"Bare Chests vs. Bullets," says Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and activist.
Last week, a friend from Jeddah emailed me about one of her heroines: Tawakul Karman, a firebrand journalist, founder and chair of Women Journalists Without Chains. Karman is an activist and a leader on the front lines of the youth protest movement in Yemen, viewed by many as Yemen's Aung San Suu Kyi (of Burma).
Until today, it seemed like President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen with an iron fist for 33 years, had negotiated an exit strategy, if granted immunity from persecution by the Gulf Corporation Council (a group of six Middle East countries). The opposition party was amenable to the proposal -- despite a rift with the protestors who do not trust Saleh. The protestors know Saleh's history of brinksmanship. Today's news focuses on Saleh refusing to sign the deal in his capacity as president. He is only willing to sign the agreement -- which was scheduled to be signed Sunday or Monday in Riyadh -- as the leader of the governing party. The yes/no dance continues.
Outraged by President Saleh's injustice which Karman witnessed against the people of Ibb, a village in Southern Yemen, she observes history in the making: "The spark started in Tunisia. Egypt stabilized the revolution. 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."
A youth activist, clear about her values favoring non-violence, "we fought the bullets with bare chests," as they faced attacks by the security police. A strategic activist, Karman used to wear a niqab (the face covering), but took it off because it interfered with her activism. She had a good explanation: "The niqab is required by tradition, not by religion." As a member of Islah, the Islamist party, she had her share of challenges and particularly with the extremist party members.
In an interview with Isabel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, Karman was clear about the ability of the student demonstrations to deliver "democracy, " even as she prioritized the importance of civil society and human rights in a post Saleh era. She is direct in answering a key concern on the minds of many Americans: "Although I belong to (Islah), an Islamic party, no way am I for a religious government. I am for a secular system, where the rights of all are protected". Karman's relationship with Islah, the Yemeni Islamists, is complex. They supported female members but blocked a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17. She says: "The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I'm trying to take women away from their houses."
Coleman also writes: "Members of Sana'a secular elite remain suspicious of Islah's intentions, fearing that it would seize any opportunity to impose an Islamic theocracy on the country." This continues to be a common tension in the Arab countries engaged in revolutions.
Speaking at a rally after her release on January 24, Karman said, "We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes."
She acknowledges the risks: "I know they will shut down my organization if I continue... arrest me... also probably kill me in prison. But I won't stop. I am determined".
Does she conform to the stereotype of the repressed Muslim woman in the Middle East today?
For alternative views about the deeper issues that restrict, debilitate and deprive Muslim women of their rights and rightful place in society, check out an alternative website:
The opinions mentioned in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Chair Muslim Women's Fund.