Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison. And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change. It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe. Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.
Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.
But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts. Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.
Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons? Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world. Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil. Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.
Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes. And the French! The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture. If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her. If she likes to cover her hair, so be it! We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs. Why harrass Muslim women? Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.
In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman. Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal. Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.
Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change. Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,
We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.
Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down. Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.
More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. He was beaten and arrested this morning. [Source: Hood].
Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked. This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half. A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of Al Qaeda in the region. The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.
Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns. It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women. Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her. She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.
To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened. Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.
We are talking about Yemen. We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression. This is important. I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist. I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law. I worry that the rise of this party could set women back. But for now, this woman is not stepping back.