Fearless Women: Tawakkol Karman

Meet Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni journalist, politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A fearless woman and role model for millions of women around the world.

Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman — Photo: Nobel Peace Center

If you want change — lead the change!

I first encountered Tawakkol at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2011. Seldom had the world heard such a firebomb of a speech. Seldom had we heard someone talking about the need for revolution at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. She impressed me and millions of others. Tawakkol is known as the “iron woman” and mother of the Arab Spring revolution in Yemen — or the Jasmin Revolution as she calls the Arab Spring after the Tunisian people overthrew the Ben Ali government in 2011. It was a peaceful but massive mobilisation of people against a dictator, she explains: “we wanted freedom of expression and freedom of movement — it was all about freedom.”

Tawakkol was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the time. She was also the second Muslim woman to win the prize. Since her early 20s, she has mobilized for political freedom. At the age of 26, she studied journalism and political science while taking part in setting up a woman journalist organization. She first just wrote articles, but realized she had to do more. Five years before the revolution, she wrote articles appealing to the people to take to the streets. She decided to also be on the frontline. After 2005, she gained prominence in Yemen as a journalist and campaigner for press freedom, very soon organizing weekly protests expanding the issues for reform to justice, democracy and freedom. And she paid a heavy prize: she was imprisoned, kidnapped and now lives in exile.

The Arab Spring uprising forced longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to Mr. Hadi, his deputy, in 2011, which in turn paved the way for national dialogue with key stakeholders and the drafting of a new constitution. Yet, in this period there was also mobilization by other forces, attacks by al-Qaeda, mobilization of separatist movements, the continuing loyalty of many military officers to Mr. Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity. In the same period Saleh planned, according to Tawakkol, a counter-revolution. Over the past few years, an internal civil war has developed, but the situation has also turned into another proxy war for Russia and the US/UK between Iran and Saudi Arabia. More than 7,600 people were killed and 42,000 injured from March 2015 to the end of 2016, the majority in air strikes by a Saudi-led multinational coalition that backed the president.

“The current war has its roots in the failures of the political transition, and the counter-revolution we always see happening after a revolution. The real battle though is between freedom and dictatorship and right now, none of the foreign forces have gained their interests.”
— Tawakkol Karman

I talked to her when she visited the Nobel Peace Center in September this year and asked her where her political convictions came from. I told her that many people presume that Arab women are suppressed and focused on domestic issues and asked her to explain how she, with such a background, could be on the front line of the revolution.

“Oh, no”, she replied, “Yemeni women are strong. We have strong women and queens in our history. Some may think that Yemeni women are weak, but Yemeni women took to the streets in big numbers”, she said.

Her own role? She first discusses the importance of her father who had always stressed that she must never be forced to succumb to a traditional role.

“Be the solution!” he told her. “And I was always in the forefront line, making a lot of trouble”, she says. “When I meet my school teachers now, they say that they would not have complained about me if they had known that all of this would have led to a Nobel Peace Prize.”

She keeps underlining the role of the support from her father, her family, and her husband — all of them being very proud of her.

“It was and is the Yemeni people that freed me from prison, supports me and holds me up”, she says. “Their support and trust holds me up but also gives me energy and responsibility. It was not easy. There were many who tried to attack me, who actually did attack me…. and there were many threats including from the president. I remember when I was alone in the streets, there were many who tried to attack me. Even in the family it was struggles. My father said I should trust myself, but when I got to the streets, he became afraid.”

Tawakkol is clear that it is difficult for many Arab women, but she herself was carried forward by the trust and support of her family and the Yemeni people. The obstacles gave her more courage and conviction that she was on the right path. To all those now in doubt about the way forward, she says:

“You don’t just give up. Never give up. What we did was, and is, not only for Yemeni people. And we didn’t lose. The Arab spring didn’t die. It has just been six years. The battle will continue. Six years is nothing when it comes to struggles for freedom. Don’t ever give up. Believe in yourself. Even if we don’t win victory in our time, it will come for the next generation. We opened the gates now and change will come.” — Tawakkol Karman

She, herself, fought from the frontline and she advises everyone else to do the same.

“And don’t be afraid if you fight for justice, human rights and the Nobel values. Some say that I should be quiet now that I am a peace prize winner. No, I won the price prize because of my strong voice and not because of my weak voice. I will not stop using my voice. There is no peace without justice. The only thing you should be afraid of is the idea of giving up and the consequences thereof. If you want the fight for justice, make it yours. Lead the streets. Make your destiny — if you should die for something, make it worth it. Lead the change.”
Tawakkol Karman arriving at the Nobel Peace Center last September — Photo: Nobel Peace Center

Listen to Tawakkol Karman here:


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