VOGUE MAGAZIN - By :ALESSANDRA CODINHAIn 2011, at age 32, Tawakkol Karman became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize—the youngest ever Nobel Peace Laureate at the time. One of the Middle East’s few grassroots women leaders, Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains, and organized weekly protests in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in the early aughts, targeting systemic government repression and calling for inquiries into corruption and other forms of social and legal injustice. She has been abducted, imprisoned, attacked, and threatened for speaking out; among Yemen’s opposition movement, the Nobel Women’s Initiative notes, Karman is known as “mother of the revolution” and “the iron woman.”
Today, Yemen needs her strength. A three-year civil conflict and a ruthless, relentless bombing campaign carried out by Saudi Arabia (enabled by American support, and $100 billion worth of armaments purchased during the Obama administration alone) has produced what United Nations officials have called “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.” Last week, the GOP-controlled United States Senate voted against a bipartisan resolution drafted by Bernie Sanders, Republican Mike Lee of Utah, and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy to stop America’s fiscal and technological support of the Saudis (an arrangement launched by former President Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump), who have conducted what one human rights group says has been around 16,000 air strikes, resulting in the loss of more than 13,500 lives, many of them civilian. At present, Vox writes, “Roughly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs—including food and water—out of a prewar population of 28 million, and nearly 1 million people are suffering from cholera.” The country, which was already among the poorest in the region before the attacks, is now veering toward famine. Two days after the resolution’s defeat, the State Department announced that it had approved $1 billion in further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. (Trump has called Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, “a very good friend,” and the White House heavily invested in convincing lawmakers that withdrawing support would “unwisely damage the American partnership with the Saudis.” As Nicolas Niarchos noted in The New Yorker in January, “The Trump administration has decided to de-link the human rights dialogue from the security-support dialogue.”)
This role of the West as a sort of silent sponsor in the ongoing slaughter in Yemen has not gone unnoticed. “The international community has relinquished the principles it has called for,” Karman said to me in March, where we met in Mexico City at the Liberatum festival. “Many Western countries prefer their interests with these tyrannies over the freedom and the democratic values that they have been preaching for,” beyond which, she said, these “temporary victories of the counterrevolutions, military coups, and sectarian militia” are due wholly to the “support, silence, and blessing of the international community.” This onslaught on Yemen is the result of the people pushing for Western ideals like “freedom, democracy, and the rule of law,” she said; those who oppose them “fear their own people, and want to teach them a lesson: that this will be their fate if they stand against the ruler.” By refusing to get more involved (beyond making and selling weapons of war), America is throwing its support against those seeking to celebrate and emulate Western values, and has chosen instead to back the autocrats. Freedom, Karman believes, is still worth fighting for, no matter how slow the progress. “When I talk in my interviews and speeches, I always ask people in the U.S., and the West: ‘How did you reach this moment of freedom and democracy?’ Was it just like that, all of a sudden, without any suffering? Or was it a long march of struggle by the previous generations? And sacrifices of blood, pains, and tears by your ancestors for the sake of your freedom and happiness?”
Karman spoke to Vogue about the ongoing crisis in Yemen, and why, even in the face of the unspeakable, she remains an optimist. “Today, we have arrived at an era in which people across the world are refusing despotism, corruption, violence, and failure,” she said. “The more things deteriorate, the more people insist on aligning themselves with their human values, and fighting for a world of love, coexistence, and peace, a world free of despotism and corruption.” The day after we spoke, Karman addressed the crowd gathered at Liberatum before El Ángel, the monument to the Mexican War of Independence, and told them this: “The stronger we believe in our rights, in humanity, dignity, and freedom, the closer we are to the life we want, and the world we look forward to and hope for.” Below, an excerpt from our conversation.
How does a person become the “mother of the revolution?”
My journey of “no” started when I was a child. My father [Abdul Salam] taught me to say no, and to question everything that my mind or heart did not accept. He taught me to be in the front lines, not to fear anyone, and not to wait for solutions from others or to expect help from anyone, including my brothers. I learned to take the initiative. My father made many stands against the government in which he served as a minister [for legal and parliamentary affairs in an earlier Ali Abdullah Saleh government]. He resigned from many different posts that he had occupied because of corruption and injustice. This was the beginning: My father was my role model.
