My great-aunt Ada Latta had an adventurous and pioneering soul.
She staked and tried to grow a plantation in Cuba at the end of the 19th century, and lived there with her children and husband for seven years before giving up and coming back to the United States. In this article my cousin relates her attempt to track down her history in light of recent political changes.
Visiting Cuba: 1905, 2014 and 2016 By Kit-Bacon Gressitt First published by The Missing Slate. Before the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations went public, I made a trip to Cuba. It was 2014. Before diplomatic relations bloomed anew and flags… … Read more at http://www.kbgressitt.com.
It’s no surprise that the Yemeni government brutally beat and injured numerous women celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakul Karman in the streets of the capitol, Sanna’a, today. This same regime, led by the much vilified Ali Abdullah Saleh, has routinely attacked, injured, and killed peaceful protesters who have dared to speak out against it. Earlier this year, the government kidnapped and detained Karman, abducting her off the street and holding her in chains for days. Immediately after releasing her, Saleh’s forces arrested the lawyer who had been defending her, Khaled al-Anesi.
Tawakol Karman is the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and with good reason. She might be called the Mother of the Arab Spring. The 2005 co-founder of the feminist organization Women Journalists Without Chains has been leading weekly protests against President Saleh and oppression in general since 2008. In April of this year, she wrote:
We are in the first stage of change in our country, and the feeling among the revolutionaries is that the people of Yemen will find solutions for our problems once the regime has gone, because the regime itself is the cause of most of them. A new Yemen awaits us, with a better future for all.
Women are a sizeable part of the protest movement, and are visible throughout the various protest squares around the country, and on marches. Female protesters have stood atop government vehicles during protests, and faced water cannon and bullets. They have kept the field hospital running around the clock.
For this civil and entirely peaceful protest, women have been subject to tremendous abuse for a very long time. Karman’s arrest earlier this year was not the first time she had been harrassed by the 33-year regime.
On Oct 12, 2010, government forces detained and harrassed Karman and other women who had gathered to object to unjust taxation and violent suppression of dissent across the country. Women Journalists Without Chains reported:
Human rights defender Ms Tawakkol Karman was arrested and detained for three hours at Alolofi police station. She was allegedly subjected to ill-treatment while in police custody. Human rights defender Ms Bushra Alsorabi was reportedly beaten by four security men who tried to take her camera. She was hit with an unidentified object thought to be a rubber bullet or smoke projectile resulting in burns to her body and clothes. She was hospitalised in the Republican Hospital in Sana’a as a result of her injuries.
Police used their guns to beat participants, they also reportedly pointed their guns at various participants and threatened to kill them. Five other women participating in the protest were also injured, two of whom had to be hospitalised as a result of their injuries. Up to 35 persons from the Al-Ja’ashen group of displaced people were arrested during the protest and were taken to five different police stations.
President Saleh’s self-serving words of congratulations to his most famous critic were proven to be utterly false today, when his forces attacked peaceful women calling for change. Some of them argued for UN sanctions against the president and his family. Catholic Online today reports that
As these demonstrations began to grow, eyewitnesses allege that government security forces emerged and began to attack the women. Dozens of women were injured in the subsequent violence in spite of the fact they were completely unarmed and peaceful. At least 38 women have been confirmed hurt and admitted to hospitals. Doctors say they were attacked mostly with rocks and batons.
Yemenis are saying that the government’s goal is to make people afraid to protest.
The following video is dated October 9, 2011. It shows Tawakul Karman leading a demonstration against the government.
Today’s protest formed part of a Yemen-wide show of anger against the government for condoning or supporting recent violent attacks on women protesters in Taiz. Saleh supporters pelted peacefully protesting women there with bottles and rocks yesterday At least 50,000 women came out into the streets, where thugs and government hooligans harrassed and attacked them. An estimated 40 women were injured, some by batons. More than 400,000 people gathered outside the hospital where the wounded were taken yesterday, to express their outrage at a government that passively condoned this violence. Instead of understanding that its brutal policies only further inflame the discontent of its people, Saleh struck again at his people–this time hospitalizing another forty-odd women. How much blood will he spill?
Here is another video of brave Muslim feminists in Yemen protesting President Saleh.
A government that represses and attacks its own citizens loses its legitimacy. We aren’t surprised when we hear that Saleh has done it once again, but we should be a lot more shocked that we appear to be, and a lot more outraged when our own police forces brutally surpress peaceful demonstrators in Pittsburgh, target Muslims in New York, and harrass people who appear to be Hispanic in Alabama.
