Interview with Tawakkol Karman

conducted by Nadia Bamoshmoosh

JANUARY 7, 2021

Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Laureate from Yemen who is renowned for her journalism, her involvement in politics, and most importantly, her human rights activism. Also known as the “Iron Woman”, Karman leads not only Women Journalists without Chains (WJWC), but she has led several protests for press freedom and for an end to the suppressive regime of President Saleh in the Arab spring. It is thus with pride and gratitude that we at TAKE ACTION were able to chat to Karman about her work and her message to young people.

 

You became famous when you founded WJWC in 2005, an association which aims to represent female reporters seeking freedom of speech and recognition in Yemen. What inspired you to create such an association and why is it such an important platform in your country? Moreover, how did you face the challenges that came from such a dangerous activity in a country where freedom of speech remains limited?

I decided that I had to make a positive impact on my society. I didn’t understand why we had to waive our freedom of speech in our situation even if our ruling government wanted so. This lack of freedom is why I decided to enrol in a local action through an organization in which I could determine the purposes by myself, and in which I could confront the oppressive policies that the institution of the country uses, through the awareness of the importance of political participation, democracy, equality and by combating oppression.

I prioritized with great importance the protection of human rights, starting from women’s rights because they face great difficulties. I think that women should be an active part of the political, social, economic and cultural life, which can happen with the achievement of peace through active participation in the negotiation processes that aim to end the war. I want to highlight that the defence of women’s rights doesn’t mean that this topic should be treated as a gender matter, this is why my philosophy is that everyone should be granted freedom and rights, women and men because only then we can guarantee a society that respects liberty and rights indeed!

When I decided to found an organization that cares for human rights and freedom of speech, I knew that I would have to face many difficulties. In Yemen, the system was allowing only organizations that weren’t independent. Moreover, there was violence towards those who wanted to spread accurate information for equality, liberty, and the abolition of oppression in their country. Like many other people, I was exposed to persecutions, disturbance at work, but I was determined not to surrender or back down. I was telling myself: “I am not doing a job that I should be ashamed of. The vindication of human rights and freedom, the advocacy for the oppressed ones and the fight against misgovernment made me strong”.

I say: “Glory to women for struggling for change, dignity, freedom, justice and equality in all parts and everywhere of the world! Victory for men and women gathering in areas and squares of dignity, freedom and revolution!”.

 

You are the first Arab woman to win a Peace Nobel Prize for your non-violent struggle for the safety of women, as well as for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building. What does this mean to you, and more importantly, what do you believe the next steps should be?

My Nobel prize award for peace means recognising the peaceful Yemeni revolution and the struggle of young people during the Arab Spring to obtain liberty and democracy. The peaceful path I chose to take during the Arab Spring before took place before the oppressive systems. The counter-revolution leaders intervened and contributed to transforming the situation into big chaos and wars that then succeeded. Nonviolence is the most effective way to fight dictatorship.

When I won the Nobel Prize with two other Liberian women, my dream was to build a democratic state that respects all of its people, and in which nonviolence is the only way that works. After the February 2011 revolution, everyone realised the importance of women's participation in public work. This presented a civilised image of Yemen, which is incorrectly described as the country of extremists. This stereotype is unfair against a population considered one of the most ancient in the region, the Yemeni people.

I know that fighting injustice requires a lot of sacrifice and courage. Still, for me, nonviolence is what I necessarily embrace in all my actions, and I am not willing to compromise this principle as long as I am alive. My permanent slogan is, "I am a global citizen, the earth is my home, humanity is my nation. I believe that we should all reflect on what happened during the past years, but without our conviction of the importance of peaceful struggle being transformed, whatever the sacrifices." 

 

Coming from one of the youngest countries in the world, what role do you believe young people to have in Arab societies where they often find themselves torn between tradition and innovation?

Young people can reshape the world, and I am fully convinced of that. For example, let’s see what happened during the Arab Spring, not only in Yemen: student-led movements organized many protests against the dictators who showed that their role didn’t end only in class. They still have their whole life to experience, which is filled with dreams and the desire for freedom and fundamental rights that should be granted to everyone (education, health); at the same time, they don’t carry the mistakes of the older generations. In Arab societies there is still a great dichotomy between tradition and innovation, with the past generations standing for the former and the newest generation for the latter: it’s a significant obstacle, that limits both sides. But I think that young people, especially in countries like Yemen where there is no freedom, know their roles and are willing to make changes. Young people bring faith - Young people are taking essential initiatives in this regard, including organizing demonstrations to preserve the environment, clean streets, open roads between villages, and help the needy. All they need is a real peace environment and a sound political system. In my opinion, there is always time for hope.

 

It has almost been a decade since the Arab spring began, yet the MENA (Middle East and North African) region seems to be in an increasingly worse position. Do you think the revolutions ultimately failed, or is there still hope? If so, how do you think these countries could improve?

When we started our peaceful revolution, we did not expect it to succeed in a few months without complications. We also have to consider that we are fighting guns and Gulf money that is against revolutions and manifestations, with non-violence, which is very difficult. After 2011, there were many counter-revolutions. However, these wars are not the last step. In 2019 there was another Arab Spring wave in Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, and Lebanon, and these popular movements showed how you could not extinguish the flame of hope or the desire for a better life. Despite terror and injustice, people did not stop repeating the same demands in the first demonstrations. Since 2011, an irreversible transformation has occurred in the Middle East.

Yemen is now facing a "total war", and we can only think about the future after peace is restored. However, we must achieve justice and freedom through democracy. I hope that the Houthi militia's coup in my country will end along with the occupation and the Saudi and Emirati tutelage. Then we can hold a referendum on the draft constitution that was approved during the national dialogue (2012-2015), and only after that, elections can be held peacefully. I hope the Yemenis realize that it is necessary to establish a political life based on all the principles I discussed until now: equality, citizenship, ensuring the rule of law, strengthening civil society's role, and criminalizing the resort to violence.

 

In more recent events, you have been nominated to the oversight board of Facebook, designed to moderate content and prevent the propagation of hate speech and extremism on the platform. What are your next goals and how do you aim to achieve those?

I want to contribute to respecting human rights standards and ensuring freedom of expression. Together with my colleagues on the council, I try to advocate for empowering people's voices worldwide. We will act as a critical lens, and our decisions will be binding. We have an approach to protect people's right to express themselves without racism or broadcasting hate material. Facebook Oversight Board could be a great experience to oversee the content shared on a large scale on social media (Facebook and Instagram), which nowadays face the risk of being monopolized by some. 

The council will operate transparently and independently from the company. Facebook Oversight Board has three mechanisms of action: namely appeals of users, cases referred by Facebook and recommendations by the council to the company. The Board will then publish its decisions on its website. We will also serve as a critical lens, and our decisions will be binding.

“I am ready to pay with my life for my belief and struggle for freedom, dignity, justice and democracy as sacred rights for every human being. No one has the right to deprive anyone of these basic rights”.