by Wojoud Mejalli
I met with the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman in Oslo during the Nobel Peace Ceremony on December 10, 2011. After the ceremony, a few minutes were stolen away from other concerns to have a cup of coffee and learn the latest, both personally and politically, from my old Yemeni friend. She shared with me her perspective on recent political changes in our country, the rising youth movement in Yemen, and the relations between the East and West, especially after the Arab Spring.
Tawakkol Karman is sweet, easy to approach and talk to about everything. She has this halo around herself that makes you believe that women can lead countries with their genuine passion for change and belief in freedom. A symbol of the Arab Spring, she will continue to fight until the Yemeni honorary President Saleh is charged with crimes against humanity.
Karman is a member of the Central committee of the group for Reform of the Joint Parties, which represents the opposition in Yemen. It also represents the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are many parties in Yemen, but the most organized and efficient ones in Change Square today are religion oriented like the Al-Islah Party and the newly created Al-Oma Party in the North. The party in control now is the ruling party Al-Moutamr, which belongs to President Saleh.
According to many international and local human rights organizations, women in Yemen face systemic discrimination and endemic violence with devastating consequences. Our rights are routinely violated because Yemeni laws as well as tribal practices treat women as second-class citizens. I asked Karman what she thinks about the future of women in Yemen given that the leading party and the one that she represents are Islamists.
“I’m proud of the Islah Party in Yemen,” Karman tells me. “All parties, whether they are Nasserites, Socialists, or Islamists must merge and find common ground and that is what is going on now. They should all participate in politics.”
She went on to tell me “women can find a place and fight for their rights as is happening now as we speak. Young people including women are still in Change Square all around Yemen. They all basically demand justice. If they come from the Socialist or the Islamist party, it doesn’t matter because they all agree on basic rights like respect, which must be accepted by everyone.”
Karman understands Western anxiety towards the Islamist movements in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Region, but argues, “In these times, the West should also understand us and say that ‘we understand you.’”
“I think that there is nothing to worry about in Yemen. All religions and different beliefs can live peacefully with one another, as long as they respect, have space for each other, and spread equality,” she tells me.
In reference to the two Nobel laureates she shared the prize with, she adds “The time of victimizing women in the world is now over - look at the three amazing leaders given the Prize today, this is the future!”
President Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative on the 23 of November 2011. The deal involved the transfer of his powers to Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in return for immunity from prosecution. A national unity government has been created, one evenly divided between the opposition and Saleh's ruling party. But it did not speak directly of the role of youth and women. It was as if this revolution was for the sake of the opposition, who gave in the moment they got a chance to be in power.
The GCC initiative and its mechanism only addressed formal political parties, and disregarded those who were the fuel for the people’s revolution: the youth. Also, it overlooked powerful political groups such as the Houthis and the southern secessionists. Since these important groups were not part of the discussion, they do not feel ownership of it, and therefore feel that it is not binding for them.
These groups will most likely be excluded from the unity government that divides seats between the JMP (Joint Meeting Party) and the ruling party. In addition, since the JMP is made up of different political parties, it is unclear the extent to which parties - other than the dominant Islamist Islah party - will be represented.
Women were mentioned very briefly in the implementing mechanism, despite the fact that they were part of the revolution from the beginning. The mechanism states that women should have “appropriate representation” in the new government. The vagueness of the term “appropriate” will create widespread debate, and of course the interpretation will differ from group to group. Women’s groups and organizations need to push for real representation at the decision making level and to be part of all the important committees, including the parliament.
I asked Karman what she thinks about the new governmental reconciliation division. Is it possible that this is a divided Yemen, but in political terms?
“There is nothing to worry about; change has to start at some point, and it has begun now. Yemeni people will get their rights and power back, along with money, which will eventually come along to the hands of citizens. Saleh should be put on trial and that is my first priority now” she tells me. “In order for the country to go forward, we have to punish the dictator and those involved with him.”
In regards to the role of the youth at the moment, the ones who started the revolution, Karman tells me a new forum of a Yemeni youth political movement will be working soon because the country is in need of young people driving change by their own hands, just like what happened with the revolution. “Young people are the ones driving the Yemeni revolution, and they have managed to keep it peaceful so far and not like what happened in Libya or what is happening in Syria now. We have a lot of ‘on hold’ tribal revenge issues in the country, and still people want Saleh to go on trial and seek justice.”
After the deaths and injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters and civilians, the immunity clause given to Saleh and his close allies who are around 500 members, feels like ‘a slap in the face’ say many young Yemeni activists. The immunity clause violates the youth’s demand to legally pursue and prosecute corrupt officials that caused, assisted, and incited the killing and injuries of peaceful protesters. From a diplomatic standpoint, the immunity clause was a necessary compromise in order for Saleh to agree to sign.
Yemen’s interim government and the parliament have agreed to grant President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and anyone who has worked under him, amnesty against prosecution.
Yet, as Karman tells me over coffee, “Saleh should be put on trial for the sake of Yemen!”
About the Author:
Dr. Wojoud Mejalli is a Yemeni dentist, activist, and a freelance journalist. She is one of the founders of Female Reporters without Borders and was the first female vice president of the Yemeni Youth Council.