The women who brave thugs armed with bottles, batons, and tanks every day in Yemen deserve our respect, not only because they are standing up for their own freedom, but also because they are standing up for ours. We are all united in our desire for peace, for dignity, and for civility. I salute them.
I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet. Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post. Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.
There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatiens and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name. I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.
There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider. For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today. During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace. It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house. I lasted less than a week and ended up here. Brendan moved over with me a few days ago. We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.
25 July, 2011
I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house. First of all, I miss Brendan. I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight. Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here. Every move is scrutinized. Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man. When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do. Did she like to garden? Yes. She told me about her garden. Did she like to cook? She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!” It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it. He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful. He makes me uncomfortable.
I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night. I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun. This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.
Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning. He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5. He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch. They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.
At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice. I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate. If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food. Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping. I want to wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible. He barks at me to get up, so I do. He is used to ordering women around. I find this unsettling. I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.
Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me. There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates. Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him. He addresses her by her first name. She always and only says “tapaai” to him. “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing. Nirmala never leaves the house. Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v.. Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.
They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn. I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.
I continue to worry about Laxmi. We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper. It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind. This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job. I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her. I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker. But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.
Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself. She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress. Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables. Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.
Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman. She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.
Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore. Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable. The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status. The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings. Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female. What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview? The damage it does to women’s self-esteem. A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.
Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options. After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother. He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her. Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece. I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family. Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola. Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest. Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.
She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer. She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month. He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon. Laxmi is now living with a friend. Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.
I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center. My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room. What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves? Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money? Yes. It is. But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.
Here is my still-evolving philosophy: It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity. But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity. I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly. Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works. So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me
I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah. I will defer to them in most cases. But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.
So, what will happen to Laxmi? I don’t know. I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf. What I received went to her. People tend to prefer to help children and young people. There is no social security system in place in Nepal. She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her. I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life. I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her. She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her. I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.
I’m very worried about Laxmi, the woman who has been working at Sugandha’s house. As I reported before, she was living with relatives in Pepsi-Cola until quite recently. They moved away, leaving her homeless. I do not know why they did this to her. It is unthinkable for a Nepali family to abandon one of their own and yet it happens all the time. Most of the children in the orphanages have been abandoned or rejected by their parents, usually their fathers. Husbands abandon their wives when they become pregnant, or if the children from her body fail to be male. In this powerfully patriarchal culture, women do not count for much.
Laxmi came to the attention of VSN only because she has been attending English lessons at the orphanage, where the women’s group has been meeting. She is my age, 50, very gentle and kind. When she first arrived she had a strong, full-bellied laugh and a direct gaze. Now, only a week later, she is withdrawn, downcast, and somewhat frightened. She is also very, very anxious. Sugandha arranged for her to live with her sister, but the sister’s generosity has expired, and Laxmi again has no place to sleep. In my very broken Nepali and her weak English, I discerned that she will spend the night at a friend’s house tonight, and that the friend’s house is very far away. Before she could set out on this journey, she needed to eat. She receives two meals of dhal bhat (rice and a watery lentil soup) per day, at 10 am and at 8pm, after the volunteers have eaten. For this she spends the entire day, beginning at 6 am, cleaning and waiting upon the family. She has no source of income. I would like to help her find a secure place to live and a more reliable and dignified way to earn a living.
I have donated an amount of money to set the women’s group up in their own headquarters. These funds will pay a year’s rent on a large flat. I want this place to become a shelter for women like Laxmi, women who have suddenly found themselves cast out, good women who need help.
Right now the apartment stands empty. We need to bring in furniture, a counter-top gas range, a refrigerator and basic household items. Most important of all, we need beds, mattresses, pillows, and sheets. It is vital that we provide a safe harbor where Laxmi and others like her can recover from the trauma that they have undergone, and begin to rebuild their lives.
I am still in the process of bringing this project about, but Laxmi cannot wait. She needs your help now. Any amount that you can give will go directly to her. She is a very strong and capable woman, but she has suffered a severe setback and needs support to get back on her feet again. Please give as much as you can. Your money will help her through this crisis. There are no overhead costs. Every cent will go this deserving woman who needs your help. Please click to HELP LAXMI NOW
Today is the first of my real working days here in Nepal. For now, my schedule will be:
7am Orphanage—where there are six children who have been rescued from the street.
