Nobel Prize for Yemeni Activist


Tawakul Karman, a 32 year old mother of three from Yemen is one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. This makes her the first Arab woman to win the prize.

The young activist and journalist founded Women Journalists without Chains in 2005. She has been a prominent activist and advocate of human rights and freedom of expression for the last five years, and led regular protests calling for the release of political prisoners.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Ms 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 described Ms Karman as a major player, “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”.

In comments to the AFP news agency she said that the prize was “recognition by the international community of the Yemeni revolution and its inevitable victory”.

Ms Karman has led rallies in the continuing protests against the rule of President Ali-Abdullah Saleh which earned her the title ‘mother of the revolution’. The young lady has emerged as a crucial figure among youth activists who began camping out at Change Square in central Sana'a in early February, demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule.

In Yemen, a 32-year-old Arab woman who is also a mother may seem the least likely leader of the fight to overthrow the president, but Karman – a journalist and human rights activist – has long been a thorn in Saleh's side and has been jailed many times.

Last January, she was catapulted into the international spotlight after being seized from her car and slung into prison. Thousands of people poured on to the streets of Sana'a calling for her release. It was a key moment in Yemen's uprising when the tide began to turn against Saleh.

Despite her tireless campaigning, the news that Karman had received the Nobel award was greeted with shock by many Yemenis. The Arab world has not been accustomed to good news lately and Yemen was no exception at a tense moment in its uprising. In the past fortnight protesters have found themselves caught in the middle of fierce gun battles between regime forces and defected soldiers who have been guarding the main protest camp since March. More than 100 protesters have been killed in the latest round of bloodshed. With Karman winning the peace prize, Yemen got back on the world map and this time not for its terrorists' links but for promotion of peace. Everyone's hope now is that this peace prize will raise people's demand for peace and prevent a civil war from happening in Yemen.

She was discussing an escalation of tactics with protest leaders in her tent in Change Square when she received news of the award. Soon, swarms of jubilant protesters had gathered around her tent, shouting slogans and celebrating.

Karman identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen's alienated youth, but she 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 camped out in Change Square. It has caused alarm in the West, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former adviser to Osama bin Laden considered a terrorist by the US.

But Karman's relationship with the Islah is complicated. She maintains it is the best party in Yemen for supporting female members, but last October ran into trouble after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill to make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17. “The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I'm trying to take women away from their houses” she told The Guardian in March.

With the Nobel Peace Prize as the best recognition for all her efforts made to bring calm and stability back to her part of the world, we do hope that many more Arab women will stand up for what they believe in and show the world that it isn't gun shots that are the way to peace, it’s simply believing in a cause and working towards achieving it.

Some student protesters have accused her and her party of trying to hijack their movement in a bid for power. Karman responded: “Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organise. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don't want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one." Last year she narrowly escaped with her life when a female potential assassin tried to stab her with a traditional dagger known as a ‘jambiya’. Karman says her crowds of supporters helped her survive the attack.

Many see Karman's award as recognition of the growing involvement of Yemen's women in the uprising. In a country where most Arab women are neither seen nor heard, thousands have taken to the streets in recent months, defying authority and the weight of tradition to call for the fall of the regime. But the sight of 10,000 of them marching down a six-lane motorway in mid-April after Saleh accused them of "mingling with men" was too much for some to bear.


Tawakul Karman, speaking from Change Square in Sanaa: "It's victory for all the dreams, all the struggles”.


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