Tawakkol Karman is the first Arab Woman to win the Nobel (Peace) Prize. Regardless of her merit, she now needs to move away from political rhetoric in order to unite Yemenis around peace and tolerance values.
Photo: Harry Wad
Mahatma Gandhi, a Nobel Prize laureate, has famously said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Of course, Gandhi is more than the most famous Nobel Prize winner; he is considered by many as a ‘peace icon’. Last year, three women were jointly awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize, two Africans, and a Yemeni, Tawakkol Karman. Let us put all pride and gladness aside for a moment. I would like to examine what the first Arab women to win the Peace Prize revealed to us until now about her understanding of peace and its relationship to justice; and how does this compare to Gandhi.
In here acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize, Twakkol Karman, made many points about peace and development in the Arab World. Certainly however, her key message centered around revolution and the president’s dictatorship. The speech was in line with her fiery, and very often political, talks. For any follower of Mrs. Karman, it seems that she has a genuine obsession of toppling the regime of Yemeni long-time president, Ali Saleh.
Right after the Nobel Prize committee announced that it will award the Prize to a Yemeni activist and the youngest Peace Prize Winner ever in recognition for her peaceful promotion of women issues, Twakkol Karman started travelling major western capitals. She was seen shaking hands to the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, meeting the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, visiting the UK House of Parliament and talking to journalists at the United Nations. Rarely did she spoke about women affairs in her press conferences with all these international actors. Instead, she decided to use her new status to heighten the political pressure on the Yemeni president and to advocate for regime change.
If you had listened to the public statements of Mrs. Karman, you might have noticed that ‘Saleh’ and ‘demands of the revolution’ are the two most frequently used words by her.
There is nothing wrong of opposing Saleh’s regime and accusing him of mismanagement, but in terms of representation, is this much advocacy condign of her new status?
In terms of values, the Dalai Lama, another famous winner of the Peace Prize, once said “it is the enemy who can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance.” In contrast, revolutionary talk is radical, so are Mrs. Karman talking lines. The Yemeni Peace Prize winner thinks that time is ripe to “take down” the political system and “follow through” with all revolutionary demands, even those which advocate executing the president.
The thin line between revolution and change is exclusion. A Nobel Prize Winner should be inspiring for all Yemenis, not only for those followers of the opposition as Mrs. Karman risks to become. And Mrs. Karman is indeed inspiring everybody in Yemen, if it is not for her personalizing and politicizing of bigger issues.
For all good reasons, revenge has never been a virtue. Of course, beside her activism for women rights as a co-founder of NGO Women Journalist Without Chains brought into life in 2005, Tawakkol Karman is also a ranking member of the Islamist Al-Islah Party. As Mrs. Karman has every right to her political views, being a Nobel Prize Winner, many expect her to become transformational and reach beyond any past political animosities.
Another radical Arab politician who made his transformation from a fighter to a statesman and a peace advocate was the former nationalist leader of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella. He is reported to have later said “Peace does not include a vendetta; there will be neither winners nor losers.”
Some might question the choice of the Nobel Committee to award the prize Mrs. Karman. This totally legitimate, not because of Mrs. Karman not being an outstanding Yemeni women, but because of her somehow different understanding of achieving peace and her (short) record of struggle in comparison to former Laureates.
The nativity of Mrs. Karman in her advocacy of radical change as a Nobel Prize Winner is actually a reflection of nativity of western politician listening to her and believing that Yemen and its problems are common.
As a newcomer to Yemeni politics, Tawakkol Karman has a record of political ‘gaffes’ and ‘flip-flopping’ worth stopping at. She has inconsistent and unsure positions on Islam and politics, on wearing the Veil and the Hijab and on socio-economic issues.
For some observers, the young Nobel Prize Laureate is having difficulties formulating positions on issues beyond current political discussion. Another example is Mr. Karman’s position on the election of the Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, as a replacement for Saleh. She was vehemently opposed to this move which she considered as being “conspiracy against the revolution”, only until one month before the election when she started to strongly advocate for people to vote for Hadi.
The Nobel Prize Committee stated that it chose the Yemeni activist for her peaceful advocacy of women rights. But Mrs. Karman has since been doing revolutionary politics. Thus, regarding the reasons of her selection, which was it? Her party political or women rights activism?
If it was for finding an inspiring woman who had done great things for Yemeni women regardless of her potential incompetency to be a politician, the 14 year old Nujood Ali would have been perfect. When Nujood was at the age of ten, she escaped from her husband’s house after a forced marriage and went directly to the court to demand her right to divorce. Once the story of this courageous girl went public, she became international celebrity upon night and draw a lot of attention to the biggest issue for Yemeni women, child marriage.
The problem with Nujood’s selection would have been that, although she is also a female wearing a Hijab, Nujood is still a child and her story is difficult to use as a symbol of all Arab women breaking out of different constrains.
On the other hand, if the committee was searching for a ‘public face’ for those Arab women joining men shoulder to shoulder in civil societal and political activism, Mrs. Karman was one good choice of many.
Mrs. Karman for Yemen is like Sarah Palin for the US , other than that Mrs. Karman has a rather grass-root biography. Still, she is similarly talented, energetic and politically inexperienced. The other difference is that Mrs. Karman has now her dream job; she is the first Arab Women Nobel Prize Laureate. As such, she would be ill-advised to continue with a black and white rhetoric and she has to transcend herself above all party lines and her non-unifying peace values.
Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi