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.

19 thoughts on “Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen

  1. As a 62 year old white Christian/Catholic Male in Scotland UK. I have viewed with distain and disgust the treatment of women in the Islamic world, however I recently watched a program on Aljazeera featuring the Activist Tawakul Karman.

    I was full of admiration for this young woman, for the strength and courage she has to not only fight for woman’s rights but to also for the democratic rights and freedoms for her country men that we in the west take so much for granted.

    It is one thing to take to the streets in protest in the UK where you can do so without fear or retribution from Autocratic Authorities where you may suddenly disappear, to do what she is doing under the circumstances with a young family to take care of is immensely courageous.
    Her husband is to be commended for his support as we so often observe in so many Islamic countries that Women are but servants/Slaves to the commands of the husbands.
    This young Woman has not only shown great courage but has also shown the other side of Islam and Women.

    I wish her and her family well, and hope that God protects her and her family as I am quite sure he is the same God that all believers pray to.

    Good Luck Tawakul

  2. Just because religious governments often limit women does not mean that they necessarily must. Why does the author write as if she knows more of what’s best for Yemen than a woman who has been so politically active in Yemen as her home country? There are Muslim feminists just as there are feminists who are Christian, and the story of Islam is populated by many strong women. In Yemen, women keep their last names when they get married. They also are not restricted morally in access to abortions. Other things might be more restricted, but East and West are more equal than you might think.

    The extent of your stereotyping is apparent in your “Even Buddhists oppress people!” statement. It is unfair to believe that Islam is one unchanging rhetoric, as inherently violent and sexist as Buddhism is “peaceful and harmless.” In the Bible, the punishment for rape is for the rapist to marry his victim. Few would mention this passage in speaking about Christians as a community today, and rightfully so: Christians are extremely diverse and their tradition is more than their holy book verbatim. It is discriminatory and orientalist to assume that Karman and other Islamic feminists need your help to realize that religion is oppressive. Such “help” is I believe what led you to label the Iraq war as “catastrophic.” Indeed, the West bumbling around calling the East backward often leads to a backlash in which people embrace the part of themselves that their enemy seems to hate and fear so much. If I were Muslim and also of Arab descent in this country, I would probably run around in niqab whether I was religious or not, just to piss ignorant people off.

    Karman is a remarkable woman and I hope she succeeds Saleh as Yemen’s president. She seems very bright and determined. Yemen IS NOT and, at least in the North NEVER WILL BE secular. (The South has a history of Communism that ended with Saleh’s presidency and the coup he led to oust his own puppet communist vice president). I wish her well and I hope to see the new Yemen that its people deserve.

    1. I agree that Muslim women are politically diverse and am well aware of the way the Koran has been interpreted on the question of when a fetus can and cannot be aborted. I don’t in any way suggest that Islam is unidimensional or that all Muslims think the same way about women. You have completely missed my point, which was precisely that we should not stereotype religions–even Buddhists, whom most people assume are peace-loving, have been known to murder and pillage.

      My larger point, which you also missed, is that the major religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, have for thousands of years institutionalized the arbitrary and erroneous belief that men are superior to women. A government that fails to keep itself separate from religion, any religion, is going to reinscribe the fundamental bias against women that the mainstream religions have perpetuated for thousands of years, and will therefore not protect the right of women to be treated as fully equal beings, with all the same political, economic, psychological, and, yes, spiritual freedoms as men enjoy.

      I’d also love to see Tawakul Karman become president of Yemen, but I’m not going to hold my breath for it. Just as the women who helped to bring about the revolution in Egypt are being shoved out of the political process, the same thing is likely to happen in Yemen, if and when Saleh steps down. The question I raise is valid, central, and of concern to many observers of the movements sweeping across the Middle East: to what extent will the concerns and needs of the progressive women who have helped to bring about these changes be represented in the governments to come?

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