Muslim Feminists Disappear from the Headlines: on Tawakkol/Tawakul Karman


At last the New York Times wakes up to the revolutionary action going on in Yemen.  But there is nary a word about توكل كرمان, Tawakul Karman, the feminist activist and head of Women Journalists without Chains, who on January 23 was arrested (without a warrant) and jailed by the authorities for organizing a protest against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh without their permission.  Up until her arrest, she had been active in student demonstrations outside Sana’a University.  Numerous people, including many women, clamored for her release, and she was freed on January 24.  She immediately returned to streets and bravely shouted:

We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis,

to approximately 1000 demonstrators.  Since then, Karman has not surfaced in the news. Who has silenced her? Amnesty International believes that

Tawakkol Karman is being targeted for her activism and role in organizing and taking part in recent protests and sit-ins in Yemen.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), reports that a very reliable source informed them that someone from the government phoned Ms. Karman and told her that she would be killed if she left her house.

The way the Times covers them, the only people demonstrating in Yemen are men.  It also reports that

Unlike in Egypt, the peaceful protests in Yemen were not led by young people, but by the traditional opposition, largely Islamists.

Protesters in Sana'a, photo from NYT 28 Jan 2011

 

I dunno, these guys look pretty young to me.   Of course the demonstrators are mostly men, since women do not generally enjoy high status in this tribal culture.  But what is meant by “Islamists”?  Unfortunately, without qualification, this word prompts immediate images of “terrorist” and “fundamentalist” and “people we hate” in the American media.

It is crucial to remember is that women, educated, literate, politically active women, have been involved from the very beginning. Tawakul Karman, for example,  has spoken out aggressively against religious extremism and the rising presence of Al Qaeda in her country.  See her letter to Women Without Borders/SAVE [Sisters Against Violent Extremism] here.

If the US, which has supported Saleh to the tune of $250 million over the last five years, writes off this rebellion as merely an “Islamist” uprising, and chooses to support a puppet dictatorship instead of promoting civil rights and political freedom for all people in the country, it will probably bring about a much more repressive and anti-American result.

Ordinary women and men are participating in this movement.  Here is what the government did to women who peacefully protested the arrest of Tawakul Karman:

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.

In their statement protesting the arrest of Karman, from which the excerpts above are taken,  Women Journalists Without Chains also reports that

Approximately 35 families were displaced from their villages in Al-Ja’ashen County in Ibb because they refused to pay unofficial taxes (200,000 YR) to the head of the tribe who is a member of the appointed Shura council. 10 months ago their villages were attacked and houses were burnt down, they were forced to flee, and currently live in camps in different parts of Yemen, including Sana’a. Those who still live in Ibb, Ta’ez, and Ma’reb are still targeted by security officials.

Although the NYTimes very briefly mentions that Yemen is

one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries,

it suggests that the reason the people have taken to the streets has more to do with traditional opposition politics and Islam than with genuine frustration and rage at a regime that they view as corrupt.

Yemen is the poorest country in the world.   Roughly the size of France, it sits on the Southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula. It suffers massive unemployment and mismanaged resources, including water.  It it also riven by decades-old political strife between a once independent, Socialist South and North, which itself was split between the Islamist Islah Party and the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of President Saleh.   The North and South were unified in 1990, but tension between the two very different entities have remained high.

In 2007  disgruntled former civil servants who had been forcibly retired after unification, lawyers, academics, students, and journalists, began to organize broad demonstrations to demand greater economic opportunities, greater freedom of the press, an end to corruption, and a fairer share of the country’s oil resources between the North and the South.  By 2009 more traditional community leaders, including tribal sheiks, had joined the Southern movement.  Most demonstrations were peaceful, according to Human Rights Watch, which monitored the situation through video and first-hand reporting, but there were some outbreaks of violence.

The government of President Saleh responded to these demonstrations with shokcing brutality.   In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported:

On an almost daily basis since 2007, the Southern Movement has organized largely peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, festivals, marches, and other forms of public protests to give voice to their cause. With disturbing consistency, security forces have opened fire on protesters, killing and wounding unarmed demonstrators. The Yemeni authorities appear unwilling to permit public displays of grievances by the Southern Movement, regardless of their peaceful nature.

Government forces and extra-legal pro-government militias shot at, killed or wounded countless peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in various southern villages.  Saleh calls this squads of hit men “Committees to Protect Unity” (CPU).   In 2009 Saleh’s government also ordered hospitals and other medical facilities to refuse to treat persons who had been injured while protesting.   Some militias even carried out attacks on demonstrators within hospitals. It also instituted mass, arbitrary arrests of women, men, and, unbelievably, children, in a broad attempt to intimidate the population.  Newspapers were shut down, media outlets were attacked, journalists were arrested and harassed. Bloggers were detained, websites were blocked, academics and other opinion-makers were interrogated.

This same government is currently repressing the largely peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Sana’a.  These demonstrators are not religious fanatics or enemies of the state, but rather ordinary people whom a corrupt and oppressive government has thoroughly alienated.

YemenOnline today reports that all of its articles covering the demonstrations have been deleted by hackers.  Editor-in-chief Jamal Al-Awadhi stated that,

It seems  an undeclared war against freedom of expression and what happened means that there is control over the sites and there are those who intervene to manipulate by the news and articles using new technology.

Tawakul Karman and other human rights activists, the people who are calling for greater freedom of the press and for an end to repression and the rise of extremism in their country, are very important to the cause of democracy in the Middle East.   It makes no sense for the United States to support dictators and thugs.  As Human Rights Watch cautions, we need to make sure we don’t turn the “enemies of Al Qaeda into its friends.”  See their very smart seven principles for US Policy in Yemen here.

Even though she is a member of Islah, an Islamist opposition party, Karman is a moderate Muslim and a sane advocate for justice and liberty.  Her first name, Tawakul, means ‘Trust” in Arabic.  We need her, and others like her, to be okay.

Muslim feminists like Tawakkol Karman, as well as the Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian doctor, writer, and activist, or  Asma Jahangirare, the Pakistani lawyer and human rights defender, or Meena, the matyred founder of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), work to bring about peace and prosperity for all human beings.  The New York Times, and the rest of us, ignore them at our peril.

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One thought on “Muslim Feminists Disappear from the Headlines: on Tawakkol/Tawakul Karman

  1. Pingback: Stop supporting the Murderous Yemeni Government | The Left Hand of Feminism

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