FOKUS – Forum for Women and Development and Norwegian Peace Council invite to panel discussion Women, peace and security – what impacts will the Nobel Peace Prize have on future work? In debate will attend laureate of Nobel Peace Prize Tawakkol Karman and other female activists: Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini (Iran), Mavic Cabrera Balleza (Philippines), Piedad Cordoba (Colombia), Anne Marie Goetz, Bandana Rana (Nepal) and Head of Standing Commitee on Foreign Affairs and Defence Marie Eriksen Søreide (Norway).
Place: Det norske Teatret
Time: 11.12.2011 13.00-16.00
Here is the feature article about Tawakkol Karman, written by Kamila Wisz, an intern in the Norwegian Peace Council
Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni 32 years old journalist and activist, is one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She is the first Arab woman, the youngest person ever to become a Nobel Peace Laureate and the second Muslim woman who has ever won the prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Mrs. Karman and the two other winners for their «non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work». The Nobel jury specifically lauded Mrs. Karman for playing, «in the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring… a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.» Awarding her together with other women has shown strong reference to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, adapted in 2000, which states that women suffer great harm from war and political stability. The resolution also emphasizes that women must have larger influence and role in peacemaking activities; it also «calls on all actors involved, when negotiating and implementing peace agreements, to adopt a gender perspective.»
The story of this woman is much more complicated then we can think. How could the conservative environment in which she was raised and the intellectual traditions of her family lead her to become an icon of revolution in Yemen? What pushed her to such unusual activism when she at the same time is a member of the very conservative political party, Al-Islah? The answer is not easy according to her medial image. Who is she? Lately, certainly the most famous human rights defender in Arabic countries, recognizable face of Arab Spring, a multiple prisoner and the person who avoided an assault on her life. On top of this she is also a mother and a wife.
Tawakel Karman was born on February 7th, 1979 in Mekhlaf, Ta’izz province, Yemen. She grew up near Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen acknowledged as one of the most conservative places in the country. Karman earned an undergraduate degree in commerce from the University of Science and Technology, Sana’a and a graduate degree in political science from the University of Sana’a. Definitely her journalistic experience and obstacles which didn’t let her realize her profession were the first reasons to start demanding changes. Tawakel Karman co-founded the human rights group Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) with seven other female journalists in 2005 in order to promote human rights, «particularly freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights.» Although it was founded as «Female Reporters Without Borders,» the present name was adopted in order to get a government license. Karman says she has received «threats and temptations» and was the target of harassment from the Yemeni authorities by telephone and letters. Everything because of her refusal to accept the Ministry of Information rejection of WJWC’s application to legally create a newspaper and a radio station. The group advocated freedom for SMS-based news services, which had been tightly controlled by the government despite not falling under the purview of the Press Law of 1990. After a governmental review of the text services, the only service that was not granted a license to continue was Bilakoyood, which belonged to WJWC and had operated for a year. In 2007, WJWC released a report that documented Yemeni abuses of press freedom since 2005. In 2009, she criticized the Ministry of Information for establishing trials that targeted journalists. From 2007 to 2010, Karman regularly led demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, Sana’a.
At the same time she couldn’t stay unconcerned about human injustice and obvious cases of corruption. The refusal of the government to intervene in the case of the Ja’ashin, a group of 30 families that were expelled from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to the President, was what launched her on the path of revolution. «I couldn’t see any sort of human rights or corruption report that could shake this regime. They never responded to any of our demands. It made it clear to me that this regime has to fall.» Tunisia has Mohammed Bouazizi, the man who set himself on fire, and Egypt has Khaled Said, the victim of police brutality. For Yemen, says Karman, it is the Ja’ashin. «Their slogan was ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh made me hungry.’ They’ve become icons.» Her strong opposition to the President was an effect of the bad situation in Yemen. More than 5 million Yemenis live in poverty, and nearly 50% are illiterate. Oil is scarce, and water reserves are declining (it’s an often repeated statistic that Yemen will be the first country in the world to run out of water, sometime around 2025 at current rates of consumption). In Karman’s opinion the government doesn`t seem eager to solve these problems.
The other visible part of her activity is commitment to women’s problems. Their participation in political and social life is minimal. Due to early marriages many women don`t even finish primary school. Consequently illiteracy among them is on the whopping level of 67%. In line with it, Karman has advocated for laws that would prevent females younger than 17 from being married. She has alleged that malnutrition of girls is also a serious issue. Many Yemeni girls receive decreased portions, because feeding the boys is more important. These food shortages result in one in three Yemenis suffers from severe undernourishment, according to the UN. Finally, Yemen is permanently at the bottom in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index reaching this year`s last position. As a most noticeable sign of her involvement in gender issue is the fact that she stopped wearing the traditional niqab in favour of more colourful hijabs that showed her face. She first appeared without the niqab at a conference in 2004. Karman replaced the niqab with a scarf in public on national television to make her point that full coverage of the face is culturally adapted, not dictated by Islam.She told the Yemen Times in 2010 that:
“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 potentials it has.”
On the other hand, as it was mentioned before, Karman is also a member of Yemen’s leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah, which has been co-ordinating many of the protests against Saleh and buying food and medical supplies for the thousands that have camped out in Change Square. The biggest controversy about Al-Islah is caused by one of the party`s members, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former adviser to Osama bin Laden, considered as a terrorist by the US. However, she underlines her independence from party line. She identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen’s alienated youth, but as she maintains they need support of political party:
“Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organize. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don’t want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one.”
She also claims it is the best party in Yemen for supporting female members, although Karman took a different stand on marriage law than others in the Al-Islah party. Karman has endorsed a bill to make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17, but the rest of her party has blocked this initiative.
The most characteristic feature of her activity is her non-violent and peaceful way of realizing her goals. She does not believe in matching force with force. On the wall in her office hang portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. “We refuse violence and know that violence has already caused our country countless problems,” she says.
Nobel Peace Prize for Karman caused an explosion of national joy. Yemeni pro-democracy campaigners gathered around the stage at the center of Change Square, in front of Sanaa University, to celebrate Bint al-Yemen – the daughter of Yemen. People congratulated Mrs. Karman and called her «aunt» – an honorary title. In her tent, a few minutes’ walk from the stage, Mrs. Karman was surrounded by supporters. She was being treated like a star. The Yemenis were proud of the positive international recognition the Nobel Prize has brought, after years of being associated mainly with al-Qaeda. For peoples this award is a big hope for the future, which was excellently expressed by Rana Jarhum, a young female protest leader from the coordinating council at Change Square: «Hopefully, this peace prize will raise people’s demand for peace and prevent a civil war from happening in Yemen.»