Tawakkol Karman is a Yemeni journalist, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. On Monday 25 September, the Lafayette Club hosted Karman at Hotel du Vin, where she addressed the origins of the ongoing crisis in Yemen. Some quotations have been edited for clarity.
Photography by Maddy Bazil for Lightbox, provided courtesy of the Lafayette Club.
Yemen has a well-documented record of substandard women's rights. The widespread lack of female autonomy is determined by social, cultural, religious, and political traditions that vary by region. Poverty-stricken and rural women are the most susceptible to discrimination.
The war-torn Arab state has consistently been the lowest-ranking country in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for at least the last decade. According to the latest report, published in November 2016, the greatest disparities exist in economic participation and opportunities, as well as in education and literacy. There is no legal age of marriage and child marriage is overwhelmingly common. Gender-based violence, in the form of honour killings, domestic abuse, and female genital mutilation, is pervasive. The intensity of patriarchal control has contributed to high maternal mortality rates, in large part because women are not eligible to receive health care without the approval of their husbands or other male relative. Such discrimination is legally codified; women do not have rights to divorce, inheritance, or even child custody. Yemen has consequently been labelled the “worst place to live as a woman”.
Yet, when anti-government riots erupted nationwide in February 2011, women were at the forefront of the movement. An unprecedented number took to the streets, participating in sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations. Others gathered at local schools to write anonymous letters to their corrupt leaders. In Sana’a, they defiantly burned their veils, a symbolic and brazen act of protest. Their message of gender equality was embedded within a larger discourse of democracy, justice, and freedom. It is thus fitting, though somewhat ironic, that a woman should represent the revolution on the global stage.
However, this is not just any woman. Tawakkol Karman began participating in grassroots activism as a university student and has been persistently protesting Yemen’s oppressive government since. In 2005, frustrated with censorship, she founded Women Journalists Without Chains, which advocates freedom of press and freedom of expression, including the right to protest. Two years later, she began organizing weekly demonstrations in front of the Presidential Palace in Sana’a, in an area now known as ‘Freedom Square’. It was not until 2011, during the uprising, that she rose to national prominence for her leadership of the student movement and her dedication to the protest encampment at ‘Change Square’. Her activism made her a household name and earned her the sobriquet ‘Mother of the Revolution’. Just months after the riots began, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her unyielding moral vision of nonviolence.
It is not difficult to see how Karman assumed this role. Undeterred by her imperfect English, she orates in a raised, forceful tone. She exudes an infectious confidence (though sometimes bordering on egotism) and is unwavering in her declarations and beliefs. From the moment she stepped up to the podium in the ballroom of Hotel du Vin, it was clear that she had captivated her audience. They smiled with her and laughed with her. They clapped in unison with her as she enthusiastically sang in celebration of Yemen’s Revolution of 26 September 1962 - the incident that toppled the Mutawakkilite monarchy and resulted in the establishment of a republic.
Karman began her overview of the uprising by sorrowfully denouncing the “regime of dictatorship, the regime of corruption, the regime of failure, and the regime of war” that has plagued her country since Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rise to power in 1978. “Unfortunately, now Yemen suffers from a bad ruler.”
As she proceeded to recount the circumstances surrounding the revolution, her intonation vacillated between frustration and passion. She fervently described the multifaceted issues of Saleh's regime: his Machiavellian mode of leadership (as she described it), the conflicts he instigated, his attempts to install his eldest son as his successor, and his government's infringement of human rights. She asserted that any freedoms that the Yemenis appeared to enjoy were "just a decoy, just to tell the West that we are a democratic country."
Saleh’s refusal to listen to the Yemeni people and to create legislative reforms for economic, political, and social improvement, combined with the outbreak of revolt in Tunisia, served as a catalyst for outright insurgence. Despite the people’s vexation, they never resorted to brutality, an achievement that Karman is exceedingly proud of - “we decided... to put the weapons away and to go to the streets with flowers, just flowers, in front of all the violence of the regime.” She furthermore reaffirmed her commitment to pacifism. When an audience-member questioned her view on the international community’s role in Yemen’s struggle, she even objected to the presence of armed United Nations peacekeepers, explaining that sustainable peace requires a ceasefire and disarmament procedures.
Her account of the transitional period from 2012 to 2014 was laudatory, notwithstanding the fact that it has been called “poorly designed” and “contentious” by Western scholars and media. She professed that the National Dialogue Conference was all-encompassing, including everyone from the civilians, to civil society, to the Houthis, to Saleh’s government (though not Saleh or his family). The draft of the constitution incorporated every value that the Yemeni people protested and sacrificed for, such as human rights, women’s rights, and democracy.
From Karman’s perspective, the fatal flaw that lead to today’s conflict and the resultant humanitarian crisis was the decision to grant Saleh with indemnity. She opined that this paved the way for his vengeful coup in 2014, an easy undertaking for Saleh given his wealth, influence, and alliance with the Houthis.
“There is no peace without justice. If you sacrifice justice for peace you will lose them both.”
Karman ended her speech with a reflection on revolutions and democratization. She noted that the relative stability that those of us who live in the developed world enjoy today did not come easily or immediately, but resulted from the struggles of our ancestors. “Why do you ask the revolutionaries in Arab countries to create a democracy at the same time a dictatorial regime is overthrown?” she questioned. In doing so, she shamelessly challenged the Orientalist discourse that democracy is incompatible with Middle Eastern cultures and values - a discourse that has only intensified since the Arab Spring - and the West's hypocritical insistence on progress.
Regardless of the bleakness of the subject at hand, the theme of Karman’s speech was incontrovertibly hope and faith. She has no doubts that the 2011 uprising was a monumental and important step in the journey towards the establishment of a civil state dedicated to the rule of law, despite the chaos that was since engulfed Yemen (though many people would disagree with her on this point, given the severity of the humanitarian crisis). She remains unshaken in her belief that justice and peace will ultimately prevail.
“With all this darkness, there is still a great people, the Yemeni people, believing in a dream… and there is one winner, the people, the dreamers.”