Tawakul Karman and the Women of Yemen Who Stand For All of US


A Beautiful Yemeni Woman Protester

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.

Although, or perhaps because Yemen is one of the worst places on earth to be a woman,  Yemeni women have played a significant role in the protest movement against this patriarchal regime.  As a recent essay in Al Jazeera explains:

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.

Another Yemeni Protester. It is highly uncommon for Yemeni women to show their faces in public. Tawakul Karman did it, arguing that nowhere in the Koran does it say that women must veil their faces.

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?

When he learn?  And when will he step down? More urgently, why is the President of the United States seeming to cooperate with this criminal regime?  Although the US has officially called for his resignation, recent events, including the drone strike that killed Anwar Al-Alwaki, an American citizen, in Yemen, suggest that this administration has deepened its commitment to this corrupt government.  The US allegedly doubled military aid to Saleh’s government last year.

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.

Tawakul Karman and other Yemeni Activists

Yemeni Women’s Rights


I was glad to see that the NYTimes had the sense to publish this letter from TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ, Executive Director, Equality Now, about a recent article that misrepresented women’s rights in Yemen.

Offended Yemeni Women Protest President’s Remarks” (news article, April 17), you noted that Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women are not legislated as in neighboring Saudi Arabia. To the contrary, in many ways sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice.

The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement. The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status given to Yemeni women.

The Yemeni government must not only repeal all discriminatory provisions in its law, but also take steps to end discrimination by enacting laws that will protect women and girls, like setting a minimum age for marriage and supporting women’s equal participation in public life.

The face of the Yemeni uprising belongs to  a 32-year old mother of three.  Tawakul Karman (also spelled Tawakkol: her name in Arabic, توكل, means “trust”) has been cheered by students and others calling for the end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s autocratic regime.   The activist and chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains has been leading sit-ins and demonstrations calling for greater civil rights, education and economic opportunities.  Ms. Karman, who belongs to the main opposition party,  Al-Islah, has also spoken out against the rise of religious fundamentalism and violence in her country.
In the 2003 parliamentary election, Al-Islah won 46 seats. As of 2010, 13 of Al-Islah’s parliament members are women, including Karman.  She removed her niqāb (face veil) at a human rights conference in 2004 and since then has called for “other women and female activists to take theirs off.”

Nonviolence vs. U.S. Support for Repression in the Middle East


Some things that the brave protestors in the Arab and Persian worlds have taught us:

1.  Non-violence is the most effective weapon against violence. As Gene Sharp notes in “From Dictatorship to Democracy”

Since 1980 dictatorships have collapsed before the predominantly nonviolent defiance of people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, Madagascar, Mali, Bolivia, and the Philippines.  Nonviolent resistance has furthered the movement toward democratization in Nepal, Zambia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Brazil, Uruguay, Malawi, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Nigeria, and various parts of the former Soviet Union (playing a significant role in the defeat of the August 1991 attempted hard-line coup d’état).

People–even soldiers and policemen–do not willingly fire on unarmed, peaceful protestors.  Leaders of nations that claim to be democracies have a hard time keeping themselves elected when they openly support dictators who slaughter and pillage their people.  Although it took a painfully long time for the Obama administration to declare its allegiance to the democratic activists in the streets, US ties to the military and pressure probably had much to do with the fall of Mubarak and his thugs.  But other nations, such as Britain, Germany, and France, have also had to withdraw their support for Mubarak and the other autocratic rulers of countries around the Mediterranean ocean and Red Sea that are currently up in arms: Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen.

Today’s Times has a good summary of unrest in the region:

LIBYA There were violent demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, for a third day. Human rights groups said 24 people had been killed across the country, although activists say the count could be much higher

BAHRAIN The army opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, and when ambulances arrived to tend to the wounded, the soldiers opened fire again. Doctors at one hospital said that at least one person died and that four or five were critically wounded.

EGYPT Millions of people assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo to celebrate the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak a week ago and to press the military to make good on its promise to move toward democracy.

YEMEN Yemeni media reported that four protesters died in the port city of Aden in battles with the police, and there were clashes in two other cities between people demonstrating for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

JORDAN Government supporters fought with demonstrators calling for political change in Amman, the capital, and several people were injured, witnesses said.

KUWAIT More than 1,000 stateless Arabs demonstrated in the city of Jahra demanding citizenship, with dozens of people arrested by the police, according to witnesses. The demonstration was broken up by security forces using smoke bombs and water cannons.

DJIBOUTI About 6,000 people turned out to protest against the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, and security forces used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Among the issues is a constitutional change that did away with a two-term limit for the president.

TUNISIA The transitional government approved a general amnesty of the country’s political prisoners. In addition, at least three people were injured when security forces fired in the air to break up a demonstration by hundreds of Islamists protesting against a brothel in Tunis, the capital.

