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Tawakkul Karman

Tawakkul Karman: “The Mother of the Revolution”

Image courtesy of Radia Mania

Tawakkul has become known to the Yemenis as the “Iron Woman” and the “Mother of the Revolution.” Born in 1979, she has emerged as a crucial figure among the youth activists who began protests in early February 2011, demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade rule. She has become internationally recognisable as the face of the 2011 Yemeni uprising that is part of the Arab Spring.

Karman is a senior member of the Al-Islah political party which is the opposition to Saleh’s ruling party, she is also a journalist, a human rights activist and a co-founder of the group “Women journalists without Chains” founded in 2005. As a 32 year old mother of three, Karman is not the stereotypical figure associated with overthrowing a president, but Karman has long been a concern for President Saleh.


Her tireless campaigning and vocal opposition to the ruling party has led Karman to be arrested many times. She was seized from her car in January this year and thrown into prison. Thousands of people poured on to the streets of Sana’a demanding her release. This was a significant moment in Yemen’s uprising when the tide began to turn against Saleh.

Nobel Peace Prize

Karman became the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Karman, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, were the co-recipients of the the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Of Karman, the Nobel Committee said: “In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the ‘Arab spring’, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

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. 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 it 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. Karman told the Guardian in March “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.”

Women in the uprising

Many see Karman’s award as recognition of the growing involvement of Yemen’s women in the uprising. In a country where most 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. After nine months of mass protests calling for his resignation, on 23rd November 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement in Saudi Arabia transferring his powers to the vice president in return for immunity from prosecution.

The deal, drawn up by the gulf monarchies and supported by the US, allows Saleh to retain the honorary title of President while his deputy, Abd al-Rabb Mansour al-Hadi, forms and presides over a government of national unity until early presidential elections in February 2012. In return for signing Saleh and his family are to be guaranteed immunity from prosecution. But Karman met the International Criminal Court prosecutor to demand action against Saleh. Karman said she had submitted photographs of victims and witness accounts of the Yemeni government crackdown on protests to ICC. “I’m here to tell the prosecutor to use his rights to convince the international community and the Security Council to bring Saleh to the ICC,” Karman said in The Hague. We will have to wait for the outcome of Karman’s campaign against Saleh, but one thing is certain, that Tawakkul Karman is a certainly a leading voice in Arab Feminism.

Tawakkul Karman will also be speaking at the Frontline Club/BBC Arabic event at the Royal College of Surgeons on Friday December 16th 2011 as part of the event Women of the Revolution.


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