During my school days, I used my voice to criticize mistakes and gather people to start protests and sit-ins. When I grew up and came to understand the crisis in my country—which suffers from poverty, injustice, deteriorating education and health services, and being portrayed as a nation of terrorism—I decided to take a stand and to devote my life to defending human rights, combating despotism and corruption. I decided to devote my life to building a new Yemen, based on justice, freedom, democracy, development, welfare, and rule of law—and to be on the right side of history, no matter how great the sacrifice.
And so I became a journalist. I wrote many critiques of the dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, calling people to stand against him and his corruption. I established Women Journalists Without Chains, which was my entry to institutionalized work against despotism and corruption. Then we started the fieldwork in the streets, through protests and sit-ins, which were not permitted at that time. I decided that I would not seek anybody’s permission, I would practice my right to the freedom of expression, and if you want to stop me, you’ve got to detain me or kill me. I’m practicing my right according to the constitution, and to the international conventions and treaties that Yemen has ratified.
I imagine that undertaking this work as a woman in Yemen provides its own set of challenges.
There are many challenges, for instance, how to convince people to move against corruption, oppression, and human rights and freedoms violations, and to show them that such movement is equally important to all of their other needs that they associate with their lives and livelihoods? I remember my father’s anxiety and his concern about me. The ousted dictator used to call my father and threaten him: “If you do not silence your daughter, we will silence her.” My father was not imagining seeing his child be arrested every now and then. But I convinced him that he who did not plant fear in my heart when I was a child should not fear for me while I’m struggling for the cause of the oppressed and deprived. Ultimately, I got his and my mother’s blessing.
The traditional perception of women did factor in to my role in the revolution. Many of my colleagues and members of the larger community were cynical about me. I’d been roaming the streets of Sana’a, carrying a loudspeaker, calling for people to “wake up” and stand up and advocate for their rights against injustice and corruption. They were asking, “What is this woman doing? Her role is in the kitchen, or at best, at the feminist magazines.” Saleh’s regime tried to destroy my reputation as a woman in a conservative community by spreading false stories—he said I’m crazy, they called me names in their media outlets. I was attacked several times and detained, defamed in the regime’s newspapers and media. It was a dirty war to demoralize me. But the Yemeni people’s reaction disappointed the regime: Each attack on me as a journalist, a human rights defender, or as a revolutionary brought more people around me. They believed that I sacrificed for them. They believed me when I said, “I’m here for you,” when I gave them my voice, and sacrificed to express and defend their rights. They trusted me. When I was abducted and detained, Yemenis from different backgrounds went into the streets to protest, carrying my picture. It was the first time they carried a woman’s picture in this way. It’s since then that they called me “the mother of the revolution.”
What can you tell us about the current situation in Yemen?
We are facing a fascist coup by the Iran-backed Houthi militia, and parts of the country are under occupation, siege, and war by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We made a great, peaceful revolution against Saleh, and forced him to step down in 2011. We started a marvelous national dialogue, and drafted a democratic constitution that responded to all of our dreams and goals in order to rebuild Yemen: human rights, rule of law, women’s and children’s rights. Unfortunately, just before the referendum on the constitution and the elections, there was a coup in 2014, carried out by the Houthis with the support of the overthrown president Ali Saleh, and Iran, where they took over the capital, Sana’a, and other cities. Months later, another war erupted, this time led by Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. That war is another form of counterrevolution against us.
This coup and this war have led to a huge humanitarian catastrophe and outbreaks of diseases and hunger. Both parties— the Houthi and Iran from one side, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other—are fighting each other in Yemen, but at the same time, they are both fighting against Yemen. They are launching a counterrevolution in our country: They do not want us to succeed, nor do they want freedom and democracy to come to Yemen, or to any other state in the region. So we in the Arab Spring countries are now facing the counterrevolution, where the ex-regimes and those affected by change are working to return to power, creating chaos and destruction with the support of regional tyrannies; UAE and Saudi Arabia from one side, and Iran from the other.
