SANAA — Just a week ago, many Yemeni opponents of President Ali Abdulah Saleh would have said that Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman was an out-of-touch protest leader whose star was fading. But yesterday, any criticism of the aggressive style of the 32-year-old mother of three was forgotten in cheers of joy for Yemen’s first Nobel Prize winner. Many Yemeni protesters hope she can spark another turning point for their mass movement.
“She’s a controversial figure for the protesters, but either way everyone is happy today — this is a sign the world supports our peaceful protest movement, people feel the world is standing with us,” said youth activist Atiaf al Wazir. Karman was sidelined in recent months for what other protest leaders called a “dictatorial” style that had even alienated many of the youthful demonstrators she had helped to inspire.
“Yemen is usually a source of bad news, and it has been nine long months for protesters. Today everyone is happy,” Wazir said. “We don’t have too many role models.” Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan said: “This is a transformative moment for our society and the revolution — a woman has become its most prominent figure.” This is unusual for Yemen, which tops the UN Development Programme’s gender inequality index and has been criticised by rights groups for violence and discrimination against women.
A fiery journalist and member of Islah party, Karman was an activist long before this year’s Arab uprisings which have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Her star rose quickly when Yemen’s protest movement began in January. Her brief detention by authorities in February brought thousands to the streets and focused the media spotlight on her. She was among the first to organise protests when only a few battered, plastic tents dotted Sanaa University gates — the “Change Square” protest encampment now stretches at least 4 km down a major road in the capital.
Before she became a journalist, Karman had been considered a shy and conservative member of the Islah party, wearing a long black face veil and cloak like most Yemeni women. But after working on women’s rights she began to confront Islah about women’s roles, drawing criticism in the party, and started wearing colourful scarves that frame her face. “She now leads a moderate wing in Islah among its many extremist elements,” analyst Ali Seif Hassan said.
For years Karman organised protests in Sanaa and elsewhere to demand the release of political detainees and journalists, and founded Yemen’s “Women Journalists without Chains” in 2006. But her intense, individualistic style grated with some other protest organisers and many had stopped working with her. “We fear the West will want her to be the next president — she has a dictatorial style,” joked Bashir Othman, a leftist protest organiser,
Defying an agreement among organisers, Karman stood on a platform in Change Square in May and urged protesters to march to the presidential palace — a move that ended in bloodshed. “She called for that march, the police attacked it and 13 people died. She didn’t apologise for it and it really upset a lot of people,” said one protest organiser who declined to be named. “But today is a moment for celebration. We will use it for solidarity and forget that.”
Karman dedicated her Nobel Peace Prize to the Arab uprisings and to those killed in the upheavals. “I dedicate this award to the Yemeni people and the youth of the Arab Spring... and to every martyr who has died for the sake of freedom,” she said. Hours after release from police custody in January 2011, Karman vowed to pursue protests against President Saleh until he was ousted. “The popular uprising in Tunisia can happen in Yemen,” Karman said at the time. “On the contrary, Yemen should have preceded Tunisia,” she added.
She gives public addresses on the importance of advocating the rights to demonstration, fair trial and freedom of the press. Her appearances have attracted increasing numbers of local activists and protesters seeking an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule. But one night in January 2011, while driving in a car with her husband in Sanaa, security personnel, clad in plain clothes, stopped them and arrested Karman, allegedly for organising unlicensed protests and inciting anarchy.
Karman, 32, said prosecutors had attempted to pressure her and her family into promising not to hold “unlicensed protests” again. “I vehemently refused and they eventually released me,” she said. It was not the first time she had been arrested. Four months earlier, she was detained for holding a demonstration in support of local people allegedly evicted by an influential parliamentarian in Ibb province, some 200 km south of Sanaa.
“Women’s arrest in Yemen used to be a red line,” she said in an interview. “The Yemeni authorities have crossed this line. There is a green light not only to arrest women but also to kidnap and assault them,” she added. In her opinion, these practices signal “the collapse of the regime” in Yemen. Minutes after her name was announced as a Nobel laureate yesterday, an elated Karman told the broadcaster Al Jazeera: “The whole Yemeni and Arab people are certainly happy about this win.
“This win will provide a strong support for the pursuit of justice and reform,” she added. Born in the Yemeni southern city of Taiz on February 7, 1979, Karman is believed to have changed the perception of women in the country. She has inspired her female compatriots with her resolute advocation of civil rights and as a pro-democracy writer, according to observers. Her father is Abdel Salam Karman, a well-known politician and legal expert. — Reuters/DPA