Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Karman under the microscope

Gamal Nkrumah interviews Yemeni Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman on developments in her war-torn homeland

Al-Ahram Weekly

Like a lector priestess of yesteryear, with her enchanting charms she challenges the powers that be and personifies the hardships of the present era. “Yemen is utterly ruined,” the Yemeni Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman says.

“Women are not the only Yemenis who have suffered from the preposterous civil war currently taking place in Yemen. All Yemenis have suffered as a result of this war, and the people of Yemen have found themselves facing fascist religious militias. However, Yemeni women have been among those who have suffered the most,” Karman told the Weekly in an exclusive interview.

“Women have been among the most oppressed segments of society in this war against the people of Yemen. Hundreds of thousands of women have been displaced and forced to leave their homes.”

Karman is called the “Iron Woman” and “Mother of the Revolution” by her fellow Yemenis. The journalist, politician and senior member of the Al-Islah Party, ostensibly an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, the first Yemeni and first Arab woman to win the prestigious international accolade.

Born in Taiz, the most populous city in Yemen and the heartland of learning, scholarship and culture, Karman is a controversial figure in Yemen’s politics, despite the international praise.

An ardent advocate of a mobile-phone news service, she was denied a licence because she had led public protests and been threatened by the authorities of the ousted former regime.

At a protest in 2010, a woman tried to stab her, and yet she bears her no grudges and continues to speak on behalf of Yemeni women. According to her brother, Tariq Karman, “a senior Yemeni official” threatened his sister with death, and according to the US magazine The New Yorker, that official was none other than ousted former president Ali Abdallah Saleh.

After Houthi rebels threatened her she sought political asylum in Turkey. Karman says that her family hails originally from the region of Karaman in Anatolia, though her choice of exile in Turkey is political and ideological.

Her first contention at this particular juncture in Yemen’s history is that women must lead the struggle against oppression by peaceful means. “Yemeni women are not organised politically, and women can only voice their political frustration by peaceful means. Yet women are also very active in the popular movement against injustice and repression,” she says.

“Yemeni women had a prominent part to play in the Yemeni Revolution. They were in the forefront from the dawn of the revolution and participated with Yemeni men at all levels and at every stage,” Karman notes.

In 2005, Karman co-founded the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. That same year, she founded the Al-Thawrah newspaper. “Women were instrumental in the ousting of ex-president Saleh. And today Yemeni women face a momentous task that is no less important than their role during the revolution. They are rising again to fight religious oppression. They are for peaceful resistance,” she says.

There has been controversy concerning the relationship between Karman and Saudi Arabia. Her position has appeared to be ambiguous: while she has been vociferously critical of Saudi Arabia, a Saudi cable leaked by Wikileaks has disclosed that she was also secretly negotiating with the Saudi authorities.

In response, she says, “War does not appeal to me. War is never pleasant. I am a believer in the struggle through peaceful means. But the war in Yemen would never have happened without the failure of domestic politics and the loss of national sovereignty as a result of the actions of the fascist militiamen.

“We must not forget that the Arab intervention would not have occurred without the approval and at the official request of the internationally recognised Yemeni authorities, which wanted to buttress the sovereign state in the face of the onslaught of the Houthi militias.”

Karman believes that the Houthis are fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran. “The Houthis deny that they are the pawns of the Iranians. But they are working according to an Iranian agenda. Iran funds them and supplies them with weapons in order to destabilise the region,” she argues.

“There is no confessional strife in Yemen,” she insists. “There is a vicious political struggle with the use of violent means because of the Houthi militia’s insistence on adopting the path of violence to consolidate its stranglehold of the state. There are no special mosques exclusively for Shia Muslims in Yemen. There are no Sunni or Shia mosques. All Yemenis pray together,” Karman claims.

She concedes, however, that the Houthis have their strongholds in the Zaidi Shia Muslim-majority areas of the country. It is estimated that no less than 42 per cent of the Yemeni population are followers of the Zaidi school of Shia Islam. “The Houthis are now intruding on areas where Shafei Sunni Muslims predominate,” she says.

She also discerns the role played by ex-president Saleh from behind the scenes. “He has committed crimes against humanity and has been responsible for the deliberate and systematic destabilisation of the Yemeni state. He has attempted to thwart the aspirations of the Yemeni people for a free country and to suppress freedom of expression. I would say that ex-president Saleh is the mastermind behind the ruin of Yemen.”

Peace in Yemen can only be secured by the destruction of the militias, she says. “The Houthis are just the instruments the ex-president is using for the destruction of the country,” Karman says.

“We want every Yemeni to have full citizenship rights. We want the rule of law. Tyranny and lawlessness have devastated our country. I am against any militia or power that wants to stop us from constructing a democratic state. The state, and not the militiamen, must control the land of Yemen. All their weapons must be confiscated,” Karman insists.

The United Nations and international humanitarian organisations have deemed Yemen a “humanitarian disaster,” and the aerial and naval blockade of the country has left 78 per cent of the Yemeni population — 20 million people — malnourished and facing serious shortages of food, water and medicine. The conflict has also led to the blocking of aerial aid deliveries to Yemen, including to the capital Sanaa.

Today, Karman is most concerned about the religious conflagration that is engulfing her homeland. “We must have a free and fair referendum on the new constitution. This is my vision of a new and democratic Yemen. This is the only means by which lasting peace can be secured.

“It is true that my vision for the future of Yemen clashes with the ideology of the militiamen. But I do not think their tyranny will last for long. They cannot evade justice. The majority of Yemenis support the Saudi-led military intervention.

“While I am against war of any kind, I believe that the support of the Arabs, and in particular of the Gulf Arab countries, is imperative for achieving lasting peace in Yemen.”

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