Each great revolution is followed by violent counterrevolution that endeavors to destroy the mother revolution and undermine its gains. But victory is always for the people who believe in their cause, who are determined to win, no matter how serious the sacrifices are. Our destiny is to win, and our promise is to establish the state of right and law—we did not surrender, and we will not. The morning of our dreams will come true.
Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, came to Washington, D.C., last week in an effort to drum up investment in his country. He’s received some good press for appearing to take a more liberal stance on the rights of Saudi women; he’s received some mixed press for imprisoning 380 princes, businessmen, and former government ministers (including 11 of his relatives) in a Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. His first night here he had dinner with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, which I found interesting; Kushner, who has been tasked with creating peace in the Middle East, negotiated the U.S.’s recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
I will give my opinion on Mohammed bin Salman from the perspective of his position on my country, Yemen. I don’t want to speak about the Saudi internal situation. What really matters to me is the war led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Yemen.
Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, are fighting a devastating war against my country, and imposing a land, sea, and air blockade on it. They are committing countless massacres under the pretext of restoring the legitimacy there. But it is a false claim. Instead of restoring the legitimacy and helping the state to extend its sovereignty, Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to prevent the legitimate president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his government from returning to the liberated areas, and have placed them in a kind of house arrest in Riyadh. Saudi and the Emirates have since occupied vital parts of the country, formed and supported local anti-government militias to implement their hidden agendas.
The aggressive UAE-Saudi occupation of Yemen is very clear. They have betrayed Yemenis, and exploited the Iranian-backed Houthi coup to impose an ugly occupation. Here, I call for an international effort to stop the Saudi and UAE war on Yemen, lift the blockade, and compensate Yemen for the severe damage inflicted on it. Also, I call on the Houthis to end the coup, hand over their weapons to the state, and transform themselves into a political party. The other armed groups should surrender their arms as well. Thereafter, Yemenis could start a referendum on the new constitution drafted during the national dialogue, and hold the various elections under this constitution.
As a journalist, does the current state of distrust for the media frighten you at all?
Yes. It is scary. Media’s role is to inform people and to provide a platform for different opinions, and when a lack of confidence prevails, this means that media is not able to do their job, and often that there is an oppressive regime denying people the right to know the truth. Lack of confidence in media helps rumors spread and encourages misinformation that is propagated and disseminated by media that does not respect any journalistic standards or ethics.
Many countries, apparently, are sliding into a new type of fascism. This is also happening in Europe, in South America. It is difficult not to feel fear at such situations. I support absolute freedom of expression, seeing it as an inalienable right for every citizen across the world. I am, however, deeply concerned when the president of the United States shows no respect for journalism and media, as this reflects a serious violation of the freedom of expression and poses a real threat to all our efforts against despots and their supporters, who would say: “Look what is happening in the United States!”
There has been a lot of fear-mongering related to the increasing numbers of refugees in Western countries—despite the fact that between the years of 2008 and 2016, there were almost twice as many terrorist incidents by right-wing American extremists (the majority of whom are white men) as by Islamist ones in the United States.
Unfortunately, everyone—Western governments, in particular—has abandoned their duties to the refugees, who might not have left their countries if not for the brutality of the oppressive regimes with whom “the international community” acts as an accomplice. Civilians were abandoned in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and they were left alone under the despotisms’ and terrorists’ fires. This would not have happened if there were an active U.N. and vibrant international community.
The best solution for the refugees’ problem, I believe, is to get rid of the tyrannies. For instance, if Europe wanted to see a decline in the asylum seekers’ numbers, all they have to do is to help Arab peoples to get rid of oppressive regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s. Linking the influx of refugees with the increase of terrorist attacks is totally unjust: The majority of terrorist attacks are in the Arab region. This terrorism feeds into the tyrannies and opposes the Arab Spring. Terrorism and despotism are two faces of one coin, they are nourishing each other, and we have to understand that.
Then some come and try to put us between two impossible options: either despotism or terrorism. What an insane option! We’ve no option other than freedom, dignity, democracy, rule of law, and peace, and that is what we are going to achieve one day.
