Unchaining the Potential of Women Worldwide: An Interview with Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman

Politics Society Culture

Tawakkol Karman is a Yemeni woman who stood at the forefront of the Arab Spring movement in her country. Her efforts to foster democracy in Yemen earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She visited Japan to attend the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo in September 2014 and sat down with Nippon.com to discuss her recent activities.

Tawakkol Karman

Born in 1979 in Ta’izz, Yemen. A journalist, human-rights activist, politician, and advocate of peaceful revolution. Graduated in 1999 from the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a, and later received a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Sana’a. In 2005, she co-founded the organization Women Journalists Without Chains and subsequently served as its director. Starting in 2007, became involved in organizing peaceful demonstrations and sit-down protests seeking greater journalistic freedom and respect for human rights. Played a leading role in the youth-driven revolution in Yemen sparked by the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in January 2011. In October of that year, she became the first Arab woman, and also the youngest person ever, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” She is married and the mother of four children.

INTERVIEWER  How do you manage to balance your family life as a mother of four young children with your work as a journalist and human rights activist?

TAWAKKOL KARMAN  My belief is that a family depends on a true partnership between a wife and husband. That’s basically the same principle as believing society can only function well through cooperation between men and women. And my husband and family as a whole share this belief in the importance of gender cooperation at home and in society at large.

I’m very fortunate to have such a supportive family; it’s a great help when it comes to performing my work. No one in the family objects to my job or activism. My in-laws in particular have been very cooperative. When I’m away from home, my mother-in-law takes my place to look after the children. My family believes that we have a responsibility to do what we can for our country Yemen, so they do all that they can to support me in my work, rather than pressuring me in any way. And they understand the importance of providing this support.

Long-held Passion for Journalism

INTERVIEWER  Even though you studied business and politics at university, you ended up pursuing a career as a journalist. Why did you choose that path?

KARMAN  I had been involved in journalism during my high school days. And later I wrote articles or works of fiction for my university newspaper and for websites. I’ve had an interest in journalism since I was a child, and this stimulated my appetite for learning. Actually, I was the first journalist in Yemen to conduct reporting via the Internet.

Journalism is not something that is opposed to other fields, such as politics, economics, or medicine, but rather complements them. Indeed, there are many senior journalists who have not studied journalism itself. For me, too, what I’ve learned about journalism has come through practicing it.

In my journalistic work, the main thing I’m involved in is writing editorials. Through this work it’s possible for me to play a variety of roles in economics, politics, and other fields related to my activities in promoting more freedom for individuals, fighting corruption, and fostering democratic processes.

In short, I think that my current work could be described as involving both journalism as well as my roles as a human-rights activist, politician, and peaceful revolutionary. 

Organization the Key to Unlocking Chains

INTERVIEWER You established an organization named “Women Journalists Without Chains.” What does the reference to “chains” mean, specifically? 

KARMAN  It means, quite simply, that we are aiming for a situation where women are no longer chained down in society. We created this organization in an environment that was very hostile to journalists, including a lot of infringements of human rights, particularly the right of free expression. At the time, journalists in Yemen faced prosecution, arrest, or even physical violence at the hands of the authorities. In fact, a special court was set up to prosecute journalists, and the government shut down newspaper companies and confiscated their assets.

The situation for audio and visual media is also restricted. No private broadcasts are allowed and only public bodies can own a television or radio station. In other words, not only do journalists themselves operate in a challenging environment, but the situation is also quite restricted with regard to human rights and personal freedom.

So the question came down to how we could break free of these chains. In response, we created an organization that sought to safeguard human rights from the chains that threaten the dignity and importance of journalism and of free expression. In using the term “free expression,” I’m referring specifically to expression via the printed word and audiovisual media, as well as expression to such activism as sit-down protests, demonstrations and peaceful assemblies.

INTERVIEWER  It sounds like the pressure exerted in Yemen was quite intense. 

KARMAN  Initially, in 2005, we had named our organization “Female Journalists Without Borders” but it became the first organization to have its authorization removed by the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. So we founded a new organization under the name “Female Journalists Without Chains” and engaged in sit-down protests and other demonstrations inside and outside Yemen that succeeded in pressuring the president to approve it. We believe that our constitution does not place any conditions on government approval of an organization and safeguards our liberty to create new social organizations. But the constitution was interpreted so as to deny this. 

