“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Nobel citation for 2011 Peace Prize
On October 7th, 2011, the Oslo-based Nobel Committee announced that the Nobel Peace Prize would be shared equally among three activists: Leyman Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. All three are Nobel Laureates in acknowledgement of their leadership in nonviolent struggles advancing women’s rights and involving women in significant peace building roles within their countries. Tawakkul Karman’s Nobel Peace Prize award is especially timely considering the Arab Spring of 2011 and her involvement in the unprecedented participation of women in the revolutionary movements across the Middle East. While the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have successfully overthrown their leaders, in Karman’s eyes, Yemen has yet to achieve that same level of success for itself.
In November Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement to step down and transfer power to his Vice President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. However, in exchange for stepping down there is a provision in the agreement that grants him immunity from prosecution for his 33-year dictatorial rule of Yemen. Like thousands of Yemenis who continue to protest in spite of the agreement, Karman believes that it does not go far enough. The goal of the Yemeni revolution to win freedom, dignity, equality, democracy and justice cannot, Yemenis believe, be reached without Saleh’s prosecution. Karman is now calling for Saleh’s assets to be frozen, and for him to face trial for corruption under his rule and the brutal crackdown on protesters which left hundreds dead.
In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman is called the “Mother of the Yemeni Revolution” for her activism and determination for justice in her country. Karman, only 32 years old, worked as a journalist but turned to human rights activism when the government began suppressing freedom of expression. She founded the “Women’s Journalist Without Chains”, an organization that promotes government transparency by publishing reports on corruption and advocating for freedom of the press in the country. Karman has been organizing protests since 2007, but gained the world’s attention when she urged protesters to march to the Presidential Palace in May 2011. Despite the protest being peaceful and nonviolent, Saleh’s military killed 13 protesters that day in a brutal crackdown. They arrested Karman, who expected to be killed but was released two days later after a massive outpouring of support through letters and protests prompted her release.
The young activist took the fight to the international stage speaking to the United Nations Security Council in November. The Security Council unanimously voted to condemn Saleh and urged the President to step down. She led chants of “Leave before you are made to leave!” in the protests against the Yemeni President, and is now urging Yemenis to demand that he be tried for his crimes. Karman’s fight for justice continues at the International Criminal Court where she represents Yemeni demands to indict Saleh. So far Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands have openly supported these demands to put Saleh to trial despite his immunity. Now Karman must rally international support to prevent what she and others believe is Saleh’s plan to flee Yemen, possibly going to the United States, before justice can be done.
In a country where nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, a third are chronically hungry, and women are still repressed, Tawakkul Karman’s fight for freedom and justice in Yemen is vital to the movement toward sustainable global peace for all people. The work of activists like Karman inspire people who have only known ruthless oppression to find the voice of change–to celebrate the value of every human life and resolve to make their country a place for all to live healthy, meaningful lives. Putting Ali Abdullah Saleh on trial and exposing the corruption and crimes for which he must be held accountable will send a clear message to the next president of the country that Yemenis will only accept a democratic government of the people, not a dictatorship. A trial will also be healing to hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the year-long uprising.
As a woman, wife, and mother of three, Tawakkul Karman is crossing tribal lines and paving the way for women to be visible participants of the reconstruction of Yemen. Indeed, they may have the biggest stake of all in the outcome of this revolution.