9am –Breakfast of dal bhat and water
11am—Women’s Center, where I will be teaching very poor women how to speak conversational English
2pm—Teaching at a local private school
As most of you know, I feel passionately devoted to working on behalf of women around the world, and my goal here is to make a small dent in the lives of Nepali women. I had a conversation with the director of the program (Volunteer Society Nepal, or VSN) yesterday, and it seems that he would like to develop the women’s center. I asked him if he would be interested in starting up a microcredit loan program, and also if he had interest in expanding the Women’s Center, which is currently housed in an orphanage (and that is why it only runs for two hours a day), into a full-fledged shelter for battered women and their children. He sounded very enthusiastic about these ideas. I have decided to stay for five months in order to help to expand the women’s portion of their program. They already have started a sewing class to help women learn to become self-sufficient. I have bought material to have two kurtas made by a seamstress who works there. Half the proceeds she receives will benefit the women’s center (WC).
One of the women who attends English classes at the WC also works here, for Sugandha and Sova, as a cook. She just brought me a cup of delicious Nepali tea, milky and sweet. This was very sweet of her since usually the volunteers do not get their tea until 7am. It is now 6:30am. She speaks very little English and I speak very little Nepali, so we mostly smile broadly at one another to express our affection. Last night she gave me a delicious hug in the kitchen.
Yesterday I received a message, indirectly, from Dr. Iman Bibars, in the form of a comment on one of my posts. Dr. Bibars is affiliated with Ashoka, an organization that, in its own words, “strives to shape a global, entrepreneurial, competitive citizen sector.” The Ashoka website explains that she holds a Ph.D. in Development Studies from Sussex University and lives in Cairo, where she has
dedicated her life to working with marginalized and voiceless groups: female heads of households in Egypt’s poorest areas, street children, street vendors and garbage collectors. She has also worked with UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, CARE-Egypt, GTZ and KFW. Lastly, Iman is herself a social entrepreneur, co-founding and currently chairing The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, a CSO providing credit and legal aid for impoverished women heading their households.
Here is what Dr. Bibars has written to the world about Egypt:
What has happened in Egypt the last week or more is unprecedented and is a wonderful and revitalizing experience for all Egyptians who love this country. This is our first real people revolution and it is fueled by wonderful and great young men and women from all walks of Egypt. The liberation square has become a symbol for all our sufferings and also our victories. I cannot claim that I have suffered as many Egyptians did and many of the young revolutionaries asked me why am I supporting them although I have been benefiting (their words) or have not been harmed by the old regime. My only answer was that I loved Egypt and that to be loyal and patriotic to this country means that you want the best for her and you want her to be free and her people to be liberated and treated as humans.
For me Egypt is a she, a her and the mother of all Egyptians and the matriarch that has kept us all in her bosom and nurtured us whether we were grateful or not. And what the regime of husni Mubarak and the security apparatus headed by the war criminal habib al adly have done to us and to the people of Egypt for 30 years is unparalleled in any other country. The humiliation and destruction of the Egyptian character and the spirit of the people in a calculated and organized way took place for 30 years in a relentless and very evil way.
Egyptians stopped laughing or smiling from their hearts, you could see and touch helplessness and hopelessness among the old and the young. Phenomena such as sexual harassment, looting and predominance of thugs spread because they were encouraged by the security that wanted to break the pride and self respect of all Egyptians.
The murdering and killing was not only of peoples bodies and lives but of their souls and spirits. Corruption and lack of ethical fiber and self respect became the norm, became the traits most respected. I am as you all know quite mature (i.e. old) and have been here since the 60s and I have worked with the people and in the streets and was naïve enough to try to enter politics believing that this country needed those who loved her and who would give more then they would take.
I was burnt and burnt hard and not only from the government but from the pretenders or those who played the roles of defenders of human rights or of the people but who in many cases found it lucrative to play that role. My mistake was that I always followed my conscience and what I thought was right and was neither extreme left nor extreme right.
What happened in Egypt during the last 5 years at least what I found out broke my heart and I started thinking and acting seriously to leave the country to go and live somewhere else. I did not feel there was any hope left.
But then on the 25th and when I was home and discovering the internet world , face book and you tube for the first time in my life, I also rediscovered Egypt, the Egypt I have read about and dreamed about. The brave and noble youth of Egypt have resurrected our pride and soul. They have revived the real spirit and soul of Egypt. They have taken away our shame of being so spineless and useless for decades.
They have and for the first time in our history carried a real people’s revolution at least during my life time. They managed to reveal the true face of our security and police forces, those traitors who abandoned their posts and allowed our children and families to die, be attacked and vandalized. Many of the looters and thugs were reported were associated one way or the other with the police.