We came up with the name “without chains” to convey our aim of removing the fetters binding free speech, human rights, and women’s rights. We played an important role, as female journalists, in leading demonstrations. The demonstrations that we led did not aim to exclude men, however, and they participated alongside us. Our organization “Female Journalists Without Chains” ended up playing an extremely important part within the movement to protect individual freedom and the right to free expression.

Nobel Prize Brings New Opportunities

INTERVIEWER  In 2011, you became not only the first Yemenite and the first Arab woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but also the youngest person to ever receive that honor. How has your life and career changed since becoming a Nobel Laureate?

KARMAN  Receiving the award has provided me with the power, as an individual, to truly enter the public debate. Thanks to this new power, it is much easier to make my voice widely heard, even globally. This means that I am in a much stronger position to argue for the things I believe in, such as the need for peace and peaceful revolution, the protection of human rights and the right to freedom, particularly when it comes to supporting those who have been treated unfairly in the Middle East and in Arab nations such as Yemen.

The Yemeni Revolution that began in 2011 has been praised by the international community, and it has led to greater respect in the country for women and youth. Yemen is said to be a country in which there are around 70 million firearms, yet the Yemeni people without relying on those firearms, managed to stand up to the armed force of President Saleh’s regime and carry out what the world has recognized as a “peaceful revolution.” On top of this, women and youth were recognized to have played a leading role in this revolution and within the Arab Spring as a whole. This example is very important in terms of showing that people are beginning to realize that there is a need to listen to the voices of the common people of the world, the oppressed, youth, and others. This is important because these people are the ones who are standing up to injustice and seeking to build a new future. The world’s welfare will depend on these people, not the dictators of the world.

“Women’s Rights” Is a Global Issue

INTERVIEWER  The social position of Arab women differs from that of women in Japan or in Europe and North America. What are your views on these differences?

KARMAN  I don’t think that there is anywhere in the world where women are provided with adequate rights. If you look at the level of political decision-making, you’ll find that only a small number of women hold such important positions as the head of state, foreign minister, or the minister of defense or finance. And there are relatively few parliamentary members, either. Only a few countries can be said to have succeeded to some extent in supporting women, whereas the general situation for women in the world is one of oppression. And women are even more oppressed in the conservative, Arab states of the Middle East in particular.

At the 2012 Munich Security Conference, the only two women participating were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and myself. At the event, I made the statement that I was now able to understand why war and strife cannot be eliminated in the world: it was because no women were involved in the decision-making in such important positions as defense minister.

Although women are oppressed everywhere, it is true that the circumstances are different from country to country. In Arab countries, we can see the path toward overcoming oppression coming into view. The most important point in this respect is not to seek rights from the powers that be, but to win those rights on our own. During the Arab Spring, when women decided to stand on the front lines of the revolution, they didn’t ask anyone’s permission first. And when the men later joined in, the women made their own political decisions and drove out the old regime, demonstrating the ability to safeguard themselves and others from oppression and dictatorial rule. This was because women were able to open up a path to the future. If women actually hold tight to their principles, they can win acceptance from society and lead a revolution. Our revolution was an important moment for showing that Arab women have the ability to participate in politics and be leaders.

Now we are in a transitional stage, and the tasks facing each country are different, but the trend is toward improvements. The percentage of women holding parliamentary seats and important government posts is on the rise. But achieving gains on that front is not our only aim in Yemen. Rather, what we really want is for as many women to participate in politics as have participated in our revolutionary social change. And we also want our rights to be inscribed in the constitution and the laws.

Much Room for Progress

INTERVIEWER  How many other women leaders are there in Yemen such as yourself?

KARMAN  If you look at the National Dialogue Conference in Yemen [from March 18, 2013, to January 25, 2014], which has played a key role in deciding my nation’s future, you’ll see that there was at least 30% female participation in each of the discussions carried out by the working groups to address nine topics, which included the economy, nation-building, anti-corruption measures, and development. In the case of Yemen’s Constitution Drafting Committee as well, 30% of the members are women. We also have four women who are cabinet members, which is an increase compared to the past. But I want to see further progress, such as women assuming important positions as diplomats or the head of one of Yemen’s governorates. True progress will have been achieved when we see the rights of women clearly stipulated in the constitution and laws.

