Forbes France’s Interview with Tawakkol Karman

It has been 10 years since Tawakkol Karman, “the mother of the revolution”, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful action in Yemen.

However, the country is now threatened with implosion due to a civil war that has lasted for more than 7 years. The struggle by the Nobel Prize laurate recently named to Facebook's oversight board is therefore far from over. Forbes will now explore the current situation in Yemen with the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tawakkol was born in 1979 in Ta'izz, Yemen, and was instructed by her father to find solutions rather than wait for them. Karman has not returned physically to Yemen since 2014 for fear of not being able to use her voice and continue her advocacy worldwide. Today, her presence is visible in several international forums, universities and events to address the issues faced by women in Yemen and the Arab world. She continues to work with her foundation, created in 2005, Women Journalists Without Chains.


What lessons have you learned after ten years of the Arab Spring revolutions?

Tawakkol Karman: “Hopes were high that a radical transformation would take place. We were fighting for a citizen state at the time. However, the war obstructed all these aspirations and cast its shadow over the whole of society, thus delaying hoped-for transformations indefinitely. Millions of young Arabs have been left without hope and over 100,000 Yemenis have already lost their lives. In the south of my country, the pro-Saudi coalition is now threatening to implode due to fratricidal struggles between Islamists and separatists. The Arab revolutions were late and their outbreak provided us with a historic opportunity to catch up with our time. But the world order supported the counter-revolutions – some countries saw our freedom as a threat to them and our calls for change as a personal attack.

The change we have initiated will never stop, however. This civil war ravaging the country for more than 7 years must end as quickly as possible. At the end of August 2021, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg as new envoy for Yemen, after the departure of Briton Martin Griffiths who had noted the failure of negotiations to resolve this devastating conflict. Over the past decade, the world- as is the case in Yemen- has seen hideous types of wars created by dictatorships seeking revenge on their revolting societies. However, wanting to be free is stronger than death and destruction, and the future belongs to us, not to murderers.


What is the recent achievement related to women's rights you are most proud of? And what problem do you think the struggle for empowerment does face today?

T.K.: In Yemen, 30% of government seats and positions were allocated to women, as stipulated in the draft constitution resulting from the national dialogue. This was before the Iranian-backed coup, with Saudi and Emirati complicity, undermined the transition process produced by the Yemeni revolution.

In general, the issue of women's rights was elitist, disconnected from the society and unable to have an impact on it. All international efforts to push women's rights and their role beyond minimum levels of presence and participation have not borne fruit. I have always believed that a better situation for women requires that their freedom and rights be integrated into the issues of society as a whole. When I was announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 7, 2011, women in Yemen and across the Arab region saw it as a symbolic tribute to them. The revolutions of change raised the issue of women from private lounges of five-star hotels to the public sphere, reaching out directly to Yemeni and Arab women on the front lines of the revolutions.


How can everyone in the world promote women's freedom?

T.K.: “A fact that I must stress first and foremost is: advocacy for women's rights is not separate from efforts to promote human rights and world peace. This is not a solitary fight but rather a defense of a global system based on democracy, the rule of law or the fight against poverty. This makes the fight bigger than it seems at first glance.

Then when challenges to women's rights are general, the response must be as comprehensive as possible, both locally and internationally. I am thinking in particular of Security Council resolution 1325 on women; a resolution which is the first of its kind on women's issues and which recognized the great effects of armed conflicts on women and girls, and ensured their protection and full participation in peace-building.

Such holistic vision would make it possible to have a greater impact than that achieved solely on the basis of quotas, protection agreements or even positive discrimination. The liberation of women is in fact closely linked to the liberation of society. Defending the rule of law or democracy is in somehow a commitment to women's rights, as well.


What was your motivation to found Women Journalists Without Chains? Which motivations do push you to act?

T.K.: I founded Women Journalists Without Chains at a time when rights, freedoms and the margin of democracy in Yemen were subject to strict restrictions. The Yemeni regime, after the war of 1994, attempted to abolish the wide margin of freedom of expression stipulated in the 1990 Constitution of Unified Yemen. We struggled for our society’s problems to be solved and grievances to be lifted from its groups. This is the duty of free journalists. Just as it is a fight for the defense of male and female journalists, it is also about shedding light on human rights violations in our society, making them public and defending the rights and freedoms of all citizens, men and women. 

There is no greater purpose in life than to fight for a just cause. No matter how important your personal goals are, they will be less important than those related to your society. Great goals place you on the path to global change for all around you.

Ultimately, Karman believes in fighting for a cause that's bigger than herself. She doesn’t give up and proves that the will of the people is stronger than anything else. Inspired by Ghandi and Martin Luther-King, Tawakkol Karman has established herself as an inspiration to many. Her mantra says "the desire for freedom is stronger than death and destruction, and the future belongs to us, and not to tyrants and murderers. 


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