Political activist Tawakkul Karman has brought Yemen’s revolution to New York, speaking directly on October 20 with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and organizing rallies at the United Nations headquarters in lower Manhattan, the largest of which is slated for the afternoon of October 21. The purpose of her visit is to keep pressure on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that reflects the aspirations of the overwhelming numbers of Yemenis who have sustained peaceful calls for change for the nine long months since protests began in late January. Arriving newly anointed by the Nobel Committee, which named her as one of three recipients of the 2011 Peace Prize, Karman fears — as does much of the Yemeni opposition, in its many forms — that the UN will merely reiterate the approximate parameters of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative put forth in April. That plan, which has enjoyed support from the United States, as well as Yemen’s GCC neighbors, would allow legal immunity for President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, whose crimes against Yemeni protesters have multiplied in the months since the spring. For this reason, Karman will end her week in New York as she has ended so many weeks in Sanaa in recent months — at the head of a protest.  

That the Yemeni revolution is now led symbolically by a woman is an attractive concept to many international observers. Karman’s biography, however, and her record of activism are more complex than the Nobel Committee’s citation would suggest. She is unquestionably worthy of the international recognition attending the Peace Prize, but not necessarily for the reasons given. The Committee recognized Karman, along with two Liberian activist women, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Leymah Gbowee, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Yet Karman is at the UN demanding trenchant political reform, of the kind that will enhance the political freedoms of Yemeni men, women and children, and produce a new regime more accountable to the public. She is decidedly not calling for “women’s rights.” In its citation, the Committee reduced the scope of the work of a multi-dimensional activist whose efforts have been resisted inside and outside the party from which she emerged. Without understanding Tawakkul Karman as both a cause and an effect of change in state-society relations in Yemen, it is difficult to see precisely what she represents or why so many Yemenis from different backgrounds have been so responsive to her call for sustained non-violence.

Partisan Origins

Yemen’s revolution has developed into a post-partisan affair, but its origins undoubtedly lie in the decade of partisan opposition and alliance building that preceded it. Whereas today’s revolutionaries are calling, first and foremost, for the end of the Salih regime, the partisan opposition was primarily focused on procedural reforms that would expand their opportunity to hold the country’s leadership accountable. There is good reason for drawing this distinction between reformist and revolutionary activism, because the failures of the reformist project fed the frustrations that have sustained the revolutionary movement, even as partisan actors have stepped in to help organize (and, according to some, attempt to coopt) the momentum of the youth.

The partisan opposition is composed of several small leftist and nationalist parties, as well as the Yemeni Socialist Party, which has performed poorly in elections, but nonetheless carries weight as the ruling party of South Yemen prior to its 1990 unification with the north. But by far the largest opposition party is the Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah.  

Beginning through a series of informal linkages between mid-level and senior leaders of the Socialists and Islah as early as 2002, a robust (if procedure-minded) political opposition named the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) alliance became an important feature of Yemen’s political landscape in the succeeding decade. After running a candidate against Salih in the 2006 presidential election, however, the grand coalition has been unable to achieve most of its political aims. Its letdowns stem largely from divisions among (and within) the constituent parties, and what critics have viewed as a preoccupation with the court politics of Sanaa, at the expense of constituencies in the periphery, particularly in the south. Feeling neglected by their nominal representatives in the capital, southern activists mounted massive popular demonstrations beginning in 2007, demanding greater autonomy and redress of perceived inequality with the north. [1] The grassroots Southern Movement caught the JMP leadership in the capital by surprise and contributed to its internal divisions, with party chiefs uncertain about whether and how to support the independently developed movement.

The eventual postponement of the 2009 parliamentary elections — a delay agreed upon by Salih’s government and the JMP — was probably the most poignant sign that the opposition was unlikely to reach its goals through status quo institutions. The JMP had lobbied for a series of electoral reforms that would level the playing field, allowing the opposition parties a fighting chance against the ruling General People’s Congress. The government, unwilling to level that field, was concerned that a boycott by the JMP would tear apart even the few shreds of democratic credibility that it hoped to retain. So government and opposition agreed to a postponement — the JMP to avoid going forward without reforms, and the government to avoid going forward without opposition. For many Yemenis, the deal marked the end of hopes that political change could occur through elections, at least if the Salih regime was a participant.

