Tawakkol Karman’s Early Biography
Tawakkol Karman was born on the 7th of February 1979 in the town of Mekhlaf in Yemen. However, her family history would later be found to have originated from Anatolia in Turkey, leading to her recently receiving citizenship in Turkey. The daughter of Abdel Salam Karman, who works as a Yemenis lawyer and a politician (Minister for legal and parliamentary affairs until 1994), Tawakkol has two brothers: Tariq, who is a poet and Safa, who works at the media company Al-Jazeera. Tawakkol is married to Mohammed Al-Nahmi and together they have three children—two girls and a boy.
Growing up in Yemen is a challenge to say the least, with a population of more than five million living in poverty and half of them illiterate. Oil was scarce and water was running out. In Yemen, it is estimated that water will completely run out by 2025 based on current rates of consumption. Yemen’s political history is also a volatile mix of dictatorship and fundamentalist regimes that led to civil wars between the North & South Yemen in 1990 and then its reunification in 1994 only after the North conquered the South.
If these challenges were not enough, growing up in Yemen, Tawakkol found herself faced with both a corrupt and a highly patriarchal society that frequently oppressed women. After her family moved to Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, she enrolled and studied at Sana’a University of Science and Technology and completed a commerce degree. After graduating with Bachelors of Commerce, she continued her studies at the university, graduating with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and a certificate in General Education.
Defying the Government
With what Tawakkol had learnt at university and the oppressive experiences of women living in Yemen, she asked herself, “What is the best solution to solve the problems we face, with the outcome being peace?” At the beginning, Tawakkol would organize protests against the corrupt Yemeni's local government officials.
In 2004, on a mission to address the rise of religious fundamentalism and violence against women in Yemen, Tawakkol defiantly removed her niqab (head dress) at a human rights conference, whilst also calling on other Muslim women to follow her action. The action caused a sensation and fury from the patriarchal religious fundamental political party who denounced her as a troublemaker.
From Female Reporters Without Borders Organization to Women’s Journalists Without Chains
In 2005, Tawakkol founded her Female Reporters Without Borders organization, however, in order to get the government approval, the group’s name had to be changed to Women’s Journalists Without Chains. The organization was founded as a human rights advocacy group directed at fighting injustice in Yemen.
Drawing on her political science degree and her journalistic drive, the Women’s Journalists Without Chains would focus its efforts on campaigning for free press, civil society, exposing unfair sentences, attacks against women and reporters (over 50 published to date).
The success of her organization would be founded in her ability to respond to these human rights abuses and the political instabilities of the government by engaging an army of other reporters that banded together to fight the cause of women and uphold their human rights.
Tawakkol Exposes Corruption and Upholds Free Press
In 2006, Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization launched a new way to keep its followers up to date by creating a text messaging service that would update thousands of its followers with news about their human rights activities. These activities eventually reached the Yemeni’s Ministry of Information, and so to repress the organizations growth—within the same year—the text messaging service was shut down by the Yemeni government.
The Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization then began publishing yearly reports, advocating freedom of the press, as well as establishing a daily news website to educate aspiring journalists, women, and the Yemen’s youth. They also offered them information seminars.
Although initially focusing on freedom of speech in the media, the Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization soon expanded its scope to also include exposing corruption and taking on projects promoting good governance, democratic reform, and civil rights. Tawakkol also started a list of the most “anti-free press” people in Yemen, which she posted and updated regularly on her website.
In an effort to find a peaceful solution, whilst also keeping pressure on the government to reform, Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization began peaceful demonstrations on a weekly basis in 2007. Until 2011, these peaceful protests—demonstrations and sit-in’s—continued every Tuesday despite the resistance of the Yemeni Government. The focus of these protests was to expose government repression and to call for enquiries into corruption and other forms of legal and social injustices.
Tawakkol Survives an Attack
Later, Yemen’s Ministry of Information resisted the expansion of Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization by denying them a license for a radio station and their own newspaper. Tawakkol, for her outspoken views, was imprisoned on several occasions and received several death threats from the Saleh regime. Someone tried to kill her with a jambiya, a traditional Arabic dagger. She survived the attack with a stab wound.
Between 2009 and 2010, Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization held and led over 80 peaceful protests. Tawakkol herself publicly denounced the Yemen Government and the Ministry of Information in 2009 for establishing trials specifically targeting journalists.
American Embassy Nomination
In 2010, Tawakkol was nominated by the American Embassy for the “International Woman of Courage Award” for the success and efforts of her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization. Although she didn’t personally receive the award, her cause became known in the international press and public across the globe.
In 2010 to 2011, several dictatorship regimes throughout the Arab World were overturned and liberated from undemocratic regimes. Labeled as the “Arab Spring” countries, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia would be in the world news daily.
Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization were also confident that Yemen would also soon follow suit and she and her organization pushed on at the forefront of liberation peace demonstrations. Hearing that the Tunisian dictator fled after the revolution in Tunisia, Tawakkol and her Women’s Journalists Without Chains organization saw an opportunity to hold a protest in the public square of Sana’a University, the protest drew hundreds of fellow journalists, women and youth, however, the Yemeni government and police soon tracked them down, arresting Tawakkol. Unbeknown to her and her family, three plain clothed officers were closely monitoring them and she was arrested while driving with her husband and child. They detained her for 36 hours in chains before releasing her on parole. She was arrested on the grounds of organizing an unlicensed and registered protest and alleged she was causing anarchy.
Known as the Iron Woman and Mother of the Revolution
The result of Tawakkol’s arrest led to several demonstrations involving thousands of supporters across the country, demonstrating against her arrest, and becoming known to the Yemenis as “the Iron Woman” and the “Mother of the Revolution.”
On the 18th of June 2011, Tawakkol wrote an article that was published in the New York Times entitled “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution.” There, she accused the US and Saudi Arabian governments of supporting the corrupt Saleh regimes and also said that they are using their influence to ensure that the old members of the regime remain in power and the status quo is maintained. She also argued that the US Government’s actions and interventions in Yemen were still based on their motto of war on terrorism and therefore, they were not responding to the real needs of Yemen, which were human rights and the need for a democratic state.
Tawakkol’s Quotes on Women and Human Rights
While continuing with her protests, Tawakkol still maintained her ties to the organization Muslim Brotherhood, as well as holding a position on the Shura Council of Al-Islah—Yemen’s main political opposition party—for which she would receive some controversial opinions. Conservative members in her party would allege that Tawakkol was un-Islamic base on Tawakkol’s desire to give more freedom to women. Tawakkol challenged these conservatives to confront women and their roles in the wider Yemeni society as well as forming part of a more moderate section of the party, identified by the bold and public display of wearing a colorful headscarf and exposing her face rather than covering it with niqab that is worn by most women in Yemen still today. She said:
“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. This is the only way we will give back to our society and allow for Yemen to reach the great potentials it has.”
Tawakkol has since taken an independent stance from the party line and foreign powers saying:
"I do not represent the Al-Islah party, and I am not tied to its positions. My position is determined by my beliefs, and I do not ask anyone's permission.
I do have close strategic ties with American organizations involved in protecting human rights, with American ambassadors and with officials in the U.S. State Department. (I also have ties with activists in) most of the E.U. and Arab countries. But they are ties among equals; (I am not) their subordinate."
Today, Tawakkol continues to be an advocate for reform of societal issues such as young women’s malnutrition so that the boys could be fed. She also aims to address the issue of 2/3 of Yemen’s women being illiterate and is working on preventing girls younger than 17 from being married.
Tawakkol’s weekly Tuesday peace protests continued until 2011, and then she instructed her fellow protesters to support the Arab Spring movement so as to pressure the Yemen’s government. Tawakkol even brought Yemen’s movement to New York, where she spoke directly with UN Secretary–General Ban Ki-Moon and organized rallies at the UN headquarters in New York.
Winning the Nobel with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee
In October 2011, Tawakkol was acknowledged for her courage and efforts and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the second Arabic person to ever receive such an award and also the youngest. Receiving this prestigious award, she said:
“This prize is not for Tawakkol, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice.”
Tawakkol received the award along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, both well-known women activists.
After receiving her award, Tawakkol travelled to Qatar to meet Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani in requesting the help of the Doha center for Media Freedom to establish a television and radio station so as to support female journalist. Tawakkol has also been honored as the most prominent person for Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers.
Tawakkol continues her fight for freedom of speech, women, and human rights in Yemen today and has no plans of stopping until, at the very least, Yemen is a free country. Her efforts have now seen the beginning of the process of Yemen’s current dictator to step down in 2013. However, in January of 2012, the Yemeni government approved an amnesty law shielding him from any prosecution. Tawakkol believes that Saleh will fail to fulfill his promise. Whether or not Saleh vacates his position of power, Tawakkol will keep on fighting for their rights and freedom.
Ever the woman of the people, Tawakkol has pledged to donate the Nobel Prize money she received with her award to the post–Saleh government.
Tawakkol Karman Honored by Front Line
An Irish charity known as Front Line acknowledged Tawakkol's contribution and included her in their list of Front Line Defenders. Her work in the realm of human rights protection has been recognized not only by Front Line but other global organizations as well.
Awards & Achievements
- 2005: Founded Women Journalists Without Chains
- 2008-09: Over eight successful non-violent peace protests held
- 2010: Nominated for the U.S. State Department's “International Woman of Courage” award by the American Embassy in Sana'a, Yemen.
- 2011: Nobel Peace Prize Award for her nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work of Yemen.