedom for everyone, for women, for men. And it’s what Christianity and Judaism teach. They came from God and gave us the same principles
“[I fear] what would happen if I stopped. I would be betraying those I encouraged to dream. This is the thing I fear the most. I will not give up because I believe in my dream and I believe in the dream of the people. And I keep my promise: we will win this battle for freedom”.
Tawakkul Karman has faced death threats and prison. In 2010, a woman tried to stab Tawakkul with a jambiya, a traditional Yemeni dagger, at one of the demonstrations. According to Karman, the supporters helped her survive the attack. That same year, the government offered her a position, but she refused, and 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.
You have been attacked, threatened and abducted. Have you ever been so afraid that you thought about giving up, abandoning your cause?
Of course not. After every attack, after every threat, I believe more my thoughts. And I also believe more in myself because I make them afraid! If they weren’t afraid of me, they would not attack me, they would not arrest me, they would not kidnap me. They don’t know that after every attack they make me stronger and give me more power. Sometimes, I worry about my family, about my kids…but it’s gone, suddenly gone, because my biggest fear is not for myself and for my family, it is for what would happen if I stopped. I would be betraying those I encouraged to dream. This is the thing I fear the most. I will not give up because I believe in my dream and I believe in the dream of the people. And I keep my promise: we will win this battle for freedom. This is not just my promise, it’s the promise of all people around the world, throughout all the history. When you decide to be free, to have your freedom, you win.
Do you still have hope in the promise of the Arab Spring?
Of course, I still do. I am so angry and so sad about the current situation, but I know that we didn’t cause this chaos, this chaos has been caused by the counterrevolution. They carried out many phases of the counterrevolution: military coup, terrorism, occupation, militia, sectarian leaders…But the people are still there, dreaming.
What happened in Sudan and in Algeria gives us this hope that the counterrevolution can just go. They give reasons to the countries around the world and the region and say that if you make revolution the destiny would be like Syria, like Yemen. But the answer came from South Sudan and Algeria. This is a big evidence that when we hope, when we are optimistic, that we are not wrong. We will not give up, we will not stop the revolution, the Arab Spring will not stop. If there is one tyranny in the region…every tyranny in the region should be afraid because we won’t move, we won’t leave unless they make great and real reforms that satisfy people and that lead to democracy.
The Arab Spring —in Arabic لربيع العربي (Ar-rabī’ Al-‘Arabi)—was a series of pro-democracy and anti-government protests, uprisings and rebellions that spread across several countries in the Arab world. The Arab Spring resulted in regime changes in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but not all of the movements, however, increased democracy and freedom.
It is widely accepted that the beginning of the Arab Spring dates back to December 17, 2010 in the city of Sidi Bouzid, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, was stripped of his goods and savings accounts by the police and in response, blew himself up in form of protest. The impact of the Arab Spring remains significant today.
How do you imagine a democratic and free Yemen?
A Western model committed to its values. But when it is away from values of human rights and equality, no, it is not the right model. And also, our great Yemen, the old Yemen has also these principles. We are a very strong country and a civilization. We have 5000 years of civilization and Yemen was, at that time, a democracy under the rule of Queen of Sheba, and Yemen was known as “Arabia Felix”, a very rich country. And it was the strongest country in the region. That was Great Yemen. So, we have this system, we have this model. We want to combine the Great Yemen and the West. It will be a great model. And this is what I have seen.
“I have always believed that resistance against repression and violence is possible without relying on similar repression and violence. I have always believed that human civilization is the fruit of the effort of both women and men. So, when women are treated unjustly and are deprived of their natural right in this process, all social deficiencies and cultural illnesses will be unfolded, and in the end the whole community, men and women, will suffer. The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. Our civilization is called human civilization and is not attributed only to men or women”. Nobel Lecture by Tawakkol Karman, Oslo, 10 December 2011.
You became a voice for the Arab world, not only for Yemen, how did it happen?
Because I am the voice of all those people who sacrificed for freedom, justice, and democracy. Because I didn’t stop calling for them, for Arab Spring and against dictators, against tyranny. Sometimes some people say “you won the Nobel Peace Prize; you should be quiet. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate should be calm, should compromise a bit”. This is not Tawakkul. The Tawakkul who won the Nobel Prize, won it because she was outspoken against the dictator. This is Tawakkul before the Nobel Prize and after the Nobel Prize. I will be that angry woman against every tyranny around the world, not just in the Arab region, but around the world. Every tyranny should be afraid of me. I am and will be the voice of not only the Arab people. I am the voice of every person who is struggling against dictators and dreaming and sacrificing for freedom.
Tawakkul Karman has faced one of the greatest cultural challenges in the Arab world —and more broadly in the Muslim world—, showing the amazing strength of female leadership and combining in an inspiring narrative the history and values of her nation, Yemen, with the ideas and values of a free and democratic society. Tawakkul has still a long and difficult road ahead, which is also being opened and traveled by other women. They are a hope for millions of people who want to live in freedom.