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.

Immigration and violence against women

The latest battle around immigration will concern the citizenship rights of children born to “illegal” immigrants, today’s New York Times predicts.   It seems some loud-mouthed policymakers in Arizona and other states want to deny the right of some babies born in the US to be Americans.    While the obvious argument against this misguided, anti-immigration strategy is that it arises from a racist, xenophobic desire to keep hispanic, asian, and other people out, I want to discuss the ways in which we should understand it as yet another expression of misogyny and patriarchal politics.

Consider the site of this particular battle: pregnant women.  The current effort to deny citizenship to the offspring of certain children is a direct and bold effort to manipulate women’s reproduction.  White men, such as Russel Pearce, who achieved notoriety for introducing the legislation that makes it a crime to be an “illegal” immigrant in Arizona, want to harras, demonize and punish women for giving birth where and when he says they should not.  In an email quoted by Virilatino, Pearce fulminates:

“If we are going to have an effect on the anchor baby racket, we need to target the mother. Call it sexist, but that’s the way nature made it. Men don’t drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do.”

The wacko vision is that women deliberately enter the country and “drop” their babies, which become “anchors” that will allow hordes of relatives to slip in and steal jobs from Northern Americans.  There are a number of different and perfectly innocent ways that an immigrant can be charged with “illegal” status, but Pearce and his nasty, misogynist cronies want to “target” all women who fall into this category as though they were a herd of deer or rabbits.  They’ve declared open season and armed their rifles.

As the law currently stands, in this country as well as in a number of other new world nations, the citizenship of a person is determined according to jus soli, a Latin term meaning “right of the soil.”   Meddling reactionaries want to change the law so that citizenship will be determined according to jus sanguinis, which literally means “law of blood.”  They want effectively to overturn the 14th Amendment, which says that it doesn’t matter who the mother is, or what the race, class, or ethnicity of the child is,  but only where that child is born, that confers citizenship.   This important protection was hard-won against racists who wanted to prevent the descendants of African slaves from becoming Americans.

In the battle against undocumented and “illegal” immigrant mothers and their children today, just like in the battle against African-American slaves and their children before the Dred Scott decision, women are considered to be little more than animals that men impregnate, control, and move around for their own benefits.   Why and how a woman has come into this country, or stayed here, or, more importantly, why and how she has become pregnant and then decided to go through with the pregnancy, do not interest the men and women who want to change the law.  Their overriding concern is to limit and control the reproduction of immigrants in order to protect the interests of what they call “natives” (and they don’t mean native Americans).  By Pearce’s own admission, the best way to do that is to “target the mother.”

Let us  return to the opening scene from today’s NYT article:

NOGALES, Ariz. — Of the 50 or so women bused to this border town on a recent morning to be deported back to Mexico, Inez Vasquez stood out. Eight months pregnant, she had tried to trudge north in her fragile state, even carrying scissors with her in case she gave birth in the desert and had to cut the umbilical cord.

“All I want is a better life,” she said after the Border Patrol found her hiding in bushes on the Arizona side of the border with her husband, her young son and her very pronounced abdomen.

Now imagine what Pearce and his gang want to do to this woman:

The Hard Road to Freedom

What does it all mean?  And why am I still ANGRY?  Why are the National Organization of Women and NARAL, our nation’s strongest advocates for women women’s health, upset?

The mostly male members of the House and Senate managed to bring a little sanity to our insane health care system last night.   With nearly all Republicans voting against health–which in my book amounts to the same thing as voting for death– the Democrats took a first and very timid step towards better health care for all Americans last night.  But they caved into right-wing demagoguery and big-business interests anyway.  When will they learn?

Here’s how this bill, if it is allowed to stand, will reduce the liberty of women in our country:

1.  It will severely curtail women’s access to abortion.  Employers and employees will now have to write two checks EVERY MONTH, one for health care, and another for an “abortion rider,” if they want to have coverage for abortion.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  Before the bill, 85 per cent of insurance companies covered abortion without stigmatizing it.  : it imposes new restrictions–burdens and cumbersome procedures–that will effectively limit women’s access to choose, which is exactly what the religious zealots and terrorists wanted all along.

2. It will effectively cement the power of the Hyde amendment, which is not an established part of the law, but rather a measure tacked on to the appropriations bill every year.  Why?  Because the President agreed to issue an executive order that will lend the weight of his office to the anti-abortion measures included in the bill.

WHY THIS IS BAD: It shows us that the guys in government are willing to trade away women’s rights to get what they want.  The end does not justify the means. By strengthening the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, this order weakens women’s constitutional right to choose to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies.

3.  It will allow insurance companies in the health exchanges to discriminate against women and the elderly, most of whom are women, to charge women and the elderly more for health care –if the pool of people to be covered is greater than 100.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  It penalizes women for being female.  In the case of elderly women, who are poorer because they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace for their entire lives, it redoubles the penalty against women for being female.

4. It imposes cruel and unreasonable limits on health care coverage for immigrants.  Legal residents must wait a for five years to be eligible for Medicaid and other assistance, and undocumented workers cannot even use their own money to purchase health insurance through an exchange!

WHY THIS IS BAD: It’s racist and classist and backwards.  We are a nation of immigrants, and every one of us deserves equal access to health care.   And by the way–did you know that 25 per cent of all Black people in American immigrated to this country at the end of the 20th century?  So this policy is going to hurt, badly, at least 25 per cent of Black women in our country today. That’s shameful!

A good end does not justify bad means.  You can’t achieve justice for all by trading away the rights of some.

But WHY AM I STILL PISSED OFF?  Because religious extremists and religious terrorists are steadily eroding our basic freedoms!!!

Women have a basic right to bodily integrity and subjectivity.  By limiting our rights to the governance of our own bodies, by telling us that women do not have the ability or the freedom to choose what happens to their own bodies–a right they would never dare to take away from men–the lawmakers are attacking women’s fundamental rights to subjectivity, to personhood, to liberty.

I’m mad because these guys don’t care about my freedom, about my liberty–in fact they’ve shown me again and again that they’re perfectly happy to treat me as a less human than men, less entitled to basic freedoms than men.

Not enough Democrats and Pro-choice Republicans seem to be getting this message:  Women’s basic liberties are  falling under the monster-truck tires of the demagogues and the religious terrorists, who are determined to grind women into the mud.

These people are not just against health care, not just against abortion, they are against WOMEN.  (And on Stupak’s resolute disregard for women, especially for Nuns, see Jodi Jacobson).

And yes, some of these extremists and terrorists are women, but that means nothing.  Women have historically traded away their liberties in exchange for financial and emotional support from men–Women are not the only group of oppressed persons who believe what their oppressors tell them to believe, and who would rather take the lazy road of slavery than the hard road towards freedom.

Let’s all of us stop going along with the people who hate women.  Let’s all of us get on that road to freedom.