|CULTURE & SOCIETY
‘Saleh tried to show that violence is the only way to survive’
She could be mistaken for an Arab diplomat’s wife except that she is not. In fact, the various epithets that surround her include ‘Iron Woman’ and the ‘Mother of the Arab Spring’. But there’s little in her demeanor that betrays the extreme courage and determination she has shown in the face of bullets and incarceration. She reacts like a bubbly teenager who likes her dosa with marmalade, as she is introduced to the distinguished but eclectic guests who have gathered to meet her at a lunch hosted by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar. Tawakkol A Karman is a Yemeni journalist and women’s rights activist who captured the imagination of the international media when she became part of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize trinity along with the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her compatriot and human rights activist Leymah Gbowee. Karman was recognized for the pivotal role she played in non-violent protests in Yemen to oust the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh who ruled Yemen for 33 years. At the age of 32, she became the youngest Peace laureate ever and the only Arab woman. A year later, her activism is now no longer restricted to Yemen. She is a vocal opponent of Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria and her NGO, Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) continues to work for freedom of expression and women’s rights across the Arab World. Recently in the capital to deliver the 5th Babu Jagjivan Ram Lecture, and a great admirer of all that India stands except perhaps its caste system, Karman also finds a kindred spirit in Anna Hazare. Sahar Zaman spoke to her at length about her struggle and how things have changed since the Nobel…
A lot that has been written and spoken about the Arab Spring in terms of political ramifications, atrocities on general public and role of social media. However, very little is known about the role played by ordinary women in these uprisings. Tell us about that.
The role of ordinary women has surprised everyone. Absolutely everybody in our society was left stunned. In fact, they ended up surprising themselves! Before the revolution, these women hardly stepped out of the house or did something significant in public life. They worked in women areas like teaching in school, with women environment. But in the Arab Spring, they have sacrificed their lives. I hope you know many women have got killed. But they have struggled for dignity and equality. So women have not just gained the trust from their own folk but from their entire society and community. And now we have reached a stage where all Arabs are proud of the role women have played in the struggle. The negative image of women has changed drastically. Now they are looked at as people who can lead, bring change and be an important decision maker. That’s the trust she has gained. And women shouldn’t give up now either. It’s their duty to keep going and showing that her role doesn’t end with the revolution, she will continue being an equal player in the nation building process.
But wasn’t the involvement of women in these revolutions very sudden? Has there been a gradual process of women’s role increasing in public life and then setting out as protestors on the streets?
No, it has surprised everyone. We were very few women protesting on the streets but the numbers grew. We were arrested, kidnapped and physically assaulted. We were written about in articles as bad and indecent women—the worst that you can imagine. They didn’t spare us from any kind of physical or mental assault. But we decided to keep going, aware of the repercussions of either being raped or murdered. Aware of our family and small children being murdered. But we were determined that this is our responsibility to save this country and create a bright future for our children and the new generation. That’s the feeling of a mother, of a woman, when she wants to protect the people around her.
What was going through your mind when the Yemeni army was shooting at protestors and you were beaten up and taken to prison?
Speaking about myself is very difficult for me because I can’t say I was the only protestor on the streets! There were others, my colleagues. We were all out there, protesting together. I am lucky I survived but my friends paid with their lives. Our struggle was so peaceful and non-violent. It was easy for us to pick up arms and retaliate. In Yemen, it’s easy to get weapons. Every house has weapons there, including heavy ammunition. But we didn’t use any weapon or any form of violence. We wanted our revolution to be peaceful. But we’ve had 30,000 people killed and injured.
But I read an official figure saying 2,000 people in total have been killed during the Yemeni uprising.
Well, even 2,000 is a huge number! We as protestors didn’t even burn down a single police station. So whether it’s 2,000 or 30,000 or just 100—these people were shot down in the streets. Their only crime was to hold flowers (Jasmine) and walk. And even then, we never retaliated with violence.
How has the Nobel Peace Prize changed the way people look at you in your country?
It has reassured my people convinced them further that the only way ahead to fight for your rights is the non-violent path. And that will help us gain respect all around the world. Our struggle has been admired across the world. And the role of women and youth has been taken note of. It has given us a stronger voice. I stand for the voice of my people. So our voice has been heard across the world. It has given me a chance to meet world leaders and make ourselves be heard. And the message of the Arab Spring echoes across the world.
Why do you think the revolution in Yemen has not been talked about as much as the ones in Egypt or Libya?
I don’t know why but I must tell you, we have had just one small, first step of success. The second step is to pursue the establishment for a democratic process. We need to unify and democratise every structure—the army and the security personnel. We need to remove the men of the previous dictator Ali Saleh. We are also working on a new constitution and new laws during this transitional period.
