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.”

Whither the Revolution for Women in Egypt and Yemen?


Where are the brave, feminist women and men who helped to bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and who have long been agitating against Saleh in Yemen, now?  About a quarter of the million protesters who brought down the Egyptian dictator were women.   Tawakul Karman, who has led anti-government protests at Sana’a University for years, voices the concerns of progressive Yemeni women. Time Magazine and The Guardian call her the “head of the Yemeni protest movement,” but what power does she really have? Will the men–and so far in Egypt they are all men–who rise to power because of these women value or represent their concerns?  To ask this question is not simply to inquire about politics  in the Middle East, but also to consider how deeply entrenched misogynist attitudes and customs will influence the new states to come.

Nesrine Malik, writing for Altmuslimah, argues that the few women who have been featured as central to the Arab uprisings have been “tokenized” and do not represent any genuine egalitarian development in the Middle East:

While the prominence of women in the revolutions has been moving, there is a psychology behind celebrating and glorifying women’s political activity when it is part of a popular push. In these times women are almost tokenised by men as the ultimate downtrodden victims, the sign that things are desperate, that even members of the fairer sex are leaving their hearths and taking to the streets. The perception isn’t that women are fighting for their own rights, but merely that they are underwriting the revolution by bringing their matronly dignity to the crowd like some mascot

It was not a good sign when, on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, groups of men in Tahrir square groped numerous female protesters, and a gang of thugs from the crowd raped CBS journalist Lara Logan.

It was also not good when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over, appointed an all-male panel of legal experts to revise the Egyptian constitution.  A broad coalition of women’s groups immediately demanded that women have a greater part in planning the future state and that at least one woman lawyer be appointed to the panel, but their concerns were ignored.  On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of Egyptian women marched in Tahrir Square.  Instead of being celebrated for their heroic role in bringing down an oppressive regime, they were assaulted hordes of hostile men, who soon outnumbered them,  shouting insults and commanding them to “Go home, where you belong.”  Groups of men attacked and beat many female protesters and chased them down the streets.

Egypt and Yemen are ranked 125 and 134 out of 134 countries in a World Economic Forum report on the status of women.  Forty-two per cent of Egyptian and 57 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate.  Genital mutilation is still practiced in rural parts of Egypt. Women occupied 8 of 454 seats in Parliament in Egypt and no seats in Yemen’s government.   Egyptian men freely grope, harrass, and insult women on the streets without fear of punishment.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported in 2008 that the majority of women had been harrassed, most frequently by state security officers.

Amnesty International reports that the Yemeni women “are valued as half the worth of men when they testify in court or when their families are compensated if they are murdered.”  Feminists have recently called for and end to the hideous practice of forcing girls into marriage at very young ages, sometimes as young as 8.  Last year a 12-year-old died from injuries sustained when her 30 year-old husband forced himself on her.  Another, 13, bled to death after her husband tied her up and raped her.  Predictably, top Yemeni clerics have denounced those who have called for a ban on the practice as apostates.

The recent abominable treatment of a very brave Libyan woman, whom Muammar el-Qaddaff’s forces raped, then abducted, isolated, and interrogated for days, has highlighted discriminatory attitudes in that part of the world as well.  The New York Times reports that

Like many traditionalist countries in the region, Libyans often treat rape as a crime against the honor of a woman or her family, rather than as an attack on the woman herself. In some families, a girl or woman who has been raped is cast out or shunned.

The change in the Egyptian regime so far has not made women any safer.

On March 9 the military cleared Tahrir Square of protesters and took at least 18 women into custody at an annex to the Cairo Museum. There soldiers beat or strip-searched these women while other men watched and took photographs.  They also forced the women to submit to “virginity tests” and threatened those “not found to be virgins” with  prostitution charges.  One woman found not to be a virgin by this humiliating “test” said soldiers afterwards gave her electric shocks.

Amnesty International has described these forced “virginity checks” as torture designed to degrade women because they are women and called for all medical personel in Egypt to refuse to administer these tests.

Journalist Rasha Azeb, whom the military detained, testified that soldiers  handcuffed, beat, and insulted her.  Before she was released, she heard the screams of the other women being given electric shocks and beaten.

