Women in the 2011 Revolutions: Tawakul Karman

This post was written by guest contributor Summar Shammakhi.

For a long time, negative impressions have dominated world’s opinion of women in the Middle East and North Africa region. Media depictions of women as second-class citizens often deemphasises the root causes of the problem, which include the repressive, dictatorship-led countries of this region who sought to exploit many aspects of society, including religion. This past year has witnessed a dramatic turn of events due to the uprisings. One woman who drew particular attention for transcending cultural boundaries and becoming a symbol of hope for women across the region is Tawakul Karman.

Tawakul Karman protests in Sana'a. Image via The National.

Tawakul Karman, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is an example of how Muslim women can achieve a position of leadership and equality with men. Coming from one of the most conservative Arab countries, Yemen, makes her achievements and activism before and during the 2011 revolution even more extraordinary. The Western media’s role in engaging the audience about Tawakul Karman has largely been positive, referring to her, for example, as “a standard-bearer for the Arab Spring and for the role of women across the Middle East.”

Some of the media coverage picked up on the fact that she is a member of Islah, an Islamist party. Although she is a member, she does not always agree with the views of her party, especially with the subject of “under aged forced weddings.” She clashed with the party when they “opposed a proposed law to set a minimum matrimonial age in Yemen (where a quarter of girls under the age of 15 are married).” Karman’s activism for women’s rights as well as her campaigning against corruption and Salah’s regime is relentless. In her speech in the British parliament, she even criticized Western democratic countries for backing Saudi Arabia, making her more prominent as representative of freedom and hope for change. The New York Times stated that:

“Ms. Karman has repeatedly clashed with the leaders of Islah. But instead of leaving the party, as many others have, she has tried to reshape it in a more open and tolerant direction.”

One of the main problems facing Muslim women in the Middle East and North Africa region is the oppression of women due to the many decades of undemocratic rulers and the manipulation of religion. Women have long been second class citizens due to their exclusion from policy making decisions and senior roles in governance. President Salah, for example, has used religion as a tool to deter and crush the progression of the revolution, noted for “condemning the women’s involvement (in the protests) as a violation of Sharia law,” to in which women responded by increasing their number in protests against Salah’s dictatorship.

Tawakul Karman and many other women have taken the initiative in a deeply conservative country. This shift has been called a “cultural revolution” by activist Farea al-Muslimi, who also pointed out that the spokesperson of the opposition group, Hooria Mashoor, is a woman. Regarding Karman’s courage, political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani stated that “In one march, thugs twice tried to stab her and she kept walking.” Tawakul Karman most notably defied cultural imposition by removing the face veil, arguing that the veil “is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain.”

Tawakul Karman’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize achieved international media attention and challenged ideas of women and Islam. Yet the reality on the ground is far from perfect; for example, there was little media attention paid to the emerging humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On a Channel 4 News interview, Tawakul Karman acknowledges there are many steps to be taken toward achieving a modern democratic country, and that removing the dictator is only the first step in a revolution.

There are many role models for women in Islam, one of whom is the dignified Khadijah bint Khuwayled, the first Muslim woman who owned a business and who took the initiative in proposing to the Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) for marriage. Tawakul Karman has been in the media spotlight noted for challenging cultural expectations on a political scene and appears to have adopted many of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid’s characteristics in independence, leadership and initiative. Tawakul Karman has emerged in our modern times as a symbol of hope, an inspiration, as if to reclaim women’s rights in Islam. In the Yemen Times, Karman is quoted:

“Women should stop being or feeling that they are part of the problem and become part of the solution. We have been marginalized for a long time, and now is the time for women to stand up and become active without needing to ask for permission or acceptance.”