You’re famous for advocating for peaceful protest, and for putting down guns, something that’s come up a bit in the States, now, with March for Our Lives calling for stricter gun legislation.
The spread of arms is a major challenge in the Yemeni community—Yemenis own about 60 million pieces of arms. [As part of our work,] I called on the Yemeni people to abandon their arms, and to protest while carrying roses instead, to show them how nonviolence is less expensive both in cost and human life. Nobody believed that I could start a peaceful revolution. I still remember the words of my friends, and ambassadors who visited me following my release, who told me that people will not listen to me regarding peaceful work. But I insisted and told them that the day will come when you see millions of Yemenis struggling peacefully and overthrowing the Saleh regime all the same.
Millions of people went in protest carrying roses in 18 governorates, chanting the same chant that I chanted, and carrying the same flag I carried, and facing violence with only peace and roses in their hands. Despite all the violence and oppression committed by Saleh, we did not abandon our peaceful methods. We spent 10 months in daily protests, [my husband and our children and I] slept in tents . . . we did not go home until we ousted the dictator and forced him to step down.
What do you say to people who believe that the Arab Spring ultimately failed?
Unfortunately, they [say that because they] are ignorant, or because they don’t want us to win in this battle. There are many supporters and believers of our cause and our victory. For those who are ignorant, or those who have lost hope, we ask: Why? We are the ones who live under threat and subject to the violations and to all this pressure, yet we did not lose hope. We still adhere to our dreams, to our struggles, and will form our freedom.
Why do you lose hope? Why do you forget your history? When I talk in my interviews and speeches, I always ask people in the U.S., and the West: “How did you reach this moment of freedom and democracy?” Was it just like that, all of sudden, without any suffering? Or it was a long march of struggle by the previous generations? And sacrifices of blood, pains and tears by your ancestors for the sake of your freedom and happiness? Without the struggles and sacrifices of the founding fathers, you would not have had this great constitution, and you would not have lived in prosperity, and you would not have had this democracy.
Today, we are facing all this pain, and providing all these sacrifices for the next generations. We did not fail—to the contrary, we have achieved our first goal, of our revolution, and overthrown dictators who ruled us for decades of injustice, corruption, and fear. Yes; the Arab Spring may have stumbled because of counterrevolutions, military coups, and the international community’s silence or complicity, but it did not die. It is continuing and will reemerge again and again, as long as there is a state of tyranny, corruption, nepotism, and failure, until our people enjoy a free and decent life, and will certainly enjoy that one very soon day.
But it was the international community who failed the Arab Spring: It was obvious and clear in Egypt when the international community supported the military coup d’état against the first elected president in Egypt’s history; also in Yemen, when it has turned a blind eye to Houthis and Iran violations from one side, and to Saudi and Emirates violations on the other. It is obvious as seen in the absence of the international community from the daily slaughter by Bashar al-Assad, who has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions of others simply because they called for freedom. But I’m telling them that by staying silent, by staying complicit, they will lose—both their values and the future. The international community has to ally with people, not despotism, in order to survive; tyrannies will leave one day, and only the people who struggle for freedom, justice, and democracy will remain.
Is it hard to stay optimistic?
What I would tell someone who is losing hope, is to always believe in themselves, and that they are capable of change—change is an imperative, nonstop process, and tyrannies and their supporters among countries will not continue forever. Despots may continue with their violations, but ultimately, they will lose—bigotry and hatred might prevail, but they will disappear at the end. Why am I saying this? It is because we are in the 21st century, the age of the Internet, IT revolution, social media, and the era of one global community. Look, for instance, to the solidarity and rejection by the American people of Trump’s decisions, and the protests of thousands of them condemning his policies. Look at the feminism movement and protests within this context, and students who protest against weapons. Is this easy to do? Is it simple? Certainly not . . . but when people say “no” to injustice, nobody can resist them. Once you recognize and move to address injustice, even in a small way, the world is moving towards a better world.
So I am optimistic. But certainly, I’m sad for all this destruction. I’m optimistic that the future will be as great as we wished for. I trust in the future, as it’s us who make it.