Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman: “Change takes time, but it will come"

By: Katrien Bollen - She was unknown outside of her own country until she became the face of the Arab Spring in Yemen. Today, she is the first Arab woman to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. A conversation with human rights activist Tawakkol Karman about dreams, courage, and skipping school for the climate.

“Ask yourself: what can I do?” Tawakkol Karman’s opening speech at the PeaceJam student conference in Leuven is a powerful call to action. “Dream big. Dream for the people suffering from corruption, violence, and tyranny. Dream for them. Be their leader.” Karman is open about her mission: she wants students to follow in her footsteps and take the lead. 


School strikes for the climate
When we meet her again the next day, Karman’s face lights up as soon as we mention Greta Thunberg and the climate protests in Belgium. “I am so happy with what those students are doing!” she exclaims. “That’s how each journey to a better society starts: with people protesting for a common goal, and in a non-violent way. It’s wonderful.” 

Tawakkol Karman knows from experience how powerful student rallies can be. In 2011, she organised the peaceful resistance that helped to end Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen, and for which she spent months camping out in Sana’a. 

Does she have any advice for the students who are skipping school for the climate? “Be patient and determined. Change takes time, but it will come. Be brave, even when people ridicule or even intimidate you. Find out the facts and tell the truth without fearing the consequences.” 


Fear is not an option
Courage and determination seem to come as second nature to her. When you and your loved ones are at risk, you simply can’t afford to be afraid, she says. “We had a dream of dignity, freedom, and democracy, so we promised ourselves that we would never be afraid. There was so much to fear: we were afraid for our lives, our families, our souls. But once you let fear into your soul, it destroys your willpower. Our fear is what the regime wanted: they needed us to be too afraid to raise our voice. So we built a wall between ourselves and our fear, and we focused on our dream instead. That’s what kept us going: we believed in our dream.” 

When asked what inspired her to become an activist, Karman remembers her father’s influence: “He was a lawyer and a government minister (Karman herself is now a member of the opposition party – ed.). He spoke out against corruption and resigned many times. He was a very courageous man, but when he saw that I had inherited this trait, he was worried. It became more real, in a way: he raised his voice, but I organised street protests.” 

She also draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, she says. “And from my family: my husband and our three children have always stood by me. So have the Yemeni people, who called me ‘the Mother of the Revolution’. They give me strength.” 


Queen of Sheba
It can’t be easy to be a female activist in the Middle East. “True, although it’s hard to be a woman anywhere – not just in the Middle East. Even in developed countries, there is no full equality. However, women in the Middle East suffer twice: as citizens and as women. Like men, they suffer from tyranny, injustice, and the lack of services. When they speak out against dictators, they pay the same price as men and may end up in prison – or worse. On top of that, they also suffer as women, because they are limited by tradition and by customs.”

Sometimes, however, being a woman can be an advantage as well. "Female activists have a unique type of power: people are so shocked to see a woman who is not afraid of dictators that they are drawn to you. They see a woman with a loud, strong voice and can’t make sense of it, so you have their attention. Moreover, in our history, we have a potent symbol of female leadership: the Queen of Sheba. Some people saw me as a second Queen, and that gave me strength. It helped me to show that women can be part of the solution.”

When Tawakkol Karman was sent to prison for her political activism, her husband went straight to the media to tell them how proud he was of his wife – a remarkable decision, given that many women in Karman’s situation were abandoned by their families. She was released shortly afterwards. “By imprisoning me, the dictator made a big mistake: he wanted to silence me, but he made people hear my voice instead. By saying ‘I am here, and I will be your voice’, I gained the respect of the Yemeni people, and they followed me as their leader.” 

The Arab Spring: unfinished business
The 2011 Yemeni Revolution ended Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, but the population is still suffering: in 2015, a civil war broke out and millions of Yemenites are at risk due to the famine.

Nevertheless, Karman’s determination has not wavered. “Every great revolution is followed by a counterrevolution. It’s part of the process. The Arab Spring hasn’t failed: it just isn’t over yet. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening in the Middle East, but I still believe in the future. The counterrevolution is a fake victory: the real victory will come, and it will be with the people. There is no other option. We will not give up: from the Ocean to the Gulf, dictatorships will come to an end.”

However, the Middle East is fighting an uphill battle, she says. Her eyes harden and her voice trembles with rage when she talks about the hypocrisy and complicity of the West. “Why do Western governments sell weapons to dictatorial regimes? Why do they turn a blind eye to all the imprisonments, to all the killings? Terrorism, the refugee crisis, the collapse of whole nations: it’s all linked to dictatorships. Western governments have made an alliance with the past: the dictators might have oil, money, and other assets to offer right now but, one day, they’ll be gone, and the people will still be there. The future lies with them. The people are the future. Western governments will have to work hard to regain their trust.”  


A Nobel cause
It’s a good thing that winning the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize has opened doors in the West, says Karman. However, her Prize also created certain expectations: “Some people told me to start behaving like a Nobel Peace Prize laureate: be careful when you talk about regimes, don't mention names, look for compromise. But that's not me: I am a woman of the revolution, and I will continue fighting against dictators. I don’t want to 'schmooze' them: I want to see them in prison.” 

Does she hope that her three children will join her battle when they get older? “That’s up to them. I encourage them to get involved in society, to find out the truth, to become leaders. That’s also why I brought them with me to this PeaceJam conference. But I won’t force them: my journey is not an easy one. It has to be their decision.” 


* Tawakkol Karman’s public lecture on Friday 22 February 2019 was part of the Ambassador’s Lecture Series at KU Leuven.