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Sunday, October 9, 2011
Yemen's Woman-Hero Revolutionary
From the moment Tawakul Karmen 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.
By Nadia al-Sakkaf
Protesters in Change Square, the main grounds
of the Yemen revolution, rejoiced as news that their lady hero Tawakul Karmen
was chosen as one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Cheers filled the
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
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
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
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.”
-This commentary was published in
The Daily Beast on 07/10/2011 -Nadia al-Sakkaf is the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times