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 recognized 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 criticized 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 prize.