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Tawakkol A Karman, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, tells Veenu Sandhu how she helped overthrow her country’s dictator
It took a revolution for Yemen to discover the strength of its women. In a world where women are to be neither seen nor heard, it was they who led the uprising which brought an end to a dictator’s 33-year-old regime. Leading this wave of change, both political and social, was journalist, politician and human rights activist Tawakkol A Karman — a mother of three and now the first Arab woman and the youngest to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sitting in her hotel room in Delhi after a long day of meetings, Karman looks as fresh as the spring that dawned on the Arab world at the end of 2010. She is in Delhi to deliver the Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Lecture. The hijab which she wears is in fact a symbol of empowerment. In her country, women wear a niqab which covers their entire face. In 2004, Karman replaced hers with a hijab, which shows her face.
“Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2011” reads Karman’s visiting card. She received the award along with two other women — Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. Her card also reads: President, Women Journalists Without Chains, a human rights group she co-founded in 2005. Karman’s protests started almost four years before the Arab Spring, which she calls the “Jasmine Revolution”, began to sweep west Asia.
Along with a handful of women, she would hold weekly sit-ins at Change Square in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, now akin to Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square. The demand initially was for freedom of the press. But the protesters soon realised that there was a lot more that was wrong. “Our country was being destroyed around us. There were human-rights violations, corruption, poverty, dictatorship; economically we were nowhere,” says Karman. She speaks with a strong Yemeni accent, interspersing her sentences with “yani” (“I mean” in Arabic as also in Hindi) as she searches for words in English.
It wasn’t long before her protests grew to directly target Yemeni president Ali Adbullah Saleh who had assumed power 33 years ago, the year Karman was born. After the Tunisian people overthrew the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, an enthused Karman felt that in her country, too, nothing short of the end of Saleh’s regime would work. As protests gained momentum, Saleh hit back at her. There were murder attempts and arrests. During one protest, a woman assassin tried to stab her with the jambiya, a traditional dagger, but her supporters rescued her. “They kidnapped me, arrested me, broke into my house,” she says with a wave of her hand, almost dismissing the threats. “What will they do? Kill you? Let them. Your message will win.” On February 27, 2012, Saleh finally ceded power and stepped down as president.
From the time when “people would laugh at us when we begged them to wake up and fight for their rights” to the time when thousands of Yemeni women took to the streets and “walked hand in hand, voice by voice” with the men, Karman says a lot has changed, but a lot more remains to be achieved.
“The Nobel is a greeting and a recognition from the world of the role of women and youth,” says Karman. It has meant a lot to Yemen as well, which has for years been in the news as a place where al Qaeda has a strong foothold. Karman’s own party — Yemen’s main Islamist opposition party Islah — has as its member Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, former adviser to Osama bin Laden and a man the United States considers a terrorist. Karman, however, says the perception that Islah is a conservative party is “not true”. She, however, took a different stand from her party when she pushed for laws that would prevent girls younger than 17 from being married.
With a family that includes two young daughters and a son, Karman admits there were rare moments of hesitation. “In those times, my daughter and my mother would tell me, ‘Don’t worry about us. Go on with what you are doing.’ I have a good family and a good husband. And I realised that what I was doing was for their future. I was trying to gain and guarantee their security both inside and outside the house.” Yemen, it appears, sensed this sentiment and has named her “Mother of the Revolution”. And Time magazine has listed her among “16 of History’s Most Rebellious Women” alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and Joan of Arc.