By David Perry - On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, one of his disciples was on a mission to keep his message alive. Tawakkol Karman, a longtime practitioner of King’s doctrine of nonviolent protest and social justice, was on campus to deliver the keynote address at the university’s 23rd annual Day Without Violence. She is UML’s 2018 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies.
Karman is known internationally as an advocate for peace and women’s rights. She was the first Arab woman, the first person from Yemen and the second Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. At 32, she was also, at the time, the youngest person to ever receive the prize. She shared it in 2011 with Liberian peace activist (and 2011 UML Greeley Scholar) Leymah Gbowee as well as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia.
Time magazine dubbed Karman – also known as “the mother of the Arab Spring” -- one of 16 of history’s most rebellious women. Harriet Tubman was also on the list. So was Joan of Arc.
Karman, now 39, brought her message to a crowd of students, faculty and community members, including local high-schoolers: Persist. Fight evil, oppression and racism. Carry roses instead of weapons.
She knows those things. She’s been jailed, threatened, mocked and physically attacked.
But she persists, and inspires a new generation of activists.
“I am just amazed to have been able to see her,” said Lauren McNally, a junior at Westford Academy, attending the speech in Moloney Hall with her school’s NOW (National Organization for Women) club. “She is such an example. I have learned about nonviolence, but after this, I am inspired to take that spirit back to my community.”
Karman is elated to reach people like McNally, and to be at UMass Lowell for two weeks, meeting with students and faculty and delivering talks in the community.
“I always like to be with students,” Karman said after hearing of McNally’s fervor. “I love to spend most of my time at universities with students. When I choose where I will go, a huge conference or at a university, it is the university. Here, it is not just a speech; it will do something.”
And she found something to cheer about with the university’s ranking as No. 4 among the top 100 women-led Massachusetts businesses by The Commonwealth Institute and the Boston Globe Magazine.
“I have to say I was very happy – celebrating – when I learned” about the award, she said. “Also, I am so excited this is a public university. It is close to the people. The professors I have met are so great, so kind. I meet them and there is a sense of responsibility to the students. They all talk about their students in terms of believing in them.”
In Midst of Revlolution
Karman’s concerns never stray far from her beloved Yemen, and she wants Americans to understand that however it might seem, “We did not lose the battle for freedom and democracy. We are in the midst of a revolution against dictatorship and terror. The Arab Spring didn’t die … The counterrevolution is temporary. We will win the battle. It is the destiny of our people, of all people.”
Yemen, torn by a multisided war, is described by the United Nations as home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people in need of aid and protection. Cholera and shortages of food and drinking water compound the misery.
Karman blames the political turmoil that followed the Arab Spring, in which several countries, including Yemen, followed the Tunisian Revolution in overthrowing corrupt governments. Yemen opposition groups chased President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012, after he had led the country for more than two decades. But the civil conflict and the bombing by Saudi Arabia that followed, which Karman calls the “counterrevolution,” has been the root of Yemen’s despair.
Karman’s father told her to stand up for her beliefs. He had shown the way, resigning from government positions under Saleh because of the corruption he saw.
Early on, as a journalist, she penned scathing critiques of Saleh and established the organization Women Journalists Without Chains. She took to the streets to protest the dictator, often alone.
Her weapons were a bullhorn and persistence.
“To go against the government and to be a woman were two strange things,” she says. “Strange and dangerous.”
Eventually, others joined in Karman’s fight for human rights, including women’s and children’s rights.
She told them to carry roses, not guns. In what she called a “well-armed” nation of 15 million weapons, millions listened. They sang and chanted in the streets. When she was arrested, they sustained her with protest, carrying her photograph on signs, demanding her release.
She told the crowd in Moloney Hall to “lead the solution, not just ask for the solution.” Stand up to dictators, racists, the corrupt and the tyrannical. Fight poverty. Dream big.
“Don’t be afraid of anyone,” she said.
Then she told the crowd – including Westford Academy’s McNally, listening raptly from the second row – of her dream.
“I never dreamed I would be a Nobel Prize winner,” Karman said, smiling. “When I was a kid, I dreamed I spoke to all the world and people listened to me. I dreamed that I will tell them the truth and tell them to wake up. All human beings together are to make a great change in the world. We are all human beings and together, we are able to make a great change in the world. It was always my dream, and that is what is happening now.”