Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tawakul Karman - The Iron Woman from Yemen

Tawakul Karman was born in Yemen on February 7, 1979.  She has two sisters, Tariq, a poet and Safa who is employed at the news organization, Al-Jazeera.  Karman's profession is that of a journalist – a graduate from the University of Science and Technology at the University of Sana's - and as a member in good standing of the Al-Islah political party.  She is married to Mohammed Al-Nahmil and has three children. 

On account of her relentless activism and remarkable courage in the face of extreme opposition, her name has become synonymous with the Arab Spring as it unfolded in her native country.  She has been referred to as the, "Iron Woman" and the "Mother of the Revolution."  In recognition of her efforts on behalf of the issues of peace and social justice, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with Leymah Roberta Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both from the country of Liberia.


Before we begin to examine Karman's life, it is important to gain some perspective regarding the history of Yemen in order to more fully understand the complexity of the current situation in that country.  It is a region of the world rich in the early history of human civilization.  Nomadic Semites that populated the Yemini desert regions migrated into ancient Mesopotamia and eventually conquered Sumer at around 2300 BCE – Sumer represents the first known civilization to arise from the Fertile Crescent.  It represents one of the oldest civilizations in the region of the Near East considered to be birthplace of human civilization. 


The scope of the history of Yemen is far too broad to be adequately approached here.  We will focus our attention instead upon recent historic events, since this would be relevant to our current discussion.   During the 19th century – the 1830s – the Ottomans moved southward into northern Yemen.  In 1832, British forces under the direction of the British East India Company captured the port of Aden and surrounding territory in the area that would eventually become South Yemen.  As a result of these two competing interests, the Ottomans and the British signed a treaty in 1904 establishing a formal border between north and south Yemen.

Aden was controlled and dominated by the British as part of their overall strategy for the economic exploitation of India until 1937 when it became a so-called, "crown colony."  Yemen joined the Arab League in 1945 and was admitted to the United Nations in 1947.  On account of the rising tide of Arab Nationalism advanced by President Nasser of Egypt, in 1966, the UK announced that it would withdraw its forces from Yemen at independence, and in 1967 British forces began their withdrawal.  It should be remembered that the UK was seriously decimated by the end of World War II and on account of its diminished capacity to function as a world power, it had no choice but to allow its empire to shrink.

This tumultuous history left Yemen divided between North and South; Southern Yemen was recognized as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1970 and was dominated by the communist party and strongly aligned with the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China and Cuba.

This political, economic and social division between north and south Yemen led to periodic military confrontations.  However, on May 22 1990, the country was finally unified as the Republic of Yemen.  This unification was probably facilitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – an empire that began to unravel following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  This period of relative peace and calm was short-lived, for in 1994 full-scale civil war broke out.  On May 21, 1994, leaders from the south seceded and proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) – a state entity that was not recognized by the international community.  Ultimately, opposition from the south collapsed.  In an attempt to heal the source of the civil divide, amendments were made in the national constitution including the provision that the President be elected through a popular election.

The country remained besieged by violence especially from the south.  In addition, there was a general feeling of malaise in the minds of the majority of the population due to severe unemployment and persistent corruption from within the government.  In 2011, Yemini protests grew in parallel with the popular revolution going on within Egypt now referred to as the, "Arab Spring."  The people of Yemen demanded the resignation of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh.


Karman's father is Abdel Salam Karman who once served in the capacity of Legal Affairs Minister in the government of Abdullah Saleh's government; he ultimately resigned from this position.  Ali Adbdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for over thirty years using a strategy employing harsh oppressive and authoritarian measures to retain control of his country.  After months of determined, relentless and often violent street protests directed against him, Saleh finally relented and on Nov 23, 2011 he signed the Gulf Cooperation Council's Plan 23 in which he agreed to transfer power to his Vice President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  There were still concerns regarding the government's militias.  New elections were scheduled for February of 2012.  On Feb. 21, the elections were held and Hadi – the only candidate on the ballot - became the new President.

Karman became a major figure in the movement that uprooted the authoritarian regime of Abdullah Saleh.  Her concerted efforts on behalf of women's rights date back to 2005 when she co-founded the group, Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC).  In her words, the main focus of this group was to promote human rights, "particularly freedom of the opinion and expression, and democratic rights."  As a result of her activism, she was subject to harassment on the part of Yemeni authorities who found her activism a threat to the status quo.

As a consequence of this prejudicial treatment, Karman led demonstrations and inspired sit-in demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Sana's between the years of 2007 and 2010.  In spite of the threats made against her, she persisted in her activities.   In fact, in the midst of the 2011 Yemeni protests against Saleh's government in which she organized student rallies, she was arrested on January 22 of that year and taken to prison.  She was released on parole on January 24.  Her involvement gained worldwide attention; she was invited to write an editorial in the prestigious British publication, The Guardian.  In her commentary she described the protests in the following way, "…demonstrations erupted in most provinces of the country; they were organized by students, civil society activists and politicians…"  She was arrested once again on March 17 for her leadership role in further protests.  These demonstrations caught the imagination of the general population that found a deep resonance in regards to the issues of widespread poverty, corruption, the excesses of the dictatorship and unemployment.


Furthermore, as a demonstration of her disapproval of the treatment of women in her country, Karman purposefully stopped wearing the niqab – the veil that covers the face in the traditional nijab – and chose to wear a scarf instead.  In her mind, the full covering of a woman's body is cultural in origin and not a requisite of belief in Islam.  In her words, "Women should stop being or feeling that they are part of the problem and become part of the solution.  We have been marginalized for a long time, and now is the time for women to stand up and become active without needing to ask for permission or acceptance. This is the only way we will give back to our society and allow for Yemen to reach the great potential it has."


She spoke out loudly and often against the corruption and abuse of power that had run rampant in the Saleh dictatorship and she played a significant role in the eventual ouster of his government.  Because of her efforts in the arena of peace and social justice, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other women, as mentioned earlier. 

She has also become an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of women.  Her world view can be summed up succinctly using her own words, "I am a citizen of the world.  The Earth is my country, and humanity is my nation."  

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