2. The United States, Britain and many other so-called “democratic” nations have long supported brutal regimes that have terrorized, imprisoned, and tortured their people, and this practice has neither guaranteed stability nor made them many friends in the world.

The U.S. helped to overthrow Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically elected prime minister, who nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry and oil reserves.  Reactionary anti-communist forces in both Britain and the U.S. engaged in a successful plot to overthrow Mossadegh, installing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the puppet autocratic ruler of Iran.  The outrage and resentment that this criminal act fostered in the Iranian people led directly to the rise of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the 1979 Revolution, and and the current, murderous regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

US SUPPORT FOR DICTATORSHIP AND REPRESSIVE REGIMES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The U.S. obviously does not support the government of Iran, but it has been very friendly and helpful to numerous other near-dictatorships in the Middle East:

A.P. demonstrators in Libyan city of Benghazi

Libya: A small elite benefit from most of this country’s rich oil reserves.  The U.S. closed its military bases in Libya in 1970 and cut off economic and diplomatic relations with the country after it was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Relations were restored in 2005. There is no freedom of speech or information in Libya.  According to the New York Times,

the Libyan government has tried to impose a blackout on the country. Foreign journalists cannot enter. Internet access has been almost totally severed, with only occasional access, though some protesters appear to be using satellite connections or phoning information to services outside the country. Al Jazeera, viewed by many as a cheerleader for the democracy movements stirring the region, has been taken off the air. Several people and intermediaries said Libyans were reluctant to talk to the foreign press via phone, fearing reprisals from the security forces.

The U.S. Department of State reports that Quadafhi has pursued a policy against Islamic fundamentalism that has potentially turned elements of the military against him.  The Bush administration normalized relations with Libya in 2009 and in 2010 the U.S. signed a trade agreement with the country.

Breaking news reports about Libya on Twitter suggest that 250 demonstrators were killed in air strikes today.  It is also rumored that Libyan ambassador to the UN ambassador has asked Quadhafi to step down.

Bahrainian protestorsBahrain: This tiny kingdom on the Persian Gulf is a strategic asset in U.S. foreign policy.  It has been a base for U.S. operations since 1947.  The monarch and ruling class are Sunni, while the majority of the population are Shiite.  The Sunni minority enjoys the majority of the country’s resources and civic benefits. Nicholas Kristof reports today that:

Here in Bahrain, we have been in bed with a minority Sunni elite that has presided over a tolerant, open and economically dynamic country — but it’s an elite that is also steeped in corruption, repression and profound discrimination toward the Shia population. If you parachute into a neighborhood in Bahrain, you can tell at once whether it is Sunni or Shia: if it has good roads and sewers and is well maintained, it is Sunni; otherwise, it is Shia.

A 20-year-old medical student, Ghadeer, told me that her Sunni classmates all get government scholarships and public-sector jobs; the Shiites pay their own way and can’t find work in the public sector. Likewise, Shiites are overwhelmingly excluded from the police and armed forces, which instead rely on mercenaries from Sunni countries. We give aid to these oligarchs to outfit their police forces to keep the Shiites down; we should follow Britain’s example and immediately suspend such transfers until it is clear that the government will not again attack peaceful, unarmed protesters.

The people of Bahrain have been protesting these injustices for nine consecutive days.  At least 7 people have been killed and hundreds have been injured.

Egypt:  The U.S. substantially supported the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak, whom protestors forced to step down on February 11, 2011.  For examples of the brutality of this government, see for example, this article, and also  this Human Rights Watch report on police torture.

Tawakul Karman and other Yemeni women calling for democracy

Yemen: The U.S. and Britain have both invested heavily in the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they have considered a friend in the so-called “war against terror.”  The U.S. Department of State reports that

In FY 2009 U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Yemen was $2.8 million, International Military Education and Training (IMET) was $1 million, and Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR) was $2.5 million. In FY 2009 Yemen also received $19.8 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF), $11.2 million in development assistance, and $67.1 million in Section 1206 funding.

Critics of the government, such as Tawakul Karman, have long complained that Saleh has done little or nothing to stop the rise of Al Quaeda within its borders.  Protesters in Yemen began their uprising by calling for democratic reforms, but lately more of them have insisted that Saleh step down and make way for a more democratic government.Human Rights Watch reports on the violent suppression of journalists, academics, and other opinion makers who support a more egalitarian distribution of resources and civil rights in the country here..

On the 11th consecutive day of protests, the President, whose forces killed a teenager and wounded four other people in Aden, compared the current enthusiasm for democracy to a disease:

This is a virus and is not part of our heritage or the culture of the Yemeni people,” he told reporters. “It’s a virus that came from Tunisia to Egypt. And to some regions, the scent of the fever is like influenza. As soon as you sit with someone who is infected, you’ll be infected.

