10.07.11

Yemen's Woman-Hero Revolutionary

From the moment Tawakkul Karman took off her veil in front of television cameras five years ago, she has been a force of change in Yemen. And now she has been recognized around the world with a Nobel Peace Prize. Meet the woman who started the entire peaceful protest movement in the Arab world.

Protesters in Change Square, the main grounds of the Yemen revolution, rejoiced as news that their lady hero Tawakul Karman was chosen as one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Cheers filled the air.

This international recognition came after more than eight months of struggle and desperate attempts to convey Yemen’s story to the world.

Tawakul stood grinning in her small plastic tent in the square shaking hands and exchanging congratulations with the flood of protesters and friends who celebrated the good news.

“My jaws are aching but I can’t stop smiling,” she said. Her black Abaya worn because of months of sleeping in the open air and her simple colored scarf hiding her hair can mislead you into thinking that she is just another young Yemeni lady who doesn’t take care much about her appearance.

Her three children—who have been staying with her mother since she camped out—visit her regularly. In the beginning they wanted her to come home, especially since their father was camping along side his revolutionary wife. Now it seems they are convinced their mother is no ordinary woman; they are willing to sacrifice a year of not living together.

Tawakul was a journalist and an activist from the very beginning of her career. Until five years ago she was also a member of the Islah religious party and wore a black veil that covered her face.  Then she decided that covering her face was a barrier to communication. But unlike other Yemeni women who took off their veil in private and inched their way shyly into public life, Tawakul—being the very model of a revolutionary—decided to do it differently.

She was one of the panellists at a public event on media and civil society. When it was her turn to speak she said: “There is some thing I have to do first,” and then in front of the gaping mouths she just removed her veil. “I thought before I spoke my mind I should show you my face. This is who I am,” she said. And then started her presentation as if nothing happened.

Today there is a bounty on Tawakul’s head and she knows it.

In Yemeni society this says a lot. Tawakul was out to break barriers.

Starting in 2008, every Tuesday Tawakul Karman led protests in the square in front of the cabinet building. In a way it would be fair to say that it was she who started the concept of peaceful protests in the Muslim world way before the Arab Spring. She would stand holding banners making demands ranging from reforming the government to more press freedom to releasing prisoners of conscience. Sometimes she would be accompanied by hundreds of other protestors; other times it would be only Tawakul and three of the staff of her organization “Women Journalists without Chains.”

Without fail for more than three years she held the protests and it was those Tuesday sit-ins that gave her the credibility so that when she called the university students for a march in January 2011 heading towards the Tunisian embassy in support of the Tunisian protestors, her call was immediately answered.

When the revolutionary wave spilled to Egypt, Tawakul was there again with the university students holding hastily sketched banners.

Of course the Yemeni authorities were mad. They tried to contain the protests and intimidate the students. Many were beaten and more were arrested. Yemens don’t normally arrest women but Tawakul was an exception.  She stayed in jail for two nights. The government thought now that they had plucked the leader the rest of the protestors would disperse. They were in for a surprise.

The students themselves gathered a huge demonstration and headed towards the prison demanding the release of Tawakul and other detainees.

Tawakul was out. “They [prison security] told me if I signed a paper saying I will no longer be involved in protests they would let me out. When I heard that I just took myself back to the cell,” she remembered laughing. They eventually let her go.

Today there is a bounty on Tawakul’s head and she knows it. This is why her movement is somewhat limited to the square in which they pitch their tents—which has now extended several streets and is home to over 50,000 protestors.

She is not the only mastermind today and in a way her role is being sidelined by the traditional politicians who have the money and the means. Many of the calls made on behalf of the revolution are not hers and in fact there are many that she disagrees with.

But what Tawakul started has grown. Every Yemeni person who demands change is a part of the revolution.

Speaking about the Nobel Prize Tawakul said that this is not hers alone. It is for everyone who was brave enough to stand up and say no. “It also is a slap in the face of the regime and its supporters from the international community,” she said. “Now our revolution is recognized as a peaceful one and us winning this prize would bring us the international attention we deserve.”