An Interview with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman
Tawakkol Karman is a Yemeni journalist and activist who led her country’s 2011 revolution, part of the Arab Spring, that ousted authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman was also a co-recipient of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first Arab woman and the then-youngest person, at 32, to win the award. In 2005, she co-founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains, which advocates for media freedom and human rights in Yemen.
The Politic: You grew up in Taiz, Yemen, which, if I understand correctly, is known as a place of learning in what is otherwise a typically conservative country. Is it more commonplace for women to attend university there or enter a field like journalism? Do you think if you lived in another Yemeni city you may not have gone to university?
Tawakkol Karman: Unquestionably, Taiz is a city of culture and education whose population is inhabited by the spirit of civilization. There, I was born and lived part of my childhood. Then, my family moved to Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, where I studied most of the educational stages, including higher education.
The port city of Aden and Taiz are two places from which the beam of culture and civilization has shined to all parts of the country, and then the many other provinces shared the longing for civilization, science and culture as well as the fight for them. Today, it is no longer confined to one city or the other.
Actually, many people outside Yemen have a false impression that Yemeni women are totally marginalized and oppressed. It is true that their situation is not what we want, but it is not as bad as it is imagined. Yemeni women learn and study in universities and work, and participate actively in the cultural, social and political movement, and the revolution of  has proved this fact.
TP: What drew you to the field of journalism? Are there a significant number of female journalists in Yemen? Has your gender affected your career, and if so, how?
TK: I grew up in a modern house where talk about politics and law was something routine. My father, may God have mercy on him, was a jurist and politician, and served also as a minister. My awareness phase started early, and most importantly, my father used to listen to our opinions, which sometimes did not match his own ones, but he had never forced us to adopt his opinion; on the contrary, he was encouraging us to be more independent and well-educated.
I was dreaming of talking to as many people as possible. Only journalism gave me the opportunity to realize this dream. Later I realized that journalism could be also a spearhead in the face of despotism. I do not remember that I chose this path just because I am a female, but what I’m remembering is that I loved journalism as it represents, in part, people’s interests and aspirations to acquire knowledge and uncover any abuses of power.
I chose journalism to defend rights and fight against public corruption and tyranny in the country. My goal of practicing journalism was to defend issues but not just to report the news, so I soon engaged in extensive human rights activity by taking part in various human rights activities including collecting data, monitoring human rights violations, holding seminars, issuing reports and organizing peaceful protests.
The work of media and human rights has enabled me to accomplish many things, and let me along with my comrades go ahead with the struggle to achieve the dream. I admit there were difficulties and obstacles, but I was able to overcome them so that they turned to factors of strength, positives, and opportunities. This gave me more confidence and determination to continue the struggle.
Based on my experience and experiences of other women, a woman could be free from any constraints that prevent her from working in public sphere, especially if she gets supported by her own family. Such a matter is not so complicated, but it primarily depends on her, and she would then find who supports her and stands up for her.
TP: Could you explain the SMS news services for which Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) advocated? What advantage do they provide, and why were these services under such tight government control? Are they still under such tight control?
TK: Journalism in Yemen enjoyed a margin of freedom, which sometimes narrowed and expanded depending on the issues being dealt with. The press situation in Yemen was better than many countries in the Arab world, but the ousted president’s regime prevented licenses of SMS services from being granted to any non-governmental outlet, for fear of free circulation of information. Saleh believed that the monopoly of services such as SMS service was necessary to make his regime more secure and immune, but the struggle led by Women Journalists Without Chains and many journalists forced the government to retreat. Then each newspaper or website was able to send short messages over cell phones.
Women Journalists Without Chains was founded to defend press freedom at a time when violations against journalists reached their peak, severe restrictions were being imposed on the few existing newspapers and licenses for newspapers and different media outlets were inaccessible.
The organization struggled against repressive policies practiced by authorities against the press, and as a result it was also subjected to a number of violations, including shutdown of the mobile phone news service and frequent attacks on WJWC’s activists.
