Tawakkul Karman Interview: Nobel Peace Prize Could Help Arab Spring

This week, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and African peace activist and Daily Beast contributor Leymah Gbowee, Yemeni journalist and human-rights activist Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating for democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners in her country. She spoke to Nadia Al-Sakkaf, publisher and editor in chief of The Yemen Times, about how the prize might aid in her efforts, if it can protect her from persecution—and the question of whether women can ever truly be free in Muslim society.

Jonathan Saruk / Getty Images

Do you have any specific new plans for protests in the coming days, with the situation so volatile?

We are continuing with our plight until we reach our goal, which is toppling the regime. We have an escalation plan, and we are sticking to it. We have made large strides in our struggle for freedom, and there is no stopping us now. The protesters have gone through more dangerous situations and this did not stop us in the past. Why will it stop us now?

Has it been difficult to rally people to your form of protest? Will the prize help you rally more people?

The prize will definitely bring in more supporters, but what’s more important is that it has given us all a surge of confidence and hope. It is not easy to be demanding for something that is actually your right for months on end and not get it; instead you are beaten, harassed, and killed. Surprisingly, when the protesters are attacked violently more come in. It is like they are saying to the regime: you can kill us, but we will never die. But with education pending and jobs lost, and a lot of uncertainty—especially that there was news on political compromises—many of the youth became frustrated. This prize, although unexpected, came right on time.

Do you think the prize will protect you in some ways? Will it be more difficult for the authorities to arrest you?

It has given me and our cause more international recognition. But I am not sure it will bring protection since this regime does not really play fair. I know there is a bounty on my head, such as there is with many other leaders and protesters. This is why I don’t leave Change Square unless really necessarily. What this prize has done is help us shame the Western governments, especially the U.S. and Britain, who deal with double standards and differentiate between our plight and that in Syria. They say Syria is a revolution and ours is a political crisis that could be solved by compromise. This is not fair. The Nobel Prize for Peace says that we are peaceful protesters, and hence the regime and its partners can’t call us rebels and shoot us down in cold blood.

Is the Arab Spring souring?

If you keep up with the news in the region you would not say that. Look at Saudi Arabia and the news of allowing women to participate in the political process. Look at Jordan and Bahrain. The spring is out; there is no turning back.

What rights should women have in Muslim societies?

The same rights that are provided in our religion, which is equality and justice. Women are capable and have the right to be empowered and recognized. I am the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Prize for Peace, and I feel this is an achievement not only for me but for all Arab and Muslim women.

Can women ever be fully free in a Muslim society?

Yes, if we have democratic regimes. Women were free in older times when the Islamic nation was strong. There are so many examples in history, not more than a thousand years ago, when Muslim women were leaders, scientists, professionals, and so on. It is all about justice, and justice can be attained through having the rulers accountable to their people.

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What political outcome would you like in Yemen? Syria?

We demand toppling the oppressive regimes and punishing the war criminals for what they have done to their people. They can’t simply do all this and get away with it. We want a new system which is based on the people’s rights and on social contract between the governors and the governed through which the international values of human rights such as democracy, justice, equal citizenship, gender equality, freedom of speech, and press are respected.

I want a future where my children feel safe and appreciated and proud to be who they are. My heart is one with all the Arab Spring heroes no matter how small they think their role is. I know they believe like me that we are working for a world whereby an Arab can live with the other in a respectful and dignified way. We as Arabs, finally after many decades of weakness, have proved to the world that we have greatness in our hearts.

What would like the international community to know about you? And Yemen’s revolution?

I would like the world to know that Yemeni women are strong and if empowered they can achieve. The world needs to look beyond stereotypes and dress code. In our hearts we are just human beings who want to live a dignified life. Is that too much to ask for?

Being a practicing Muslim woman who is affiliated to the Islah Islamic Party, is that a contradiction with your role as a freedom fighter? And do you think this will change the world’s perception of the religious party?

There are two points here. One is the relation between religion and political and public activities. The religion you follow should not be a barrier or anybody’s business when it comes to the political activities and fight for freedom because this is universal and everybody’s right regardless of their religious affiliations.

About Islam in particular, I am so glad that this prize was given to me being the person who I am because it will help the world break the stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women. Islam is a religion that encourages freedoms and was based on the liberation of the bodies and the minds from slavery, oppression, and fanaticism. It is high time it is recognized as a religion for peace as it truly is. This is also a chance to teach all those who thought their problems could be solved by violence that this way will never solve anything.