17 women, including 20-year old Salwa Hosseini, were taken to a military prison in Heikstep, where guards tortured them further.  Ms. Hosseini told Amnesty International that

she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window.  During the strip search, Salwa Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women.

Let us remember that the men who did this were not working for Mubarak, although such abuses certainly took place under his watch.  These events took place under the jurisdiction of the provisional government.  Will they continue to occur?  Who will stop them?  Will they prompt Egyptians to vote for a more religious order, a rule of Shariah law?

Egyptian women are incredibly strong and determined.  Witness Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi, the determined feminist who founded Global Solidarity for Secular Society and who has been working to liberate women for more than fifty years.  Dr. Sadaawi argues that women need more than what passes for “democracy” in the modern world.  Women will only be free when the underlying roots of misogyny are broken apart and exposed to the light, where they will wither away.  Until men stop learning to demean, degrade, and condescend to women, the political systems that come into place will perpetuate these practices.

Sexism–prejudice–the unconscious or conscious belief that women do not have the same rights to self-determination, to subjecthood, to speaking out, to being visible, to making choices about their own bodies, to moving through public space independently, that men enjoy–this is the underlying cancer that destroys all societies.

Androcentrism, the mistaken belief that the world centers around men and that men should be in charge of women, is at the root of all other forms of oppression, because sexual difference is the first difference, the foundation of the awareness of self and other. Masculinism is a pernicious an evil in the European and American West as it is in the Arab world, and this is why feminists across the globe have reached out to one another.

Until we can learn to live with one another’s differences, whatever they may be (and they might be different ways of being male, different ways of being female, different ways of being sexual, different ways of interpreting anatomies and proclivities), until we can learn to stop forcing human beings to accept extremely rigid and narrow sexual roles (all women must…and all men will….), we will not be free.

The first step towards freedom, real liberty for women and for men, is to separate the state from the church, because nearly all world religions perpetuate the false belief that men are superior to women.   But as we have seen under Mubarak and Saleh and under every US president, setting up a secular government is not in itself enough to eradicate widespread prejudice and violence against women.

The only thing that will bring about the kind of change that we all desperately need is a feminist consciousness and a dedicated belief in the political, economic, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual equality of women.  The revolutionary action that thousands of Egyptian and Yemeni women have taken in the past months has done a lot to remind women–and women are the ones who most of all need to believe, to embrace this truth–that they are inherently as valuable as human beings as men, and that all women and all men, including gay and transgender and bisexual and cross-dressing women and men, possess the same rights to self-determination and social power as the dominant, heterosexual men who currently dominate global politics.

The argument I am making here should be clear:  thousands of lion-hearted women and feminist men have stood up to oppression in general, and against women in particular, across the Arab world.  It is wonderful to see Dr. Saadawi and Ms. Karman get the recognition they deserve after their years of struggle against and persecution by their governments.  I also salute Saida Sadouni, the Tunisian feminist “widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation” and agree with Soumaya Ghanoushi, a writer for the Guardian who argues that Arab women have shattered Western prejudices of submissive, veiled women and

refuse to be treated with contempt, kept in isolation, or be taken by the hand, like a child, and led on the road to emancipation. They are taking charge of their own destinies, determined to liberate themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is an authentic one defined by their own needs, choices and priorities.

Yes, all of this is true.  But it is also true that revolution may bring about a change in regime but not a change in deeply rooted attitudes towards women, not only in the Arab world, but here at home.  Feminists in Egypt and Yemen have been working hard to bring about truly egalitarian change for many years.  I support them and hope that their cause remains in the spotlight, because their cause is our cause.

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 Update


Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison.  And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change.  It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe.  Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.

Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.

But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts.  Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.

Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons?  Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world.  Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil.  Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.

Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes.  And the French!  The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture.  If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her.  If she likes to cover her hair, so be it!  We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs.  Why harrass Muslim women?  Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.  And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.

In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman.  Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal.  Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.

Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change.  Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,

We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.

Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down.  Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.

More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.  He was beaten and arrested this morning.  [Source: Hood].

Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked.  This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half.  A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of  Al Qaeda in the region.   The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.

Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns.   It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women.  Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her.  She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.

To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened.  Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.

We are talking about Yemen.  We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression.  This is important.  I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist.  I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law.  I worry that the rise of  this party could set women back.   But for now, this woman is not stepping back.