INTERVIEWER  Have links been formed between female leaders in Yemen and those in other Arab countries?

KARMAN  Even though, generally speaking, there are gaps separating countries in the region, there are connections between people through the power of civil society. Prior to the Arab Spring, these ties were stronger. Unfortunately, however, even though Arab countries took the first step in their revolutions by overthrowing despotic regimes, after that civil society became split between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces, and the solidarity between countries broke down as a result.

In countries where the Arab Spring took place, those counterrevolutionary forces are trying to sweep away all of the results of the social change, taking aim at such values as freedom, justice, democracy, pacifism, and equality under the law. This split between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution within civil society has weakened it, but I hope that citizens will once again gather their strength once the revolutionary side has fully triumphed.

INTERVIEWER  Is there any difference in how women’s rights are viewed in Arab or Islamic countries and how those rights are viewed in the West?

KARMAN  I think that the issue of rights for women is a question of human rights. That is, women should have fully equal political, social, and economic rights to men as citizens. These civic rights of men and women must be based on equality, so that neither side takes precedence over the other. So my view of women’s rights is actually no different from the definition of human rights.

However, there is a need for a special definition of women’s rights in those countries where the situation for women is particularly challenging. In such countries, men already have an array of rights that women lack; political rights such as participating in elections, running for office, or being appointed to a position; economic rights such as the freedom to work or receive an inheritance; social rights such as the ability to be a human rights activist and parent at the same time; along with enjoying the right to social services like education and healthcare, as well as the freedom to marry who they choose and not be forced to marry at a young age. Since men and women are equal as citizens, women should be allowed to enjoy these rights, too. I would like to see men and women working together to build an equal society as well as equality within their own households.

Japan as Role Model

INTERVIEWER  What sort of image of Japan do you have from this first visit? And what were your expectations for the trip?

KARMAN  This first trip to Japan has been marvelous. Usually when I travel abroad it is just for a couple days, since there are so many difficult situations back home in Yemen to face. But this time I was able to spend a whole week to explore Japan in a more leisurely way.

For me, Japan is a country imbued with a spirt of peace, expertise, friendliness, and culture. For the people of Yemen, and me personally, it is a country with great significance. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Japan as a country that overcame war, poverty, and natural disasters to become a peaceful country that is heading confidently into the future. The Yemeni people often look to Japan, rather than the United States or Europe, as a model to emulate when it comes to peace in particular, as well as economics and public safety. My sincere hope is that Yemen will partner with Japan for the benefit of both countries and the sake of humanitarianism.

INTERVIEWER  What is the situation in Yemen in terms of equal opportunities in education?

KARMAN  Education is a key pillar of our effort to create a strong democratic state, since democratic states depend on freedom of expression. Our peaceful revolution has had the positive effect of encouraging women and youth to overcome their fears and stand at the forefront of the movement and involving themselves in the creation of a new constitution. But only the small portion of the population that has received an education is enjoying that benefit. Yemen still has an illiteracy rate of around 60% for women and 50% for men. I want to see the illiterate in Yemen receive an education so that the upcoming generation can demonstrate its abilities at home and abroad.

The present moment is a fork in the road for Japan-Yemen relations. My hope is that Yemen will benefit from further Japanese aid in a range of areas, including education and health care, particularly the construction of schools in rural areas. I would also like to see many young people and women from Yemen sent abroad to study, particularly in Japan. In terms of development in Yemen, Japan has played a very influential role. Moving forward, I hope that JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency] will reopen its office in Sana’a and that assistance will be provided in the educational sphere as a way to address the mountain of problems we face in Yemen.

INTERVIEWER  Finally, do you have any message that you would like to convey to people in Japan?

KARMAN   I would like to hold out my hand to all of my brothers and sisters here who share the desire to work toward a better future for both countries and achieve our humanitarian aims. Let’s do all we can to build a society and world that is animated by peace and mutual affection and respect, regardless of a person’s culture, skin color, religion, or gender.

(Based on an interview conducted on September 12, 2014, by Harano Jōji, representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation; banner photograph of Tawakkol Karman by Kodera Kei.)

Arab Spring human rights Nobel Prize peace Tawakkol Karman Yemen women’s rights national dialogue peaceful revolution