Tawakkol Karman, the person who led Yemen's “Jasmine Revolution” last year and was partly responsible for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, had just enough time before a flight to Ankara to give a talk to a packed auditorium at Istanbul Şehir University on March 15.
In her introduction to the students, most of them headscarved women, Prof. Dr. Ümit Cizre said, “In our studies of political science and international relations, let us not forget that without courageous leaders like Tawakkol Karman, movements for democracy and justice would never occur in the world.” Karman proceeded to demonstrate not only the validity of what Prof. Cizre said, but why she was one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize last December.
Women and young people as catalysts for change
Last year's Nobel Peace Prizes recognized three women for overcoming the difficult situation of women in the world who suffer violations of human rights, rape and violence, and yet who sometimes are not only victims but luckily take action. Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, noted that “Yemen is the country in the world which has made the least progress where women's rights are concerned” and cited Karman as one of those persons who refused to be a victim:
“In 2011, she was one of the leaders of the demonstrations on Change Square in Sana'a. She was imprisoned and exposed to serious threats, but nothing stopped her. Day in and day out, she has campaigned against President Ali Abdullah Saleh and for democracy, women's rights and tolerance. She advocates understanding between Shias and Sunnis and between Islam and other religions.”
After seeing her extemporaneous speech, which was in English, it becomes brilliantly clear that Karman possesses those rare qualities of courage and leadership that act as a catalyst for change, even in a country where the odds are stacked against her: rampant illiteracy and poverty, a powerful military and an undemocratic dictator supported by the United States. One answer to a student's question revealed the necessary quality to be such a leader. The student asked: “What political position do you want?” Karman's immediate response, with a brilliant smile, was “I want to be in the street.” Without hesitation, Karman remains focused on bringing change to her country. Being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize is not a distraction and only seems to strengthen her resolve. In fact, she told the crowd, “This prize does not belong to me. It belongs to you, young people, and all the women of the world. You who can make your own future.”
Young people do not have to be young
Apparently Karman does not believe in the mantra of the 60s and 70s in which young leaders warned that no one over 30 was to be trusted. She defined youth as “all the people who have new thinking, believing in change and new ideas.” In her view, being young is a state of mind and does not relate to age. Her goal was to “make these people who dream for a new future to come together” and she credited the Internet with making it possible because in Yemen, under its repressive government, when “three people met to talk, they could get arrested.”
However, Karman observed that conditions in Yemen for mobilizing people were much more difficult than in Tunisia, which has a significant middle class, high literacy rate and high use of Facebook and Twitter. In contrast, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with high illiteracy and less access to the Internet. This fact alone points to the unbelievable achievement of this 33-year-old woman in mobilizing the most downtrodden, particularly women, resulting in demonstrations of millions of people.
Voice and attitude that resonates
Beneath Karman's “I want to be in the street” mantra is an expression of confidence and drive to get involved that resonates with people and conveys just how she literally started a revolution. Upon hearing that Tunisian despot Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in January of last year, Karman ran into the streets with a few of her friends outside Sana'a University to celebrate. At the time, she was a mother of three and head of an organization of women journalists, “Women Journalists without Chains,” to protect their rights of expression. The protests gained momentum and Karman became the popular non-violent voice of a democratic movement. When Saleh's threats did not deter her, he had her arrested in the middle of the night, an act which backfired and increased the protests. When she was released, she declined to celebrate: "This is not the victory I seek," she said. "I was ready to stay in jail if the demonstrations would have toppled Ali Abdullah Saleh."
Halfway into her talk at Şehir University, one could readily see how her audacity, courage and confidence resonated with her mostly student audience. She beseeched them to become “part of the solution, not part of the problem,” a phrase that may be a cliché these days. But with a raised voice, she looked into their eyes and stated emphatically: “Do not be silent. You ask, ‘What can we do?' You have to be the leader, you have to lead with action. You have to think that ‘I can be the leader' and not be the victim. This is what happened in the Arab Spring. Women decided to be the leaders, to suffer and to struggle and to be killed for their freedom, for their dignity.”
Elevated by global spotlight
Karman wants to continue to effect change via the street, but the demands of being in the global media spotlight will make it difficult. Despite the resounding success of her speech, she is not much interested in speaking at universities, for example. That might be impossible given the public's desire to hear what she has to say and the rarity of a powerful woman's voice in the Middle East.
She made a confident declaration that “there is no future for dictatorship in the world” and that “we are waiting for total victory in Syria, inshallah [Allah willing].” She lamented the situation for women in the world but stressed the need for women to get involved, noting that at a recent international conference on security, the only women representatives there were herself and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When asked by a journalist about her view of the escalating murders in Turkey of women by men, she admitted that “this is new information for me,” that “Turkey is a great country” and implied that women need to struggle to achieve all their rights.
Karman concluded that toppling dictators was just the first stage and that Yemen and other countries are now facing the more difficult challenges to implement democracy. She said that Yemen needs to replace the leadership of the military and security forces and write a new constitution. At the end of the talk, Prof. Cizre offered five summary points: Think big, not just local; don't be silent; form an organization and get into seats of power; have confidence in what you can achieve; and have a cause. Karman smiled and said, “I like that.”
*Richard Peres is a writer and journalist living in İstanbul.