Fighter at a Neglected Front

Tawakkul Karman


The 32-year-old wears her scarf loosely, a style more familiar in Iran or the Gulf than Yemen and she hasn’t settled her mind yet about the prize that has put her at the center of one the biggest news stories of the decade: the uprisings in the Arab World.

It should have come as no surprise then that the Norwegian Nobel Committee would look to the tumultuous Middle East to find someone who was fighting to gain ground for peace. It did come as a surprise, albeit a satisfying one that they would choose someone who was working in the oft-forgotten fronts of the Arab Uprisings: Yemen. For some it is the little revolution that didn’t.

[inset_left]Tawakkul Karman had come to represent a bright and positive image in a murky time in the Arab World[/inset_left]

The prize committee cited Ms. Karman and the two other winners for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

But Karman’s particular contribution? For the prize jury it was for the part she played in “the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring ... a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen."

This year’s process of selecting the prize winner posed a real dilemma to the selection committee, which not only received a record 241 nominees this year, including organizations and individuals, but also kept nominations confidential until the moment the winners had been announced, making predictions unfeasible.

But journalist and human rights activist Tawakkul Karman had come to represent a bright and positive image in a murky time in the Arab World. There are many worthwhile organizations, many committed and tireless champions, but Karman’s win reminds many of the especially challenging plight of women, the particular sacrifice and commitment of mothers, indeed her recognition is in honor of so many that go quietly unrecognized.

Karman, a mother of three sons, is considered a senior leader in the popular youth revolution and is an active member in a number of journalist and human rights organizations and unions, in and outside of Yemen, a member of the Shura Council from the Yemeni Congregation for Reform party (Al-Islah), a member of the National Council for the Forces of the Peaceful Revolution. She was also one of the first to demand the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.

Tawakkul Abdel Salam Karman was born on 7 February, 1979, to a family in the Mikhlaf Shar’ab district of the Ta’izz governorate of Yemen. She is the daughter of politician and lawyer Abdel Salam Khaled Karman. She moved with her family to Sana’a at an early age, following her father’s employment at the capital and studied in Sana’a receiving her bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Science and Technology. Karman also holds a master’s degree in political science, a diploma in education from the University of Sana’a, and a diploma in investigative journalism from the United States.

In 2006, Karman founded the Women Journalists Without Chains organization in Yemen. For three years Karman led a small protest movement with small demands, and every Tuesday of the week Karman and a small number of journalists and lawyers would hold a sit-in in front of the Yemeni Council of Ministers, in a spot known as the “Freedom Square.” All demands raised by this protest group concern individual cases, such as that of Sheik Al-Ja’ashin—a tribal chief accused of persecuting and displacing a number of families that pledge loyalty to him, or the case of a journalist who was apprehended by the security service on grounds of certain issues or accusations. In recognition of her efforts and to honor her courage, the US Embassy in Sana’a granted Karman the US State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award in 2010.

When the Arab Spring reached Yemen, Tawakkul Karman would appear on a wooden platform in the “Change Square,” in front of the University of Sana’a, making statements and addressing thousands of protestors. Then, instead of humble weekly sit-ins in front of the Yemeni Council of Ministers demanding the removal of the tribal chief Sheik Al-Ja’ashin, Karman led a mass protest demanding the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman would shout a message for the president and the audience in Change Square would repeat after her, “You either leave, or leave. Your third choice is to leave, and another, to leave!”

Karman’s award comes at a critical and difficult stage of the revolution. President Saleh continues to remain in power and the fatigue is setting in for those who have been fighting against his rule for eight months.

Ms. Karman is the first Arab Yemeni woman, and second Muslim woman after Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. However, this will certainly not prevent controversy. Many criticise the award, believing that it is open to manipulation and serves a political agenda. Tawakkul Karman’s case will certainly not be an exception regardless of the complex context in which she was awarded the prize. Yemenis are proud that a single one of them has stood out in the mire of escalating violence and destruction to be seen working for peace, a victory not for one but many Yemenis.