Activism and Arab Spring: Tawakkol Karman at The Cambridge Union

Belinda Ng 24 February 2020
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

For someone known widely in Yemen as “the Iron Woman”, Tawakkol Karman seems anything but as she addresses the Union with a wide smile and almost motherly demeanour. The Yemeni journalist, politician, human rights activist, and mother of two was the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to receive the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts leading the 2011 Yemeni uprising as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.

From a young age, Karman was raised in a household where she was taught the important values of gender equality, mutual respect, and refusal to tolerate any kind of injustice. This was pivotal in shaping up Karman’s experiences with activism, which began whilst she was still a university student. “Back then, Yemen was still strong and rich, but I was motivated by the fact that Yemen was still suffering under tyranny, and so I asked, what can I do for my country?” Since then, she has co-founded the human rights group Women Journalists Without Chains, and been involved in Yemeni politics and nation-wide protests.

Back then, Yemen was still strong and rich, but I was motivated by the fact that Yemen was still suffering under tyranny, and so I asked, what can I do for my country?

Looking back at her work over the years, Karman shares some of the reasons why her battle for human rights, press freedom, and democracy (all intertwined issues in her view) have been so challenging. Whilst acknowledging the nation-wide problem that there is no press freedom because journalists are often arrested, Karman adds that, “Women have twice the challenge, because the bad traditions and customs mean that women’s involvement in public life is not preferred. This is the tool used by dictators to stop [women] telling the truth”.

Karman’s stance on gender equality is evident as she says, “when we challenged the authorities, we reclaimed these rights [to democracy] first as women, and then as citizens”.

Karman’s recognition of how intertwined women’s rights are with democracy played a crucial role in her own self-empowerment as an activist. “Being a woman in a conservative country like Yemen is my power, not my weakness”, she says.  Karman is no stranger to death threats, but she views them as important for “making me stronger and more certain that I want to be a leader to help instil democracy in my country.” She shares a life-threatening encounter of hers that made her learn this lesson by recalling how, one night, she was returning home from a university demonstration that she had organized when a man ran towards her with a large knife threatening to kill her. Karman knelt, exposed her neck, and said “kill me” as tears streamed down the man’s face. “He couldn’t kill me,” Karman says, “because leadership is when people know that you are acting with them and for them.”

She shares a life-threatening encounter of hers that made her learn this lesson by recalling how, one night, she was returning home from a university demonstration that she had organized when a man ran towards her with a large knife threatening to kill her. Karman knelt, exposed her neck, and said “kill me” as tears streamed down the man’s face. “He couldn’t kill me,” Karman says, “because leadership is when people know that you are acting with them and for them.”

Nine years on from the Arab Spring, Karman recalls all its successes in empowering people to stand up against dictatorships in the fight for democracy. “We initially never expected dictators to give up that easily, but since the movement, we now also have a second wave of protests for democracy in countries like Sudan, Algeria, etc. — all around the world people want to choose their government!” she exclaims.

Yet, she remains very aware of the massive national and international challenges still facing the Arab world in this continued fight for democracy, with specific reference to its relationship to the War on Terror. On the failure of the War on Terror, she says, “today, we are still looking for ways to end terrorism”. Karmen argues that dictators have exploited the War on Terror “for political gains”, by forcing citizens to choose between the “tyranny” of their rule or the terrorists. “Terrorism and dictatorships are two sides of the same coin,” she says.  All the while, Karmen laments the fact that the members of the international community have aligned themselves with the dictators in a betrayal of their liberal Western values, or have stayed firmly silent despite the tragedies going on in her home country of Yemen after five years of bloodshed.

Karmen argues that dictators have exploited the War on Terror “for political gains”, by forcing citizens to choose between the “tyranny” of their rule or the terrorists.

The complacency of Western countries and even the UN Security Council “is a big mistake,” Karman says, as she believes that supporting dictatorships only exacerbate the refugee crisis. On the question of how far Western governments should go in encroaching in the affairs of the Middle East, Karman says, “the West should protect their values of democracy and human rights without ulterior agenda- something that we don’t see happening right now with Western involvement in the Middle East”.

But it is not just Western actors that complicate the sustained situation in the Middle East. “This is a counter-revolution phase we are in now,” she warns, “with numerous threats against what the Arab Spring movement has managed to achieve. In particular, she is particularly critical of the involvement of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni conflict. “[These countries] present to care about Yemen’s interests when in reality they have the alternative interest of collapsing Yemen.”

Despite the challenges, Karman remains firmly optimistic for the future because of her unwavering belief in young people.  “the energy of young people is something the world desperately needs,” she says. Referring to the key role of university youth within the Arab Spring, Karman says, “My struggle started with students and it will end with students”.  With that in mind, Karman leaves us with empowering words of advice. “Students need to believe in their role in creating a climate of change. If you’re afraid of change, who will do it?” She strongly encourages students to “believe in yourself that you can do it – take the first step!”