Tawakkol Karman: Nobel Peace Prize laureate

The first female Arab winner of the prize is a Yemeni protest leader, journalist, politician, and mother.

tawakkol karman
Tawakkol Karman’s voice could be heard over the loudspeaker in Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen during the past nine months of protests [GALLO/GETTY]

Tawakkol Karman is an amazing woman. She is a revolutionary, a protest leader, a human rights activist, a journalist, a politician, a mother and now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The Nobel Peace Prize finally has an Arab female winner. In a year of protest and change across the Arab world, it was only right that the efforts, and sacrifices, of the millions of Arabs who have come out onto their streets and faced their government’s bullets were recognised. Frankly, it is also right that the Yemeni revolution, often ignored, has been recognised.

Many Arab names were mentioned this year in relation to the Nobel Peace Prize, led by the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim. It would have been quite shocking had the events of the Arab Spring been ignored by the Nobel Committee; however, to see a Yemeni awarded the prize was certainly surprising, especially for Yemenis themselves.

It’s not that Tawakkol Karman doesn’t deserve it; quite the opposite. It’s just that, more often than not, news on Yemen is negative. Earlier this week I was writing about the world pays attention to Yemen for al-Qaeda-related reasons, the usual focus of the international media. I am happy to say that this is a genuine good news piece.

Through the nine months of the Yemeni uprising it has become normal to walk through Change Square and hear her voice over the loudspeaker.

In all honesty, the Yemeni protest movement that we see today would not be the same without Tawakkol Karman. Throughout the nine months of the ongoing Yemeni uprising it has become normal to walk through Change Square and hear her voice over the loudspeaker, leading the youth in chants. She was one of the first to support the youth in their protests, joining protests following the fall of Ben Ali of Tunisia and then Mubarak of Egypt. In January, the Yemeni government moved to silence her, but her subsequent arrest led to even larger protests demanding her release.

Karman has played a huge part in awakening the Yemeni masses. On the other hand, she has been awake for a very long time.

Before the revolution

Long before any journalist had even invented the term “Arab Spring”, Tawakkol Karman set up an organisation, Women Journalists Without Chains, and, with her group, went about protesting various issues. From 2008 she held weekly protests outside the cabinet building in Sanaa, publicising matters such as political prisoners, human rights abuses and drone attacks, among other things. For three years this continued; sometimes the protests were large, sometimes small, but they continued.  

And when the Arab call for freedom and dignity reached Yemen, Tawakkol Karman was there to take the lead.

Her own sacrifices can be epitomised by her stance while in prison. Describing the authorities’ attempts to get her to rein in her supporters, she said, “They 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.”

Karman has also made a huge sacrifice with regards to her family. She is a mother of three children, who have had to forego the presence of their mother in the family home since February. Karman has chosen to remain in her tent in Sanaa’s Change Square, for revolutionary, and security, reasons. “When Ali Saleh leaves, I’ll have time to take care of my house,” she said.

All of this is in a country, Yemen, not exactly well-known for women’s rights. At the start of the revolution the regime attempted to silence Karman by leaning on her brother, a poet. He was told that his sister’s life was in danger, and was encouraged to shut her up. He didn’t even try.

I have Yemeni sisters – I’m not surprised that he ignored the most powerful man in Yemen. For, despite the stereotypes, Yemeni women aren’t the shy, stay quiet types. Yemen has had female rulers in its long history, most famously Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba.

Women are a sizeable part of the protest movement and are visible throughout the various protest squares.

While Yemeni women haven’t quite reached that level in the modern era, they have certainly made giant strides in 2011. Women are a sizeable part of the protest movement, and are visible throughout the various protest squares around the country, and on marches. Female protesters have stood atop government vehicles during protests, and faced water cannon and bullets. They have kept the field hospital running around the clock. There was a recent show on Arab satellite television debating the various issues concerning women in the Arab world. A Saudi woman spoke of wanting to drive, a Yemeni woman of overthrowing a dictator.

Yet, despite the immeasurable strides forward Karman has brought the women’s rights movement, she has not been immune to criticism from members of the protest movement. She is a member of the opposition Islah Party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, something that has kept many independent youth and liberals wary.

To me, this criticism reflects an undemocratic mentality of seeing anyone linked to the Muslim Brotherhood as “tainted”, something carried over from the old regimes across Arab states. Instead, the character of Karman, and her actions, should surely make anyone quick to judge her affiliations think twice. The Nobel committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, seems to have understood. “There are many signals that this kind of movement [the Muslim Brotherhood] can be an important part of the solution,” he said.

Mother of the revolution

With the news of Tawakkol Karman’s award, pretty much every Yemeni felt a shot of pride. Even the Saleh regime has congratulated Karman. Later on in their statement, they said that the award wouldn’t have been possible without President Saleh. Well, in a way, they’re right.

This award did not come to me as Tawakkol Karman the individual, it came to me as a daughter of this great nation.

– Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

You see, this award is seen in Yemen as an award for the Yemeni revolution. It is seen as recognition of the struggle of the Yemeni people in 2011, recognition of their determination and perseverance. On Friday evening Change Square celebrated Karman and her award. She told the crowds that this was an award for all Yemenis, and for all the Arabs who have demanded change.

“This award did not come to me as Tawakkol Karman the individual, it came to me as a daughter of this great nation, that amazed the world with its peacefulness. No one could solve the riddle of this nation … it was the international community’s recognition of the most amazing revolution the world has ever seen.”

Not many Yemenis could fault that statement. If anything they’re walking with their heads held high, for once. Thank you Tawakkol, “mother of the revolution”.

Abubakr al-Shamahi is a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and is the editor of Comment Middle East, a platform for young people to write about the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.