Thorn in the Side of Saleh
Tom Finn for The Guardian, March 25, 2011
Tawakul Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, may seem an unlikely leader of the fight to overthrow the president of Yemen.
But the outspoken journalist and human rights activist has long been a thorn in Ali Abdullah Saleh's side, agitating for press freedoms and staging weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail – a place she has been several times herself.
Now inspired by the uprising in Tunisia and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, she finds herself at the head of a popular protest movement which is shaking the Yemeni regime to its core.
"With two civil wars, an al-Qaida presence and 40% unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office now," she says, claiming that Yemen, like Tunisia and Egypt, needs an end to a dictatorship in the guise of a presidency.
"This revolution is inevitable, the people have endured dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment for years and now the whole thing is exploding," she says.
Karman has many grievances against her government but it was a sheikh's tyranny against villagers in Ibb, a governorate south of the capital, that ignited her activism. "I watched as families were thrown off their land by a corrupt tribal leader. They were a symbol to me of the injustice faced by so many in Yemen," she says. "It dawned on me that nothing could change this regime, only protest."
While she identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen's alienated youth, she is also a member of Yemen's leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah, a group that has caused alarm in the west, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former Osama bin Laden adviser considered a terrorist by the Americans.
Karman has a mixed relationship with the Islah. She says it was the best party in Yemen for supporting female members but last October she ran into trouble after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17.
"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."
Some of the student protest leaders have accused her and her party of trying to hijack their movement to make personal bids for power.
Karman says: "Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organise. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don't want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one."
At the protests, her husband, Mohammed, can be seen at by her side, patiently answering her phone while she gives interviews to al-Jazeera television and shakes the hands of tribesmen.
"You can't imagine the respect people give me when I'm outside," she says. "All the people respect me, even tribes and soldiers. They stop and salute me. I faced many obstacles but I overcame them," she says.
Last year, a woman tried to stab her with a jambiya, a traditional Yemeni dagger, at one of the demonstrations. Karman says her crowds of supporters helped her survive the attack.
Like most Yemeni women, Karman used to wear the full face-covering niqab but she dropped it a few years ago when it began "getting in the way" of her activism. She remembers unveiling in public for the first time, minutes before stepping up to deliver a speech at a human rights conference in Washington.
"I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain," she says.
"People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion to wear the veil; it is a traditional practice so I took it off."
Now Karman wears just a headscarf. Today, she wears a long plain black abaya with beaded cuffs and a pink, flowered scarf. On other days, she dresses head to toe in bright pink.
Her advice for women is not to wait for permission before demanding rights: "If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it's a social revolution."
Her tireless campaigning has earned her international acclaim and devoted admirers around the world. Her seven Facebook pages (she claims six were created by the government) are filled with messages of support and admiration, many from exiled Yemenis. In 2010, she was nominated for a US state department woman of courage award.
The government has used a carrot and stick approach to try to tame her. She was promised a position in government as well as financial compensation last year, but when she said no, death threats started arriving.
"I was threatened through phone calls, letters, even text messages. They said I'd be imprisoned or even killed if I did not stop causing inconvenience. But I consider taking my right to expression away far worse than any form of physical violence," she says.
Karman smiles when asked if she would consider running for president once Saleh stepped down.
"My aim for now is to lead a peaceful revolution to remove this regime," she says. "I think if I can be in the street with the people I can achieve more than if I am the president."