CAIRO, Egypt — Back in January, when the Arab Spring didn’t even have a name, Yemeni authorities threw Tawakkol Karman in jail for two days for helping stage a rally in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
When I called Karman after her release to ask what happened, she replied in her usual, breathless fashion. “We’re organizing a peaceful revolution to topple the president, just like in Tunisia,” she said, as if it were the easiest plan in the world. An impossible quest, I thought. A few hundred students and activists would be no match for Yemen’s wily and repressive President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But Yemen’s protest movement quickly swelled to hundreds of thousands. It is still going strong despite repeated, bloody crackdowns by security forces and pro-government assailants that have killed at least 245 protesters and bystanders. Credit for the movement’s endurance goes in large part to the courageous women who took to the streets to end Saleh’s 33-year rule. Key among them is Karman, a controversial but pivotal figure who on Oct. 7 was named a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Karman is scheduled to come to the United States today. Her first planned stop is the United Nations, where she intends to join a protest demanding that the Security Council, which could vote on a Yemen resolution today, take tough action to end Saleh’s rule.
In a recent telephone interview from Qatar, between fetes in her honor, Karman expressed no surprise that the Yemeni protesters have defied the odds. But she sounded shocked that she had won the Nobel.
“I didn’t even know I was nominated,” she said from a Doha hotel — a far cry from the tattered tent in a Sanaa protest square where she has camped for nearly nine months. “But this prize has changed my life and it will change the lives of the Yemeni people and the Arab world. We will open a door to a new Yemen with this prize — a Yemen of democracy and peace that is free of terrorism, a place that is safe for the whole world.”
Calling the award the West’s tribute to the women and youth who have propelled the protest movement, Karman said she would donate her half-million-dollar award to the Yemeni people — but only after Saleh leaves office.
A 32-year-old mother of three, Karman made a name for herself years ago in Yemen with her non-governmental organization Women Journalists Without Chains, but she was almost unknown on the world stage. That changed in seconds with the Nobel committee’s announcement that she was among three women to take this year’s peace prize.
Karman hopes her new stature will help sway international policy on Yemen, including with her fellow Nobel laureate Barack Obama.
“I want to talk to the Obama administration to get support for the Yemeni revolution,” said Karman, who always refers to the Yemeni protests with the R word.
While in the United States, Karman said, she would call on the United States and the United Nations to ban Saleh from traveling and to freeze his assets. She also will call for Saleh to be referred to the International Criminal Court for the attacks on protesters.
Obama has deplored the attacks in Yemen and called for Saleh’s immediate resignation. But like other world leaders, he has been reluctant to seek sanctions against Saleh, who has been a fickle yet close partner in combating Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, Yemeni officials have decried Obama’s continued insistence that Saleh must go following Yemen’s cooperation in a controversial U.S. drone strike last month that killed the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Obama describes Awlaki as an al-Qaeda leader.
Like many Yemeni women who have joined the protests, Karman has been beaten, harassed and threatened with jambiyas, the traditional Yemeni daggers that many men carry in their belts. She and her relatives have received death threats. She expects the threats against her will subside now that she is in the spotlight.
“This prize gives me international protection,” Karman said. “But I can’t be satisfied with this while my family and people are followed and killed by Saleh’s regime.”
As recently as last week, pro-government gangs attacked women protesters with sticks and stones as they marched in the highland city of Taiz, Karman’s hometown.
Karman is a petite figure, but she’s outsize in every other way. Like nearly all women in Yemen she wears a head-to-toe abaya, but her headscarves are a riot of color. She is outspoken and immensely media-savvy, firing off text messages and Facebook postings on every new development in the protest movement.
Such actions make Karman one of the most visible faces of Yemen’s protest movement, but also one of the more controversial. Detractors accuse her of relentless self-promotion — within hours of the announcement of her Nobel, Women Journalists Without Chains had begun an online campaign urging fans to “Vote for Tawakkol Karman as Time [Magazine]'s 100 most influential people in the world.” Protesters say she has at times encouraged them to march into pro-government strongholds; while this ramps up pressure and grabs headlines, it also increases the risk that protesters will be met with sniper fire.
Karman showed characteristic bluntness when she criticized Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to Yemen, and Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as they visited Yemen on Sept. 19 to broker a solution to the political crisis. The two officials arrived amid a two-day bloodbath in which security forces and snipers opened fire on largely peaceful protesters, killing nearly 30.
“Both Benomar and al-Zayani are not welcome,” Karman told Al Jazeera television. “They have to pack their bags and leave. They came here in order to legalize all these killings.”
Human Rights Watch joined many protesters in criticizing a Gulf Cooperation Council proposal that would grant Saleh blanket immunity in exchange for relinquishing power, which amounts to a get-out-of-jail free card. Nevertheless, Karman’s comments did not exactly exude constructive criticism.
As the daughter of a former legal affairs minister who joined the opposition in the 1990s, Karman has friends in high places. She is also an active member of the powerful opposition party Islah, whose members range from moderates to fundamentalists. Although Karman is from a reform wing of Islah, some detractors fear her award will increase conservative Islamic influences.
Yet for all the controversy about Karman, her new prize helps shine an important spotlight on Yemen’s protest movement, which the world has largely forgotten as it turns attention to other hot spots such as Syria and Libya. And her irrepressible drive makes her a rare role model in Yemen, where women are routinely treated like second-class citizens and excluded from public life.
Child brides and forced marriages are widespread — judges are not even required to ensure girls’ free consent before notarizing marriage contracts. In August, a 12-year-old bride required emergency medical treatment after being drugged and raped by her 50-year-old husband. When women are murdered in Yemen, their families receive half the sum allotted for men who are killed.
In this climate, women’s participation in protests in Yemen is an act of exceptional bravery. In April, President Saleh himself admonished women for joining the protests, saying “divine law does not allow” public mingling of the sexes. Women responded with further protests. With Karman as a Nobel laureate, perhaps even more Yemeni women will come out of the shadows.
Still, honoring Karman will not end the Yemen crisis. The United Nations, as well as regional bodies and concerned governments including the United States, should swiftly follow up with concrete action. That means carrying out Karman’s call to freeze the foreign assets of President Saleh and top security officials — many of whom are his relatives — until the Yemeni authorities stop the use of excessive force against protesters. It means officially freezing all military aid and weapons sales to Yemen. And it means insisting on an independent, international investigation into the bloodshed of the past eight months, and on a U.N. human rights monitoring presence on the ground.
Without such concrete measures to stem the gross violations against protesters, Karman’s Nobel could end up as little more than an ornate plaque to hang in her protest tent.
Letta Tayler is the Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch.