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Yemen: Via voice, action & written word, women shape their nation’s future PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/TimeMagazine_logo.gif Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011
The Woman at the Head of Yemen's Protest Movement
By Aryn Baker / Cairo with Erik Stier / Sana'a

images/stories/YemenTawakulKarman.jpg Yemen's Tawakul Karman, the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, shouts slogans during an antigovernment protest in Sana'a, Feb. 10, 2011 (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters)

Sometimes revolutionaries don't look the part. Tawakul Karman, Yemen's most active activist, favors long, loose-fitting gowns and coordinating headscarves. The 32-year-old mother of three looks, well, like a mom. And she acts like one too. Between weekly protests in front of Sana'a University, the chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization that defends human rights and freedom of expression, including the freedom to protest, can often be found trying to get other protesters out of jail. It's a place she is familiar with as well, having been there several times herself. And she is fiercely protective of Yemen's youth, decrying (often at the top of her lungs) a leadership that she says has robbed her generation of not only their future, but also their honor and their dignity.

"We are suffering from a ruler who tries to control the country with constitutional amendments that will change Yemen into a monarchy," she tells TIME. Yemen, like Tunisia and Egypt, she adds, needs an end to a dictatorship in the guise of a presidency. Indeed, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power since 1978 ­ one year longer than Mubarak. "The combination of a dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment has created this revolution," she says. "It's like a volcano. Injustice and corruption are exploding while opportunities for a good life are coming to an end." (See why Yemen's revolution has failed so far.)

More than 5 million Yemenis live in poverty, and nearly half are illiterate. Oil is scarce, and water reserves are declining (it's an often repeated statistic that Yemen will be the first country in the world to run out of water, sometime around 2025 at current rates of consumption). Yet the government seems unable, or unwilling, to address the fundamental problems of the people, says Karman.

She says she has protested hundreds of times, both in the country's north and the south. But it was the refusal of the government to intervene in the case of the Ja'ashin, a group of 30 families that were expelled from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to the President, that launched her on the revolutionary path. "I couldn't see any sort of human rights or corruption report that could shake this regime. They never responded to one of our demands. It made it clear to me that this regime must fall." Tunisia has Mohammed Bouazizi, the man who set himself on fire, and Egypt has Khaled Said, the victim of police brutality. For Yemen, says Karman, it is the Ja'ashin. "Their slogan was 'Ali Abdullah Saleh made me hungry.' They've become icons."

On Tuesday, the fifth straight day of protests, government supporters armed with sticks and knives attacked pro-democracy demonstrators calling for Saleh's ouster. Karman, however, does not believe in matching force with force. On her office wall hang portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. "We refuse violence and know that violence has already caused our country countless problems," she says. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has its base in Yemen, as does Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist preacher who is suspected of inspiring a whole host of would-be jihadis, including underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The U.S. considers Yemen to be a key counterterrorism ally, and has pledged some $300 million to the government for pursuing al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

The international community is supporting the wrong people if it wants to reduce the threat of extremism, Karman argues. "The peaceful policy of the youth is the only way out against terrorism. There is no other solution." If she succeeds with her revolution, she says, the world will be safer: "We refuse the movements of the extremist elements ­ even if they have good and just demands. We refuse groups like al-Qaeda because they have no real goals except for blood." (See how democracy can work in the Middle East.)

Karman has been protesting every Tuesday since 2007, but she says watching the dictators in Tunisia, then Egypt, fall has given her, and the protest movement, a renewed energy. "The goal is to change the regime by the slogan we learned from the Tunisian revolution, 'The people want the regime to fall.' We are using the same methods and the same words from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They taught us how to become organized." (Saleh has promised not to seek a new term as President in 2013. But the protesters want him to leave now. The Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, too, had promised not to try to extend their terms in office ­ but even that limit did not appease the crowds who went out into the streets in Tunis and Cairo.)

They also taught the Yemenis the power of social media. Facebook and Twitter posts have called thousands more to the streets, as has a more old-fashioned medium: xeroxed flyers rolled out at Sana'a University. Positive coverage from satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al-Hurra have helped, both by encouraging Yemenis to protest and exposing them to the support of the outside world.

Yemen is no different from any other country, says Karman. "The future is unknown." But what is known is that Yemen is part of a community of nations that is finally starting to shake off a plague of dictators. "The spark started in Tunisia," says Karman. "What stabilized this revolution was Egypt. It gave light and hope and strength to people everywhere. Now there's a race between Yemen and Algeria to see who will be next. And if we succeed here, and I believe we will, revolutionary movements in every Arab country will grow stronger." And more revolutionaries will start looking like Karman.
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24 March 11 2011
Yemeni Women Find Their Voice
Protests have given female activists a rare opportunity to express their views.

By Afrah Nasser - The Arab Spring No. 7,

images/stories/AfrahNasser.jpg Afrah Nasser. (Ameen Alghabri/Gabreez Studio)

Traditionally in Yemen, women are – literally – not allowed to raise their voices. In peaceful circumstances, even calling out in the street to attract someone’s attention is considered unacceptable behaviour. But now, in the protests, it is very much welcomed and there is an amazing response when we raise our voices.

Everybody acknowledges that yes, we do have a voice, and the role of women in this uprising is increasing day by day as we enter a new time of freedom for everyone.

Women’s participation in this revolution started on a very small scale. There were only about ten women in Sana’a’s Change Square when the pro-democracy protests started. But with each day, it has been noticeable how the numbers of women grew as female protesters brought their sisters, cousins, friends. The number multiplied incredibly. Women are treated with grace and respect in the square. When I go there, I am treated like a VIP. Usually in Yemen, women get harassed all the time, but in Change Square nobody touches me. It is the safest place in Sana’a for women.

And life is indeed challenging for Yemeni women, every day. We constantly fight to claim our rights at home, in the street, at work. In any kind of field, a woman has to increase her efforts hugely to succeed. For instance, a 19-year-old cousin of mine won a scholarship to study in Germany and her brother refused to let her go. After a big fight, she had no choice but to give in.

If a man makes one per cent effort, a woman needs to make 200 per cent effort to get the same result. I work as a journalist and I am the only woman in the newsroom. Even there my colleagues find it hard to accept that I do go to places dominated by men to report.

There is some political participation by women but it is very timid - women still live in a prison of their own fear. We are not very politically aware. It is a process and we are still at the very beginning. There are a few women politicians and about 18 months ago President Ali Abdullah Saleh instituted a 15 per cent quota of seats for women – but there aren’t enough women politicians to fill it.

But despite this women have been participating in the protests to an unbelievable extent. The female protesters come from all sectors of Yemeni society - women who do not have their faces covered, like me, and others are much more conservative. They are coming to an awareness that they have to be a huge part of building this country. We gain in confidence and women begin to think that they have to have a voice, a place in this new society - something that has never happened before.

Talking to other friends of mine, we feel we are revolting against our parents too. It’s a double revolution, inside our homes as well as in Change Square. Each one of us faces resistance from our parents, who demand to know why we think change is so important. Many of our parents are devoted to the president and the old regime, and they are opposed to us taking part in the demonstrations. So we face oppression both at home and in the public sphere.

The extremism and violence Saleh predicts will sweep Yemen without him is just propaganda. None of that will happen and I don’t see the danger of a civil war. I would like to see a peaceful transfer of power and the beginning of a new, democratic process, to have the same result here as in Egypt and Tunisia.

I am not worried that there will be violence like there is now in Libya – our president is not as crazy as Muammar Gaddafi. There is no way things will deteriorate here to that extent. The violence last week in which more than 50 people were killed won’t be repeated, I don’t think.

I am worried about what the future holds – not because of the fear of violence, but because of the uncertainty. But when I go to Change Square I see the harmony and tolerance between the different protesters, a sign that a peaceful change is possible.

Afrah Nasser is a 25-year-old Yemeni journalist and blogger from Sana’a.

As told to Daniella Peled, an IWPR editor.