Are you confident about getting support from your current President Mansur Al Hadi?
Yes, of course. He is our candidate. We trust him and are hopeful about achieving all our goals after the revolution with his support. We are pushing for it. And we chose him to help us through this transitional period.
Have you set a deadline to achieve these goals?
Yes, we’ve given ourselves two years, starting 21 February 2012, when we installed Al-Hadi as our President.
You are associated with the Islamic party al-Islah, which sits in the Opposition.
Yes, but I support all parties, not just al-Islah. See, the GPC (General People’s Congress) is the ruling party and the JMP (Joint Meeting Parties) is the main Opposition coalition. But the JMP has accepted the GCC-brokered agreement and they are co-operating with the transitional government.
Why did you accept the terms of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) to provide for Ali Saleh’s immunity and not put him on trial like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt?
The GCC decided to give him this immunity. They think that he will not leave Yemen if he is not given immunity. But we disagree with this immunity and we know he will not leave Yemen. He hasn’t left yet.
That’s a defeat, isn’t it? How much time are you giving him to leave?
If he doesn’t leave Yemen, the people will eventually make sure he is locked up inside. We don’t want to take an extreme step. Our people are still in the streets, pitching tents and protesting about this aspect. So we will make sure that either he and his family pay for his crimes through a trial or they leave Yemen.
As long as he stays in the country, isn’t there a fear of him coming back to power? There are reports of him trying to destabilise the interim government of Al Hadi.
Oh, that’s not a fear at all! Nearly 7 million people have voted for Al Hadi as the transitional President. So he is our man with a large support.
What about the hardliners and fundamentalists in Yemen? Will they play a role in policy making? That’s what has happened in Egypt after the revolution there.
Give Egypt some time, they are still in their initial stage. So are we. But there is no such fear in Yemen because when you have a situation which accepts the participation of every man of the street in having his/her say in the political process and the transitional period, there is no way the fundamentalists and extremists can step in. People were marginalized during Saleh’s dictatorship but now when people are out in the streets, there is no fear of an unwanted person taking over as leader of the country.
Another menace is the Al Qaeeda which is known to be active in Yemen. How will you tackle that?
It’s not the same Al Qaeeda that you people are familiar with reading about in the international press. The kind of terrorism that we’ve had in Yemen has been nurtured and fed by Ali Saleh for the sole purpose of keeping the opposition at bay and taking money from the West. In Yemen, we look at the Al Qaeeda as his people who have been given money for weapons and ammunition. But now they have no support. And we are confident about our peaceful protest and means of achieving our goals and winning our rights. Saleh and the terrorists tried to show people that violence is the only way to survive. But we have shown them otherwise.
So are you engaging in talks with Al Qaeeda?
Yes, we plan to. And Al-Hadi will do so. This is a problem in Yemen which is not coming from outside. It’s an internal problem that has been fed by Saleh. And now they want to destabilize the transitional period. But they can’t disrupt our process. They just can’t.
Do you see similar uprisings in other countries in the Gulf that are led by oil rich kingdoms—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE or Qatar?
I think that any dictator around the world will eventually be forced out by the people of his country, if they are unhappy with him. And the revolution doesn’t need to start in a big city, it can start from a small village.
You are very vocal about the Syrian uprising.
Yes, we support the people of Syria and their struggle. Bashar Al Assad is a criminal, killing his own people. But I have faith in the ceasefire brokered by Kofi Annan. He will do something good. It’s our responsibility to support those Syrians engaging in a peaceful struggle. We don’t support the use of weapons. How many lives can Assad take? The will of the people will eventually win.
On your trip to India, you have mentioned you are a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
Oh yes, his peaceful means to gain independence in India. I admire that. And I love the unity in India despite the diversity. You are a billion plus but you are still democratic. You have different religions prospering here. But the only thing I don’t like in India is the caste system. And that’s why I also admire Babu Jagjivan Ram. He had a peaceful struggle against the caste system. You are without doubt a great nation but your caste system is a huge blot on your image. As a democracy, the caste system doesn’t suit you.
Have you heard about Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption movement?
Yes, I have. But I couldn’t meet him. Inshallah, I will come to India again to learn more about his movement and send my people to him, to learn from his struggle. Corruption is bad for any country. I believe that there are three things that any nation needs to fight. It is corruption, dictatorship and terrorism. And for me, dictatorship and terrorism is the same thing!
How have you managed to do all this despite being a mother of three young children? You are not an ordinary woman with a career but a protestor and now an activist on the international platform.
I struggle like any other mother…It’s simple for me. I leave my children with my mother. I have great family support from my husband and sisters too. During the protests, there were times when I couldn’t go back home for many days but I have had good family support, Mashallah!