Speaking to an audience at the İstanbul Şehir University conference hall on Thursday, Tawakkol Karman talked to the students about her role and experiences during the revolution in Yemen.
Karman, 32, a mother of three, took to the streets along with tens of university students in the Yemeni capital to push for regime change. Facing the brutal response of the regime, the protesters did not give up. Amid growing international pressure to step down, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to relinquish power to the vice-president and left the country last year.
According to Karman, while social media has been one of the paramount factors in the Arab Spring, it has not been the only element, as other social and economic problems paved the way for regime changes.
She noted that the image of Yemen held by the outside world had infuriated the Yemeni people. Poverty and other crises created an image of a problem-filled country, which the people strenuously disagreed with, and this pushed them into the streets, with women and youth taking a leading role.
She said many international activists had told her at the beginning of the protests in the Yemeni capital that they had no chance of success. Because of the lack of a strong middle class and educated youth like in Tunisia, their task was a difficult one, she noted, underlining the importance of women's leadership in the process.
“We refused to be part of the problem, we wanted to be part of the solution,” she said.
While Karman noted that women have not yet obtained the rights they fought for, she said she is confident of the ability of women to hold strong positions in society.
Regarding women's role in the Arab Spring, Karman believes that Arab women have achieved a historic success in redefining their positions in social and political landscapes. “Women set a good example by appearing at the forefront of the revolution.”
The toppling of authoritarian regimes, she pointed out, only constituted the first step of revolution, as there are more things to be done to complete the process, which will take years.
Rebuilding, economic recovery, and the writing of a new democratic constitution are the next steps that need to be taken in Yemen, she noted.
“Women of the Arab Spring have not struggled just for women's rights, they struggled for human rights. The women of the Arab Spring prefer to speak of rights for the whole country. [The primary objective is to make a transition toward a democratic system] in which everybody has equal citizenship, women and men have the same rights and corruption is not an option anymore within this system,” she said in an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman after the conference.
Despite the setbacks regarding women's status in politics and society that women have witnessed in many countries after authoritarian regimes were toppled by the joint efforts of men and women, Karman argued that women will lead all those countries and will be part of the political decision-making mechanism.
“Women must be there [in politics], it is their responsibility,” she said, adding that a woman is responsible not only for her family but also for her country.
To achieve their common goals, she underlined, they need to be more coordinated with other revolutionaries, especially women's rights activists in other countries across the region.
In terms of how winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 changed her life, she emphasized that the award sent a positive message that a woman can lead and handle not just simple issues, but also important ones, such as promoting peace, which is one of the most difficult issues.
In response to a question asked by Today's Zaman over the Turkish stance toward the Arab Spring in general, and the Syrian crisis in particular, she said she has been disappointed with the Turkish silence on Yemen.
She expressed her frustration with the Turkish stance on the Arab Spring, saying that Turkey should take a bold and assertive role in leading the events across the region.
“Turkey must be clear in supporting the youth of the region. Turkey did not play enough of a role in Yemeni affairs,” Karman said, adding that people had expected more from Turkey.
On the year-long Syrian crisis, Karman noted that she approved of Turkey's hard stance but said Turkey must do more to protect the people in Syria.
Karman said it is not up to her to say what strategy Turkey must follow, but she pointed out that Turkey must play a more active role to protect the people.