Jordanians demanding reform

Jordan: The U.S. Department of State describes relations between the United States and Jordan as having been “close for  6 decades, with 2009 marking the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Jordanian ties.”  Human Rights Watch reports that torture is rife in the Jordanian prison system and that restrictive laws suppress civil rights in the country at large.

King Abdullah, who succeeded his father, the late King Hussein, in 1999, has promised to institute reforms. Many of the protesters are fiercely critical of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

Bedouins protesting for greater civil rights in Kuwait

Kuwait: Bedouins peacefully demonstrating in front of a mosque were drawn into a violent scuffle with special security forces and operatives.  Arab Times reported that 1500 special security forces and 500 operatives got involved, and that 20 people sustained injuries while about 60 people were arrested.  Apparently before this fight broke out,  women protesters met with Assistant Undersecretary for Public Security Major General Khalil Al-Shemali.  Many Beduoins, considered to be stateless Arabs, have claimed Kuwaiti citizenship, but the government has rejected their requests and claimed that their ancestors came from elsewhere. It launched a crackdown on the Bedouins, who may not obtain drivers licenses, birth or death certificates, or marriage contracts, in 2000.  There are about 100,000 stateless persons living in Bedouins, many in abject poverty.

The U.S. Department of State reports that

The United States is currently Kuwait’s largest supplier of goods and services, and Kuwait is the fifth-largest market in the Middle East. U.S. exports to Kuwait totaled $2.14 billion in 2006.

Protesters in Djibouti

Djibouti: While today’s NYTimes reports that only 6,000 protesters demonstrated against the government in this country (see above), the Financial Times states that, according to  oppositions leaders, more than 30,000 people protested on Friday against the rule of Ismail Ghuelleh, who nullified a constitutional tw0-term limit so that he could stand for office again last year.  According to a protestor interviewed by the FT, the people have come out into the streets to demonstrate against “dictatorship, bad government, lack of democracy and dynastic succession.”  According the U.S. Department of State:

The government established a minister for women’s affairs and is engaged in an ongoing effort to increase public recognition of women’s rights and to ensure enforcement. The government is leading efforts to stop illegal and abusive traditional practices, including female genital mutilation. As the result of an ongoing effort, the percentage of girls attending primary school increased significantly and is now more than 50%. However, women’s rights and family planning continue to face difficult challenges, many stemming from acute poverty in both rural and urban areas. With female ministers and members of parliament, the presence of women in government has increased. Despite the gains, education of girls still lags behind boys, and employment opportunities are better for male applicants.

This report also states that

The Djiboutian Government has been very supportive of U.S. and Western interests, particularly since the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Guelleh continues to take a very proactive position against terrorism.

Tunisia: Civil resistance and pro-democracy demonstrations led to the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011.  Fed up with high unemployment, little freedom of speech, corruption,and  food inflation. They began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire.

The U.S. has regarded Tunisia as a friend and stalwart ally for a very long time–the U.S. State Department boasts that the relationship goes back 200 years.  Through the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP), designed to promote U.S. investment in, and economic integration of, the Maghreb region, and the  Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which aimed to foster economic reform projects while adding bilateral and regional projects for education reform, civil society development, and women’s empowerment, Tunisia received more than $4 million in assistance from the U.S. from 2001 to 2005.  Amnesty International paints a much darker picture of Tunisia before the uprising.  It charged  that the government of  had misled the world about the states of human rights in and observed

In their efforts to prevent the formation of what they call “terrorist cells” inside Tunisia, the authorities have been responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions which breach Tunisian law, and have forcibly disappeared detainees, used torture and other ill-treatment and tried, convicted and sentenced people using unfair proceedings. In addition, they have tried civilians before military courts and produced little evidence to substantiate the charges.

 

Pro-democracy protestors in all these countries have bravely withstood tanks, assault weapons, tear gas, and beatings.  People died tragically when government forces attacked them, but the military and police forces in these countries eventually backed off for a complex set of reasons.  The most important of these reasons is that the soldiers and police were finally unwilling to slaughter unarmed, peaceful protestors.  Another significant factor is that the United States, which has historically supported these unjust regimes, threatened to withdraw their support if the government did not stop killing their citizens.

I am hoping that President Barak Obama will stand up for democracy in a way that few of his predecessors have done.  But I am obviously not just hoping silently.  I am speaking out here on this blog.  I hope that you will also speak out in support of democracy everywhere, including in our country.  On this, please see Paul Krugman’s excellent editorial about the threat to democracy here at home.

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.

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen


Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

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.   I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.

It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.

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.