H. E. Tawakkol Karman, co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and the first Arab woman to win a Nobel, said that she was effective in fighting for women’s rights in Yemen by focusing on human rights for all.
Karman, a Yemini activist and journalist, spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Thursday evening. Karman’s keynote speech kicked off a conference at the Kennedy School entitled “Culture Identity and Change in the Middle East: Insights for Conflict and Negotiation.”
At 33, Karman is the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the second Muslim woman so honored. She is also the first Yemenite laureate. Karman and two other women received the 2011 prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according to the Nobel Prize website.
Karman spoke of the daily contradictions faced by peaceful protestors in violent countries. “I continue to smell the fragrance of hope and fortune that will better our society. However, I still see the blood of my friends…as well as the blood of our brother Arabs who were murdered and wounded in the Arab Spring Revolution,” said Karman, who spoke mainly in Arabic through a translator. “Their only crime was to demand a better future in their homeland for all people and their desire for equality of all citizens.”
Karman co-founded Women Journalists Without Chains, a human rights organization, in 2005. Beginning in 2007, she orchestrated weekly protests to call for reform in Yemen and later advocated the dismissal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.
Although she was arrested and detained more than once, Karman remains a strong advocate for freedom of expression. She continues to peacefully protest and call for justice from her tent in Yemen’s Change Square, according to a website for the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
Karman said that nepotism and corruption are driving forces that lead to torture, arbitrary detention, forced abduction, unemployment, and the confiscation of the rights and freedoms of the people.
Karman said that the Arab Spring revolutions are a response to corrupt dictatorships for which other parts of the world share responsibility. Such regimes stem from general hatred “between nations, between people, between West and East.”
According to Karman, Yemen’s youth began a “broad social partnership” by choosing to protest. She said that this partnership can continue to aid development and increase political stability.
Karman said that the fight against dictatoship goes hand in hand with the fight against terrorism.
“The fear or terrorism is misplaced,” she said. “Terrorism and tyranny are two sides of a similar coin. Terrorists and tyrants share… strategic interests and…feed off of each others’ strengths,”
“She has been dubbed the Yemeni Joan of Ark but at home she is known as the mother of the revolution,” Kennedy School Associate Professor Hannah Riley Bowles, who moderated the event, told the audience. “She is credited with lighting the spark of the Arab Spring in Yemen and leading the transformational demonstrations in what she calls ‘Change Square.’”
Karman emphasized the importance of taking action in the interest of humanity and justice. “I didn’t ask anyone to give me my rights. We decided to take our rights by going to the street, doing demonstrations, sitting, sacrificing, leading the men,” she said.