As the first Arabic woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, she is considered the international public face of Yemen's Arab Spring. She is a prominent activist for human rights and freedom of expression.
A new generation of activists, young and confident, led the revolutionary wind that in 2011 had spread in North Africa and in the Middle East. The protests started from Tunisia in December 2010 and rapidly expanded to neighbouring countries. Deteriorating economies with unequal distribution of economic resources, high levels of poverty and unemployment, and repressive forms of government, were the perfect grounds for the uprising.
Twakkul Karman, a young journalist, human rights activist and politician, was one of the main actors of this protest in Yemen. With a graduate degree in Political Science from the University of Sana'a, she began a career in journalism, writing articles and producing documentaries with the aim of spreading news about the state of human rights in the country. Her work, however, had to quickly come to terms with the government’s censorship and open opposition. Since she recognized the importance of the right of freedom of expression and information to empower people, she co-founded, together with other colleagues, the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) in 2005. WJWC quickly expanded its scope to include all rights, in particular, women and children rights, focusing on promoting principles of good governance and anti-corruption. An important innovation of the activists and feminists of this new generation is to include the rights of women within a broader defence of human rights, claiming economic and social rights.
She was strongly convinced that the only way to win the battle for freedom was to be involved first hand by protesting. For this reason, she called her fellow citizens to action, organizing weekly sit-ins in front of the cabinet in Sanaa to fight for freedom of the press and human rights in a peaceful, non-violent way. It was May 2007 and the "Tuesday protests" started, a journey that continued regularly for three years. It was an important step for Yemeni women who were fighting together, on the front line to defend their rights. Using Twakkul Karman’s 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 potentials it has” .
Karman's commitment to the emancipation of women in Yemen was also expressed in her courageous personal choices to abandon the "niqab", a veil covering the head and face. She argued that the niqab was an impediment to effective communication in relation to her political actions because people need to see you in order to create a bond.
The events that took place between the end of 2010 and early 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt created the right environment to take the protests to the next level: Karman and other activists decided to take to the streets and call for President Saleh's resignation (Saleh had been ruling for 30 years). The protests led to government suppression and the arrest of Karman. Many analysts identified this arrest as the start of the Yemeni Revolution. Protests continued which led to a major victory: the promise of the President not to run for the 2013 elections. For her role in the protests, Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work” .
Following the Nobel Peace Prize, the Yemeni Revolution gained international recognition. But hopes for a future of peace and democracy to Yemen were soon betrayed: destabilization in the country continued and caused increasing levels of unemployment and poverty. In 2015, a civil war broke out; the war and the presence of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, are leading to serious human rights violations. The fight for fundamental rights and peace in Yemen is still long, but activists like Tawakkul do not lose hope and contine their peaceful struggle.
This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to highlighting influential women. Today, the 8th of March, many countries around the word celebrate the International Women's Day. This is a day to honour women's struggles to improve their lives. Like us on Facebook and join the conversation on Twitter with #IWD2017, #BeBoldForChange, and #BV_IWD2017
Marcella Esposito is the Deputy Communications Manager at Beyond Violence. She is a freelance journalist covering politics, international relations, and human rights.
Written by Marcella Esposito and published on 08-March-2017