The Rise of (Centrist) Islahis

Laid against this backdrop of partisan opposition disappointment is the story of Tawakkul Karman’s success. Like Islamist parties elsewhere in the region, Islah contains distinct “trends,” but its political organization has increasingly come under the control of a centrist group of Muslim Brothers, a process facilitated by the activism of women within the party, including Tawakkul Karman. With a parallel set of institutions for women at all levels of the organization, the Islah party has produced a powerful cadre of activist women over its first two decades, and these women have left a clear mark on the “gender agenda” of the opposition. [2]

Islah’s position on women’s rights — to the extent that it is possible to speak of a single position, given the deep cleavages within the party, among tribal, Muslim Brother and salafi factions — is equivocal. On the one hand, the party has been more successful than any other Yemeni party in mobilizing women as voters. And its parallel institutions have afforded them (gender-segmented) opportunities for leadership far greater than those enjoyed by women in the secular and leftist parties. From the perspective of many women (and men) from the south, where there was a tradition of state feminism under the Marxist regime before unification, [3] Islahi activism has meant a regression in political rights and freedoms for women, evidenced in educational segregation, an Islamized family law and a general Islamization of public space. At the same time, for many women in the north, Islah has been central to advancing a “rights consciousness” whereby women have been encouraged to know and seek “their rights” and to view the state, in theory if not in practice, as the guarantor of those rights. [4] That does not mean, however, that these rights are always conceptualized by Islahis as equal rights, in the sense meant by many women’s rights advocates in the secular and leftist parties, or by those in government. Indeed, disagreements over this question within Islah and among the opposition parties helped to widen the gaps among the parties making up the JMP.

The push for greater women’s representation within the party and the right of women to stand for national election has been particularly divisive. As an advocate of women’s political leadership, Tawakkul Karman has faced considerable resistance within her party and from conservatives outside of it as well. As Houriyya Mashour of the Yemeni Women’s National Committee explained, much of this pushback came from salafi Islahi women: “The women of al-Iman University opposed her, ‘Aisha al-Zindani [daughter of the prominent salafi Islahi cleric, ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani] opposed her, but she is the best of them.” [5]

And indeed, a majority of active party members seem to have agreed. At the 2007 party conference, Karman was among 13 women voted into leadership positions on the party’s Shura Council. Their election represented the rise of centrist Muslim Brothers within the party organizational structure, a group who vocally supported female candidates to the Shura, one of whom (not Karman, but the head of the Women’s Directorate, Amat al-Salam Raja’) received the tenth-largest vote share of the 130 delegates who were elected. This affirmation of women’s leadership within the party points to a way in which the work of Islahi women, and the reputations and relationships they built within the party, have helped to change Islah. The change in the party, in turn, helped the centrist trend to marginalize some of its most hardline conservatives and cement the JMP alliance. At the same time, the changes have been slow, too slow for some, like a number of party members who defected in 2009, citing Islah’s refusal to support female candidates for public office at the national level. Taken together, the divisiveness of the issue inside Islah and among the member parties of the JMP has produced a pervasive “silence” on gender issues, which the party leaders prefer to the risk of rupture in the coalition. [6]

Instead, the politics of the JMP have focused not on women’s rights, but on citizen rights, with implications for women. The procedural reforms of the JMP platform have been transformed in the post-partisan context of the revolution into a more forceful version of the same — those who are protesting are doing so for their dignity as Yemeni citizens.

