December 9, 2011 5:04 pm

The face of freedom

Yemeni activist and Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman talks about the women of the Arab spring

When, in October, Tawakul Karman heard she had become the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, she was sitting in her tent in a miles-wide protest encampment in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. She had been prevented from leaving it for the previous eight months by death threats.

“I learnt about it through the media,” she recalls over mobile phone en route to a meeting in New York. Since the award, which she shared with two other women, catapulted her to international fame, she has put down the microphone – through which she exhorted Yemen’s ragtag revolutionaries to bring an end to the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (at the time of going to press, he had promised to step down at elections early next year) – and started lobbying international policymakers instead.

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The United Nations in New York is a long way from the whirr of tribal headdresses, vegetable sellers, army uniforms and, increasingly, shrapnel in the Sana’a protest encampment, but Karman’s incandescent rhetoric appears to have survived the transition intact. “The international community cannot just stay and watch,” she says. “They will be partners with Saleh and the crimes if they continue.”

At 32, Karman is still young, and there have been many who interpreted the Nobel committee’s decision as a partly symbolic recognition of the hundreds of thousands of women who have marched, fallen, shouted, sewed and bandaged for freedom during the Arab spring, staking their claim to the public sphere in societies which have often sought to keep them out of it.

The laureate herself dedicates the award to “the youth of the Arab spring, women and the Arab spring, and the women of the Arab revolutions.” Political theatre may be of limited value to those seeking gender equality in the Middle East, complicated as their struggle is by a backdrop of violent instability and thorny questions about power, imperialism and the role of Islam in society. But it has its uses, and few are better equipped to occupy centre stage than the dauntless Karman.

Tawakul Karman

Yemen’s public sphere was more exclusively male than that of any of the other Arab spring countries when protests started in February this year. It consistently ranks at the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index. In much of the country, women wear the niqab – a veil covering everything except their eyes – in public. More than 60 per cent are illiterate. Even the majority of educated women end up submitting to the system, abandoning youthful ambitions and taking up the role society has accorded them, as mothers and wives. Like their allocated seating areas in restaurants, women are on the margins, a system of exclusion reinforced by the Islamist hardliners with whom Saleh enjoys an on-off relationship.

Women began attending demonstrations in a segregated area at the youth protest encampment that started around Sana’a University, known locally as “Change Square”. Those from less conservative cities in the former socialist republic in the south showed up and began directing things purposefully without wearing a niqab. And though the segregated area is now more clearly defined than ever, women began to mix beyond it. They started running workshops and female literacy classes. In April, when Saleh (who, according to Wikileaks, once joked that he didn’t mind whisky being smuggled into the country “provided it’s good”) condemned the mixing of men and women in Change Square as un-Islamic, thousands of women marched in protest, chanting that their honour was not cheap.

“The cultural revolution is done,” says Farea al-Muslimi matter-of-factly. A Change Square activist, he points to the fact that the opposition group’s spokesperson, Hooria Mashoor, is a woman – something unthinkable before the uprising.

Karman, who removed her own niqab years ago, has been at the centre of this transformation. A mother of three from a political family, she founded the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, and campaigned for the rights of marginalised groups. Her arrest, at a pro-democracy protest in January, sparked outrage across the country, helping generate momentum for the grassroots uprising that broke out after the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak the following month.

Yemeni women burn their veil in Sana'a

Mass veil-burning in Sana’a, Yemen

A controversial figure even within the protest movement in Yemen, Karman’s pre-eminence is ascribed by some to her talent for generating publicity. “Other activists around her were doing similar things, but she attracted more media attention,” says one observer of the Yemeni political scene. “She networked very well. Journalists Without Chains had everyone on its mailing lists ... other activists did not have that elaborate system of communication.”

More problematically for some, she is a member of the powerful Islamist opposition party Islah. Many in the grassroots of the uprising see the party as part of the problem, not the solution. But in spite of her links to the elite political system, even her critics don’t deny the extraordinary determination and bravery Karman has displayed in crossing its red lines, speaking out against the regime even before the uprising started (against the advice of some in her inner circle and party).

“Tawakul’s courage is at a different level,” declares Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Sana’a-based political analyst. “In one march, thugs twice tried to stab her and she kept walking.”

Karman has clashed frequently with the conservative wing of her own party, such as when it opposed a proposed law to set a minimum matrimonial age in Yemen (where a quarter of girls under the age of 15 are married). She has also been accused by hardliners of not being a proper Muslim, an incendiary accusation in a deeply pious society such as Yemen’s. When asked how she copes with such charges, she shrugs them off with the insouciance of one inured to confrontation. “Those people who say we are not true Muslims, they say they are men of religion ... I believe they are in an unholy partnership with the ruler based on mutual interests.”

