Tawakkol Karman interview with BBC Mondo

By; Margaret Rodriguez - HayFestivalQuerétaro@BBCMondo

She was 32 years old and was inside a tent, in a public square, when she received the news that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2011, Tawakkol Karman had become not only one of the figures of the pro-democracy protests in her country, Yemen, but also of the Arab Spring.

In Taghyeer Square, in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, thousands of people, most of them young, had gathered around her, demanding the end of the authoritarian government of Ali Abdullah Salé, which had lasted for more than 30 years.

But the struggle of this female journalist called "the mother of the Revolution" dates back to 2006, when she began to go out weekly to protest.

This is how she grabbed a megaphone to tell people to "wake up" and "stand up for their rights" and against "injustice and corruption."

The authorities, she says, called her family: "If you don't shut up your daughter, we will shut her up." For Karman, silence was not an option.

She was detained, which sparked demonstrations demanding her release.

The 2011 mobilizations led to the resignation of Saleh, who handed over power to his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Karman recalled that there was a process of national dialogue and a draft of a new constitution that guaranteed human rights and governance, but, she explains, "counterrevolutionary" forces and the influence of other countries in the region undermined "our will to have democracy, freedom and justice".

Her country, one of the poorest in the Arab world, has been torn apart in civil war.

As in the Arab Spring, Karman insisted on peaceful dialogue.

In fact, the Nobel (which she shared with two Liberian activists) was awarded "for her nonviolent efforts in promoting peace and for her fight for women's rights."

The journalist, one of the guests at the Hay Festival in Querétaro, agreed to answer BBC Mundo's questions and did so in writing:


1. You were 32 years old when you won the Nobel Peace Prize, how that changed your life?

Post-Nobel Tawakkol remains pre-Nobel Tawakkol. Nothing has changed. Perhaps, I am lucky that I haven’t changed. The only change lies in the number of platforms where I stand to share my mission and express my political opinions and positions. It has now become easy for me to talk to the world. Without the Nobel Prize, I would have found it very difficult to do so.


2. Do you think that your Nobel Prize changed perceptions, inside and outside of the Arab world, of how Muslim women can be leaders and the engine for social and political transformations?

Surely. During the past years, I have been to many countries, and got acquainted with many experiences of Muslim and non-Muslim women. I have become more convinced that the Muslim woman does not lack anything to be an active element in the major transformations that our Arab countries are going through. As I realize, the monopoly on power and wealth in the Arab region reduces the opportunities of men and women influence in making political or social change. But events have proven that Muslim women can effectively contribute to any major change. During the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, women stood side-by-side with men in squares and rallies, which constituted a huge support for the change movement at the time. Remarkably, women face more oppression than men. In general, Muslim women can draw inspiration from successful experience and expertise of other women, no matter they are Muslim or not. To a large extent, the issues of women are similar worldwide. Differences undoubtedly exist. In general, however, women have in common in terms of being excluded and marginalized, and their social, political and economic rights are attacked.


‏3. The Arab Spring was a historic moment that gave hope to millions of people in your country and in the Arab world.  Eleven years later, what do you think of that?

For a long time, everyone thought that the Arab world would not revolt, and that Arab societies are by nature susceptible to tyranny resistant to democratic values. However, the Arab Spring revolutions have come to disprove all such perceptions. The Arab spring, no matter what happened after, indicates that the region’s peoples have an overwhelming desire to bring about real change and put to end to decades of tyranny. This leads us to understand why sponsors of counter-revolutions depend on cruelty, violence and revenge as a means to deal with everything related to the revolutions. They are very afraid of renewed popular uprisings. I believe that the Arab Spring revolutions were a necessity and a need to bring about a democratic transition. However, the conspiracy was terribly ugly, which has made us to be more insistent not to give up on our change dream. Transforming our countries into arenas of chaos, wars and detention centers should not make us abandon our dreams of establishing democratic states that respect human rights and freedoms.


‏4. Eight years of war in your country has caused what the United Nations calls “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” but you said that “the world has done nothing to stop the atrocities against Yemenis.”  Why do you say that "the major powers are turning a blind eye"?

We have repeatedly heard US and Western statements about the suffering of Yemenis and that the war must stop. Biden himself has talked about the war in Yemen, declaring his desire to stop this tragedy. In this context, an US envoy to Yemen was appointed. But later, nothing has changed. Unfortunately, Yemen has been abandoned. For eight years, Yemen has been controlled by regimes, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that follow a intrigue-based policy, and are driven by selfish ambitions and endless hatred. No sane person in this world would expect responsible behavior from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. My country has come under the influence of these tyrannical regimes. The United States and Western governments should act in a responsible manner. Yemen should not be part of Iranian nuclear deal negotiations. This is a shame. Yemen should not be a game in the hands of the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Such a crazy policy has led the country to be torn apart, and to establishing a sustainable conflict in the region.


‏5. In March, you said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is “an event that completes the circle of democratic regression that has started with Western governments’ complicity and their support for tyrannical regimes in their wars on our Arab Spring”.  In general, what do you think that is the biggest threat to democracy right now? Can we get out of that circle of democratic regression?

Yes, I have pointed out to the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will complete the cycle of democratic regression that began with the complicity of Western governments and their support for authoritarian regimes in their wars against our Arab Spring. A blind eye was turned to Putin while he was fighting a devastating and crazy war in Syria to save the tyrannical dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Syria has been invaded and tens of thousands of Syrian citizens have been killed. The war there was against the choices of the Syrians and against their desire for their country to be a democratic state and not a feudal state owned by a family that monopolizes power without any right. Putin was not condemned for what he was doing in Syria, and this what led me to think that he will commit it in any other country. Putin's adventures should have been stopped when they started. I think things would not have gone as worse as now.


‏6. You also said that “if only twenty percent of this global campaign of boycott, isolation and sanctions launched by the West to confront the Russian invasion of Ukraine was directed against Iran and its militias in Syria and against the Russian invasion of Syria, we would not have seen Russia invade Ukraine today”. According to you, the world right now is in part a consequence of the lack of support of the West to the Arab Spring?

Yes, Putin's regime would have thought long and hard before invading Ukraine had he faced real opposition to his intervention in Syria. Our Arab proverb says: "Those who feel safe from punishment misbehave." The West had a historical opportunity to support the democratic transition in the Arab region, which would have established healthy relations that benefit everyone. However, it seems to me that western governments are in fear of any Arab democracies. Their attitudes toward the Arab Spring revolutions have unfortunately come to confirm this belief.


7. In a speech this year, you said that “the change towards democracy and freedom is not just possible, it is inevitable”. You said that “time is on your side and you are in the right side of the history. The dictators are the ones scare, they all know that their time is limited”. How do you give hope to millions of people who live in authoritarian regimes in different parts of the world?

The more a dictator is brutal and cruel, the more I am sure about his imminent demise. Dictatorships never continue indefinitely. Mostly, these regimes fail economically. Instead of reforming themselves, they carry out arrest campaigns against their opponents and sometimes against their own supporters. Dictatorships do not have any project for development or to empower people of their political and economic rights. All they have is only oppression, and perhaps drowning their countries in debt. In fact, a dictator unconsciously works to create factors that will end his rule and tyranny. One more thing, I believe God's justice and people's ability to change is much stronger than the dictator's ability to survive.

To read interview in BBC Mondo click here

Subscribe now to get my updates regularly in your inbox.

Copyright © Tawakkol Karman Office