Why Women Are Essential to the Revolution

In retrospect, despite the fractiousness of the partisan sphere (and, arguably, Yemeni society) regarding the rights and roles of women, it should not be entirely surprising that a woman activist has played such an essential role in mobilizing the post-partisan revolutionary movement. As the opposition parties became mired in internal debates over women’s rights (among other issues), many Yemeni women — again, including Tawakkul Karman — shifted some of their energies to the associational sector, taking up the cause of reform through their work as journalists or through various civil society organizations, and building dense networks of personal and professional alliances. Growth in the number of women leading such organizations helped to shift the substantive focus of “women’s rights” work: Whereas, in the 1990s, this work strove for reforms that would improve the lot of women as wives and mothers, the new activities sought to frame women’s rights as human rights or to expand the reach of civic and economic freedom in general.

Tawakkul Karman’s organization, Women Journalists Without Chains, founded in 2005, reflects this shift in its commitment to freedom of expression and civil rights. Staging weekly protests each Tuesday from 2007 until the beginning of the revolution in 2011, Karman called for inquiries into corruption and other forms of social and legal injustice; the lifting of limitations on press freedoms; and more. When the partisan opposition of the JMP came under fire from the government, Karman and her associates rallied to their aid, often working with other Yemeni and international organizations. And when she and other opposition journalists faced pressure, even arrest and detention, the partisan opposition did the same for her. The migration of women into associational sector activism and the ties they forged — illustrated by Karman’s own multi-faceted persona as Islahi, journalist and activist — have been central to laying the groundwork for the network-reliant post-partisan opposition movement that has sustained the revolution for these many eventful months.

That Tawakkul Karman is the public face of this movement — and has now become, perhaps, the most recognized Yemeni after President Salih himself — may have a lasting impact on the ultimate inclusivity of conceptions of citizenship and equality in the future. At this stage, however, there is no particular reason to view this question as resolved, just as the success of the revolutionary movement itself is still very much in doubt amid the ongoing violence in Yemen and the limited international support for the insurrection. Throughout the revolution, Karman has continued to embody the fraught question of women’s rights and roles. She has been a lightning rod for criticism: from salafis within Islah for her public role and unseemly visibility; from those on the secular left who distrust her Islamist leanings; from those who resent what they see as Islah’s effort to dominate the revolutionary movement.

For these reasons and more, the language of unity and the focus on areas of procedural agreement seem to be taking pride of place in Karman’s approach to the revolution, as well they must in these movements of great uncertainty and risk. Her work has been essential to the revolutionary movement and she is a resonant exemplar of the vision of Yemeni women. But recognizing her for work on behalf of Yemeni women has been a controversial gesture, one which bypasses the other ways in which Yemeni women have pursued progress for their sisters over the two decades since unification (and still others under the distinct regimes of North and South Yemen before then). Two of these women have died in 2011: Fawziyya Nu‘man, who worked within the system to pursue essential reforms in girls’ and women’s education, and Ra’ufa Hasan, who worked at great personal cost to retain her independence in the associational sector, as both the regime and Islah launched campaigns against her. Both of these women, and the many others who have followed their respective trajectories, might take issue with the idea that Tawakkul Karman is being honored for her work on behalf of women’s rights, but they would probably also join Mashour and the many others who carried Karman’s image at the celebration in Sanaa’s Change Square following the Peace Prize announcement. These men and women, in the tens of thousands, admire Karman for the work she has done in transforming Islah, as a party, and advancing the rights of all Yemenis, regardless of gender or political creed.


[1] Susanne Dahlgren, “A Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).
[2] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “Segmented Publics and Islamist Women in Yemen: Rethinking Space and Activism,” Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies 6/2 (Spring 2010).
[3] Susanne Dahlgren, Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010).
[4] Interview with Amat al-Salam Raja’, Islah Women’s Directorate, Sanaa, October 6, 2004.
[5] Interview with Houriyya Mashour, Women’s National Committee, Sanaa, January 7, 2009.
[6] Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Janine A. Clark, “Disappointments and New Directions: Women, Partisanship and the Regime in Yemen,” Hawwa: International Journal of Women in the Middle East and Islamic World 8 (2010).

How to cite this article:

Stacey Philbrick Yadav "Tawakkul Karman as Cause and Effect," Middle East Report Online, October 21, 2011.

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