Al-Iryani says that because of the leadership Karman has shown to the youth wing of Islah during Yemen’s uprising, the party cannot afford to kick her out, however much she antagonises them. “If she decides to go face-to-face with them she could shake the foundations of fundamentalism in Islah,” he says.

Although Yemen is unusual in Arab spring countries, in that women confronting the regime have had to confront directly the discourse of patriarchy, there are echoes of Karman’s bravery across the Middle East.

In Syria, where two of the most high-profile activists inside the country – dissident Suhair Attassi and human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh – are women (they are both in hiding), feminism does not appear to be on the agenda. “In general, people are now focusing on the political issue and even the opposition did not speak directly about this subject,” says a female activist inside the country. In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, women are rarely seen in the YouTube videos of Syrian demonstrations smuggled out to the west, but activists say they are supporting the revolution in other ways – treating injured protesters in underground hospitals, making masks for demonstrators to wear to protect their anonymity and, crucially, pushing for the release of husbands and sons who have been arrested.

According to Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist who was in the south-eastern province of Deraa when Syria’s uprising first erupted there, grieving women played a critical role at an early stage. When protests first broke out against corruption and the unaccountable behaviour of security forces, no one was openly calling for President Bashar al-Assad to go. When 16 people were shot dead at a demonstration in late March, Tarif says tribal elders made a deal with the authorities to allow the funeral procession, so long as it stayed within certain lines.

They hadn’t reckoned on the women, however. Tarif says he saw the female relatives of the victims stop the pallbearers in the street so that they could read poetry to their dead. “Then the men put the bodies where the women were, and then the mothers started to say, ‘Shame on our men, shame on Deraa,’” he recalls. “All of a sudden all the young men of Deraa were there chanting ‘I am your son.’ Then the guys took the bodies to the ceremony, and started to chant for the fall of the regime.”

In Bahrain, Alaa Shehabi, a female academic and activist, says that gender stereotypes have been “put on the backburner” as women play an increasingly prominent role in the underground movement, with so many of the men arrested. “It wasn’t a social decision, it was out of need – women maintained the struggle, women maintained the resistance,” she says. “Now you see her [the Bahraini woman] leading the protests. She’s still got her abaya [a loose over-garment] on – the abaya has become like a military uniform.”

But as people in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have found, the biggest challenge for women is not participating in the uprising, but securing their rights in the transition period.

In Libya, the relatively educated women who helped organise and publicise the revolution and, later, provided support to the rebels, have had to mobilise rapidly to stake a claim in the post-Gaddafi state-building process. Things got off to a bad start when the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, mentioned polygamy and sharia law in a speech about the future of Libya in October.

In Tunisia, women may appear to be in the strongest position, with parties obliged to field 50 per cent female candidates in the recent elections. However, after decades of a state-led equality agenda, enshrined in personal status laws, they also have the most to lose. Although the Islamist party that swept to power last month did so on a platform of explicit support for women’s rights, some fear backsliding may occur.

Similarly in Egypt, the feminist agenda is seen as having been co-opted by the Mubarak regime, which introduced a degree of progressive legislation on gender issues. Some fear the new, mainly Islamist political forces will cite this association in the future. According to an interview with the Egyptian academic Hoda Elsadda on the Opendemocracy website, changes to personal status laws introduced in the past decade are sometimes referred to derogatorily as “Suzanne’s laws” after the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak. The precariousness of women’s status in the new Egypt was highlighted in March when army officers clearing a protest in Tahrir Square detained 17 women and forced them to submit to “virginity tests”, according to Amnesty International.

“I see a backlash across the region,” says Nadje al-Ali, professor of gender studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, pointing to the lessons learned in previous revolutions in the Middle East, such as Iran’s. “In the context of political change women are very much involved, but in the aftermath they’re being told ‘we have to focus on wider issues’.”

Women in the “unfinished revolutions” are aware of the challenges ahead. “Now many people think ‘things will never go back’,” says Atiaf al Wazir, a female activist in Yemen. “We need to be aware that it could, and not let that happen, and not be excluded from any political process.”

In this context, the savvy of a Tawakul Karman comes into its own. For years she has worked around the clock, assiduously building alliances with those of all stripes who she thinks can further her causes. “I belong to the revolution,” she says when probed on her membership of Islah, “and when the revolution came, no one asked about anyone’s background, religious affiliation, political affiliation, regional affiliation and ethnicity.”

It was this kind of drive and political acumen that brought her to the notice of the Nobel prize committee. Since winning the award her unveiled face now looks back at conservative tribesmen in ubiquitous images across Change Square. “She is a political animal,” says one observer of Yemeni politics. “But how else will you win the war?”

Abigail Fielding-Smith is the FT’s Beirut correspondent. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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