They did not mind that mothers, elders and children be terrorized in a an effort to abort the revolution and scare all of the liberation square heroes away from their main battle. They did not care and frankly this is what the last regime had shown over and over again, that they do not care for us, for the Egyptians or for Egypt. That is why they should not stay, they should go , they should not be allowed to rule or govern as they are in reality traitors who hate us.
No one who loves his country and its people would have allowed the scandal and shameful behavior of the security forces not only in murdering and torturing the protesters but more so in terrorizing the kind people of Egypt by opening the prisons, and sending their own thugs to steal, loot and vandalize shops, homes and the nice and simple Egyptian families.
Now at this moment and after the maneuvers of the state , a peaceful transition of power is becoming less of a reality and clashes between the youth of Egypt, the real revolutionaries and those pushed and prompted by the state and the NDP is going on now. I just learned that the liberation square is completely blocked and the army tanks are around it and also blocking any means to go in or out.
The state TV is sending wrong images and stories and lying to the people of Egypt, the regime and its NDP are sending thugs and some paid youth to start fights with the heroes of the liberation square and our youth are in deep danger. They are being under siege now and are being attacked by disguised thugs and security forces, the army has blocked all inroads to the liberation square and the mercenaries of the regime are beating and attacking women, girls and young men whose only demand was freedom and liberty.
If we can reach all Egyptians everywhere and tell them that the revolution is not and will not be over, I met several young people and they said that they are willing to die for Egypt in the liberation square but we do not want to sacrifice those clean souls. Please lets all see a way to save them and tell all of Egypt that the mercenaries of the regime are the ones taking to the street now and that no one should give up the demands for a better and more liberated and free Egypt. Please do not believe the state TV for there are no outside forces or traitors among the revolutionaries who wanted our pride and self worth and respect to return to us.
“I feel I am born again,” Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi told an American reporter, who bumped in to her in Tahrir Square. The 80-year old woman along with thousands of other peaceful demonstrators, was planning to spend the night in the square. Like everything else she has done, this was a brave and bold decision. Mubarak’s monsters, the secret police, were then roaming the streets with nail-studded boards, hunting photographers, journalists, and human rights activists, and beating anyone who tried to make it into the Square.
Dr. Sadaawi, a fierce feminist, novelist, medical doctor, psychiatrist, has faced down imprisonment, death threats, attempts to strip her of her nationality, and the persecution of her family, all in the name of liberty for all human beings. For nearly half a century she has campaigned against female genital circumcision– genital circumcision (a bloody practice in which a girl’s clitoris and inner labia are sliced off with a knife, often without painkillers). Because she spoke out against this barbaric practice, and published a non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in 1972, that mentioned it, the Egyptian Ministry of Health fired her from her position as Director of Public Health. The government charged her with crimes against the state and jailed her for three months in 1981. Death threats in 1993 forced her to flee her country. She returned to Cairo in 2009. Since then, officials frightened by her thoughts on religion have attempted, unsuccessfully, to strip her of her nationality and forcibly to dissolve her marriage.
She has long advocated the separation of church and state, arguing that religious beliefs oppress women and impede democracy. She founded the Global Solidarity for Secular Society out of her conviction, which I share, that religion should be separate from all public education and laws. In an interview with The Guardian, she explained,
I am very critical of all religions…We, as women, are oppressed by all these religions.…
There is a backlash against feminism all over the world today because of the revival of religions…We have had a global and religious fundamentalist movement.
And what does feminism mean for her?
For me feminism includes everything…It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.
One of the most remarkable things about the phenomenon taking place in Egypt right now–and across the Arab world–is that the movement has no clear leaders. What drives it is not a set of rules, or laws, or religious commands, but rather a something much deeper and more humane than this, something deeply human, the longing to be free, to be able to live peaceably with one another, to embrace, to love, to work, to eat, to walk, to be alive in the world without dictators, or oppressive rules that crush the spirit, without barbarism. The people, men, women, old, young, have come together to celebrate the beauty of their connection to one another as Egyptians, yes, but also as human beings, each one of whom has an inherent right to dignity, to liberty, and to think for one’s self.
When asked, in 2009, why she continued to write and speak out so controversially, in spite of the persecution and the violence that has been her reward, Dr. Saadawi said,
I cannot stop. There is no way back.
The people of Egypt are calling for their freedom. There is no way back. The will die for their liberty. How can we not support them?
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,
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.