Facts about Tawakkul Karman

The situation of women in the MENA region following the Arab revolutions was brought into focus by experts, activists, feminists and women leaders from North Africa, the Middle East and Denmark at the ‘Women in a Changing Middle East and North Africa – Facing challenges and Seizing Opportunities’ conference. The conference was hosted by KVINFO and took place at Denmark’s Royal Library (‘Den Sorte Diamant’) on Monday 16 April. Among the keynote speakers were the Danish Foreign Minister, Villy Søvndal, and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman.
 

“In Yemen, we want to build everything on a foundation of equality. And not just equality between the sexes, but also equality between ethnicities, religions and race – it’s a question about citizenship. But equality between men and women is the first step towards achieving an equal society for everyone.”
“And we can’t achieve this by just talking about equality. We have to actually practice equality – a process that requires women – and men – in order to succeed.”
“So when the women decided to fight for equality during the Arab Spring, they didn’t go to conferences or training courses. No, they took to the streets and paid with their blood. They were willing to pay the price and stand equal to the men in the fight for democracy and equality”, explains Tawakkul Karman, who we had the opportunity to meet when she attended KVINFO’s ‘Women in a Changing Middle East and North Africa – Facing Challenges and Seizing Opportunities’ conference in Copenhagen.  

Icon of the Yemeni uprising

‘Mother of the Revolution’ and ‘The Iron Lady’ – these are just two of the many names used to refer to Tawakkul Karman, who in 2011 became the first Arab woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Ellen Johnson Sirlaf and Leymah Gbowee (both from Liberia) with the three being praised “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.
Born in 1979, Tawakkul Karman has been a central figure among the young activists who began protesting against the 30-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the beginning of February 2011. As a leading member of the Al-Islah political party, she has become an icon of the Yemeni uprising. This uprising is part of the Arab Spring and is one of the many revolutions that have been taking place in the Middle East and Africa over the past year – and, in Yemen, it has been a revolution which has seen around 30% participation from women.
“So when the women decided to fight for equality during the Arab Spring, they didn’t go to conferences or training courses. No, they took to the streets and paid with their blood.”
But this compassionate mother-of-three is also a journalist and co-founder of the group ‘Women Journalists Without Chains’, founded in 2005, giving Tawakkul Karman a profile that seems far removed from the stereotypical image of a person capable of toppling a president.

Women heralding the changes

At KVINFO’s ‘Women in a Changing Middle East and North Africa – facing Challenges and Seizing Opportunities’ conference, Tawakkul Karman emphasised repeatedly that she believes democracy in the  Middle East will be achieved very quickly and that the region will move closer to the West.
 
At the same time, Tawakkul Karman stresses again and again that the Arab Spring is not merely a fight against decades of oppressive, hard-line regimes. The revolution is also an uprising against the tradition that those formerly in power had contrived to construct – a tradition which had no place for women. 
 “We want to dispel the idea that women belong in the kitchen and should stay inside their houses”, points out Tawakkul Karman, continuing:
“Yemeni women are not victims. We are the ones heralding the changes – and nothing is harder than change. But in Yemen, women are prepared to pay and sacrifice what it takes.”
“You cannot judge either Egypt or the Middle East on the basis of just one election. Look at yourselves. How long has it taken from women getting vote to actually getting women into parliament, achieving equal representation and having women ministers? And look at the US. There they’ve only got one woman minister – their Foreign Secretary, Hilary Clinton.”   

Yemenis ready for new gender roles

“The raw material of a society is equality, and it’s a fundamental core element of our culture. Before Islam, Yemen was ruled by Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in both the Bible and the Koran. After Islam, Queen Arwa bint Ahmed Al-Sulaihi (1048-1138) ruled Yemen for 55 years. During the reign of both queens, Yemen experienced a golden age, so the concept of women rulers is something that Yemenis are used to. Some people have even called me the new queen”, laughs Tawakkul Karman. 
“When I go out to visit the tribes, for example, there’s a great respect for – and great expectations made of women. Although this sentiment is particularly strong in Yemen, the same thing applies across the Middle East.”
“I’m sure that we’ll already see a woman achieving a high political position in the first few years after the Arab Spring. So I don’t share the worry or criticism of the Arab Spring that others have when, for example, they claim that women have lost the fight for equality because they are less represented in Egypt’s latest elections.” 
“The Middle East has witnessed five revolutions in one year. In Yemen, we now have four women ministers, and in Tunisia too, women are better represented in parliament following the latest elections. You cannot judge either Egypt or the Middle East on the basis of just one election. Look at yourselves. How long has it taken from women getting vote to actually getting women into parliament, achieving equal representation and having women ministers? And look at the US. There they’ve only got one woman minister – their Foreign Secretary, Hilary Clinton.” 
 “I’m sure that we’ll already see a woman achieving a high political position in the first few years after the Arab Spring. So I don’t share the worry or criticism of the Arab Spring that others have when, for example, they claim that women have lost the fight for equality because they are less represented in Egypt’s latest elections.” 
“I’m very optimistic. We can’t judge the effect after just one year – it’s simply just not possible to achieve democracy and equality in such a short space of time”, stresses Tawakkul Karman. Nor does she see any contradiction between religion, democracy and equality. 
“Islam is built upon respect, liberty and equality. It is the religion of democracy, equality and freedom. The problem is the extremists – just as it is in Christianity and with other religions and political convictions.”  
“It’s extremely important not to marginalise the extremists because if we want to achieve a democracy we need everybody – from both the right and the left. We need to get them talking so that people can see for themselves what these people believe in and find out what it is that they represent.”

Women must begin with themselves

“The biggest thing holding back a woman when she wants to take part in society and the fight for democracy is herself. She must conquer herself, break through her own boundaries and believe in herself. Be strong. Because if she believes in herself and believes that she ought to take responsibility and participate in the fight for a new way forward, rather than staying at home being a spectator – and perhaps even crying, then she herself will become a part of the solution. And from there, she can convince her own family that taking part in the fight is important.”
“Everywhere there are men who don’t want women to have power. But especially after the Arab Spring, I’m certain that women will emerge at forefront. And these women won’t be alone because we believe in partnership – with men.”
“Women are a part of the solution, but they need to be prepared to take up the fight”, explains Tawakkul Karman, continuing:
“By doing so, both the women and their families will meet a society that welcomes them – particularly in Yemen.

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:

 

Here, people have a great deal of respect for strong women. Of course, some resistance does exist, but women have to have faith in the mission. When they do, then they will gain both people’s respect and their trust.”
“And this is a general a problem that exists all over the world. Everywhere there are men who don’t want women to have power. But especially after the Arab Spring, I’m certain that women will emerge at forefront. And these women won’t be alone because we believe in partnership – with men.”
“To fly we need two wings. Unlike before, when men thought they could manage with just one wing, the women of Yemen know that the country can only fly with two wings.”