TP: I understand that you organized many protests and sit-ins in order to promote freedom of the press and to speak out against President Saleh’s rule in Yemen. Why were you protesting? What were the effects of these protests? What kind of backlash did you incur, from both the government, the general public, and other activists?
TK: It was clear that the regime of the now-deposed Saleh was working to establish a family-based authority. In addition, he was looting the country’s wealth and prompting corruption. The country was in a really desperate situation and we had to do something against such destructive conduct.
We were able to be a headache for the regime, and we succeeded in expanding the margin of freedoms, especially press freedoms, but in general the regime continued its complete monopoly of power, and this led to the outbreak of the peaceful youth revolution later in 2011.
At first, the regime treated me lightly, but when feeling threatened, it began to send me clear threatening messages. Nevertheless, I insisted on going ahead, as I realized that our nation’s salvation primarily starts with toppling Saleh’s regime.
At the beginning, there wasn’t any positive response from the public. I used to take to the streets in protest marches taken part in by only several people. With the participation of some activists, I established Freedom Square where we met once a week to protest against the regime’s policies. The circle of opposition to the regime widened so that most Yemenis, in less than five years, took to streets demanding change.
TP: How did it feel to be the first Arab woman and youngest person (at the time) to be a Nobel Peace Laureate? I also read that you gave away your prize money to the families of those killed in the Arab Spring uprising. Did you hope to bring attention to the problems being faced by Yemeni families and women?
TK: Actually, it was an indescribable feeling, as I felt that our voice finally reached everywhere. From the very first moment, I saw the reward as a recognition for the Arab Spring and the Yemeni Revolution’s peaceful approach, which Saleh’s regime sought to drag into violence.
I decided at the time to donate the prize money to be invested in something related to the revolution’s youth. So I did not find a better cause than for the fund for the families’ martyrs and the wounded of the 2011 revolution and the peaceful Southern Movement to receive this amount of money. I did not feel that this money is mine as long as I had already said that the Nobel Prize I received had been awarded to all youth of the Arab Spring and dreamers for freedom as well as to those struggling for freedom.
TP: What are the major issues that Arab women, and Yemeni women specifically, face today? What, if anything, is being done to combat these issues? Is the status of women in Yemen improving at all?
TK: The situation of Arab and Yemeni women significantly improved after the Arab Spring revolutions, but then it received a severe setback because of the rise of counter-revolutions and military coups. Freedoms and human rights have been completely cracked down on. Accordingly, women have been badly affected. I think women’s issues will be taken care under a democratic society. Otherwise, talking about women’s rights and issues would be just a kind of folklore.
As for the situation of women in Yemen after the coup [by the Houthis in 2015], it is very bad. The putschists have adopted an exclusionary approach towards everyone, especially women who are additionally suffering from further complications added by war and repressive policies practiced by the coup under different slogans.
Prior to the coup, conditions and guarantees for the participation of women in the public sphere were approved as part of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, which was attended by all political and societal forces, and this was also emphasized in the draft constitution. From my point of view, conditions will be ripe for a new start for women if the coup is toppled.
TP: I’m sure you’re aware of the protesting and dissent that is going on in the United States now (such as the Women’s March on Washington) because of our current political situation, specifically frustration with our president. Do you have any advice for those who are unhappy with the situation of their government and might be inclined to speak out or protest?
TK: There is no specific advice. But in any case, opponents, especially women, must adhere to America’s values of freedom and tolerance, otherwise they would not find a place for themselves in the future. Prejudice and hatred are more harmful to women than others. They have to remember that the struggle for freedom and tolerance is always a just cause, which often harvests success.
I trust American people more than the U.S. administration, and I know that there are many strugglers for freedom and civil liberties not only in America, but worldwide. And these men and women have resisted Trump’s hate speech and thwarted his discriminatory measures. Surely, they will continue to defend American values against any hate speech or discriminatory measures.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.