Nobel's Karman 'the mother of Yemen's revolution'

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 5:35 a.m. MDT

Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman speaks to journalists after the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their work on women's rights.

Hani Mohammed, Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen — She is known among Yemenis as "the iron woman" and the "mother of the revolution." A conservative woman fighting for change in a conservative Muslim and tribal society, Tawakkul Karman has been the face of the mass uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The 32-year-old Karman has been an activist for human rights in Yemen for years, but when she was arrested in January, it helped detonate protests by hundreds of thousands demanding the ouster of Saleh and the creation of a democratic government.

When the announcement was made Wednesday that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Karman was where she has been nearly every day for the past eight months: in a protest tent in Change Square, the roundabout in central Sanaa that has been the symbolic epicenter of the revolt.

"This prize is not for Tawakkul, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice," she told The Associated Press from her tent as she received congratulations from other activists.

In choosing Karman — who shares the prize with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee — the Nobel committee gave a nod to the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings that have swept the Middle East, forcing out the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

In Yemen, millions have been turning out for protests in the capital Sanaa and cities around the country since late January. Still, Saleh has determinedly refused to step down.

Karman and the other young activists who have led Yemen's uprising have created a movement that is unique in this impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where tribal allegiances run deep, much of the public is religiously conservative and weapons are rife, with guns in nearly every home.

A member of Yemen's opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party, Karman like a significant sector of Yemeni women once wore the niqab, the conservative Muslim garb that covers the face with a veil and hides the body in heavy robes, leaving only the eyes visible.

But last year, she changed to a more moderate headscarf, covering just her hair — she told AP she wanted to be "face to face with my activist colleagues."

Women have participated heavily in the protests. The organizers have intentionally sought to cut across tribal lines. And they have resolutely remained peaceful, even as Yemen seems to explode around them. Saleh's security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters. Sanaa and other cities have turned into war zones as regime forces battle with dissident military units and tribal fighters opposed to Saleh.

"Neither Ali nor his gangs will drag Yemen toward war and infighting," Kamran told AP. "We chose peace, we could have resorted to violence in this revolution and we could have settled it in days and not months by resorting to our weapons ... But we chose peace and only peace."

"Don't worry about Yemen. Yemen started in peace and it will end its revolution in peace, and it will start its new civil state with peace," she said.

Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told AP that including Karman in the prize is "a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it."

He also said Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim brotherhood, "which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy." He added that "I don't believe that. There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution."

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