Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen

Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.