In 2011, at the age of 32, Tawakkol Karman became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Known as “The Mother of the Revolution” in her native Yemen, she was at the forefront of the struggle for human rights and women’s participation in peacebuilding in her country for years.
Q: Talk to us about your country, currently. What is the situation?
A: Yemen is going through a very difficult phase. Only a few weeks before an adoption of a new constitution that respects rights and freedoms, the Houthi militia and forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, supported by Iran, undermined state institutions and thwarted the political process. In Yemen, there is no longer politics, no political parties, no civil society organisations, no media or no press.
There is an Iranian intervention in Yemen, and in the face of this, there is Saudi-led Arab coalition. At the local level, the Houthi militia, which claims a superiority of their descent over others, rejects any solution. This militia has an old dream of controlling the country and believes God empowered them to achieve what they have done. Therefore, it insists on going to the war to the end. The humanitarian situation in Yemen is getting worse every day, so the solution lies in ending the coup that has caused all these disasters.
Our people yearn to live in peace, a sustainable peace, and this will only be achieved by disarming militias, reviving the political process and respecting the rule of law. What the world should realise is that we in Yemen had successfully completed a national dialogue conference bringing together all parties and political and community groups to solve the problems of Yemen. But the coup stopped all efforts for a democratic transition.
We have a chance to make peace in our country, but we have to say clearly and specifically that weapons should not be outside the state, any political process should exclude nobody and those committing serious violations against Yemenis have to be held accountable.
"Nothing is more miserable than tyranny of all kinds"
Q: What do you see as being a major challenge for the Arab world today?
A: Today’s major challenge facing the Arab world is the increasingly ruthless tyranny that unfortunately has Western support and understanding. Despotism brings poverty, terrorism, backwardness and intolerance. The despots do not do their duties and underestimate the importance of freedom and justice. They are only occupied with oppressing their opponents and terrorising people, and this leads to failure at all levels.
When I talk about tyranny, I mean political and religious tyranny, as well as military interference in political life. It is time to put an end to despotism. Our people are yearning for freedom, and will not accept a return to the pre-Arab Spring.
Q: The refugee crisis: how is this going to affect Western societies in the long run?
A: I have a clear understanding of how large numbers of refugees have negative effects on a country. Western societies today are suffering from this problem, but I would like to draw attention to the responsibility of Western governments for the support for authoritarian regimes, causing this problem. Western societies today pay for the complicity of their governments with autocrats and tyrants in the Arab region.
Thus, solving the problem of massive influx of refugees into Europe in isolation from the overthrow of repressive regimes does not seem logical. Western governments’ vague position towards the dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime has caused a great tragedy in Syria. Assad's forces have followed all methods to kill the people mercilessly, causing a massive exodus of refugees towards Europe. Hence the solution lies helping people to return to their home countries, and this solution will remain impossible in the presence of Assad and tyrants of his ilk.
Q: What leads people either to trust or to distrust government? Which factors support or hinder trust in government?
A: People trust in governments that respect the law and keep promises. In contrast, people do not trust in any government that breaks promises or turns a blind eye to its top corrupt officials. From my perspective, such thing counts upon the existence of democracy and good governance, and this is normal since governments that come against the will of people cannot gain their confidence.
Q: In the era of fake news: will we ever be able to trust each other again?
A: This is possible, but there must be factors of frankness, honesty and a genuine desire to cooperate, which requires a series of steps taken to confirm a fundamental change in our thinking towards each other. We can take simple steps to restore our confidence in each other, and certainly, we will succeed if we have the will to succeed.
Q: What is your view on this low-tech terrorism that seems to be an effort to spread fear? How should people react to it?
A: Terrorism is an unforgivable criminal act, as it targets innocent people, raises fear and panic among people without any convincing reason and is the product of abhorrent hatred.
As a result of confronting terrorism, people lose their loved ones. Nevertheless, terrorism must be confronted with all force. They must not abandon their values as they fight the terrorists. They must love life more and seek to root out the sources of terrorism through law, development and culture.
We all must unite against terrorism because it targets different nationalities and religions, and any attempt to link terrorism to a specific religion is nothing but a grave and false mistake.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I have done what I have to do. I have sought to make my country be like developed countries where there are elected governments, development, education, progress, health and law enforcement. In 2011, people took to streets demanding the same I was asking for. People have believed in change, despite the ferocity of the counter-revolution and the war. What is important is that people's hopes for change have not faded away. What I would like to be remembered as a fierce fighter against tyranny, as nothing is more miserable than tyranny of all kinds.
2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Tawakkol Karman is the Yemeni women’s rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in leading a pro-democracy protest movement. She shared the prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, who were also recognised for leading nonviolent campaigns for women’s rights and democratic freedoms.
Karman was born into a politically active family in Taiz. When she was young, her family moved to Sanaa, where her father, Abd al-Salam Karman, a lawyer, served as minister of legal affairs before resigning in 1994 over the government’s war against secessionists in southern Yemen. She graduated from the University of Science and Technology in Sanaa with a degree in commerce in 1999 and later earned a master’s degree in political science.
After completing her education, Karman began a career in journalism, writing articles, producing documentary films, and disseminating news alerts via text messages. When she encountered restrictions and threats from the Yemeni government, Karman and several of her colleagues founded Women Journalists “Without Chains” in 2005 to advocate for women’s rights, civil rights, and freedom of expression. In 2007 Karman began staging weekly sit-ins in Sanaa to demand a variety of democratic reforms. She continued the practice for several years and was arrested multiple times for her activism. Although Karman was a senior member of the Iṣlaḥ (Reform) party, Yemen’s main Islamist opposition party, she occasionally clashed with the party’s religious conservatives. In 2010, for example, she criticised members of her own party for opposing legislation to raise the legal marriage age for women to 17.
On January 23, 2011, as a protest movement known as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and North Africa, shaking some of the region’s longest-standing governments, Karman was arrested after leading a small protest in Sanaa against the government of Ali Abd Allah Ṣaliḥ, the president of Yemen. Her arrest sparked larger protests, which soon developed into mass demonstrations against the Ṣaliḥ regime. Karman released the following day, soon became a leader of the movement, helping to set up the protest encampment on the grounds of Sanaa University, where thousands of protesters staged a sit-in that lasted for months. For her role in leading protests, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011. At age 32, Karman was one of the youngest-ever recipients of the prize.