SAANA // Tawwakol Karman, who won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, is called the “mother of the revolution” in Yemen.
In January, authorities arrested her for a few hours in an effort to intimidate her. Instead, the arrest prompted thousands of women to protest in the streets of Sanaa and other cities. She was released the next morning.
Hours after leaving prison, Ms Karman was back protesting. “This was the changing point of the Yemeni revolution,” said Mohammed Allow, the president of Hood, a human-rights organisation in Yemen.
Ms Karman, 32, was born in Taiz to a middle-class family. Before her fifth birthday, her family moved to Sanaa.
Her father, Abdul Salam Karman, served as the minister of legal affairs in the 1990s in the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He resigned in protest over the corruption of the regime. He also was a senior official in the Islamist Islah Party.
The first Arab woman to win the peace prize, Ms Karman studied psychology at Sanaa University and led unions and committees in support for the Islah party during her university days. Though veiled, young, and quiet, she was respected for her political views.
Her outspoken opinions caused controversy among conservatives in a country where women were taught to remain quiet.
In time, Ms Karman, a mother of three, became one of the handful of skilled female writers in Yemen. A longtime activist for human rights and freedom of expression, Ms Karman had organised protests as early as 2007, referring to her regular gatherings outside government offices in Sanaa as “Freedom Square”.
She headed Women Journalists without Chains, an organisation advocating for press freedoms. She has campaigned for years for greater rights for women and has been organising smaller-scale protests demanding an end to harassment of journalists and greater freedom of expression.
She has secured the release of many journalists who were jailed since 2009.
When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of Tunisia in December, Ms Karman led a protest of fewer than 40 people calling for Mr Saleh to step down. Chants such as “Leave, leave Saleh,” and “The people want the fall of the regime” were never heard before in Yemen.
Realising her role in the continuing protests, the government began harassing Ms Karman, spreading rumours that she was mingling with male protesters, trying to taint her in the eyes of conservative Yemenis.
The government also indirectly threatened her, telling her brother that if he could not control his sister, she would be killed.
“She was the first outspoken female against President Saleh and the government was not willing to stay quiet at her aggressive comments,” said a relative of Ms Karman. But the threats and rumours did not deter her.
A member of Yemen’s opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party, Ms Karman, once wore the niqab.
But last year, she changed to a more moderate headscarf, covering just her hair, saying she wanted to be “face to face with my activist colleagues”.
Ms Karman said the time had come for women to lead. “Saleh does not want to be overthrown by a woman and that is why he is holding on to power. History will repeat itself and the daughters of Yemen’s Queen Sheba are here to stay and rule,” she said.
She was the first to make “peaceful protesting” a way to demand one’s rights in Yemen, and now it is changing the country.
“We laughed at her when she started her weekly protests two years ago,” said Hareth Showkani, an opposition official. “Today, through protests, she leads the Yemeni revolution.”
For Ms Karman the revolution will not succeed until Mr Saleh resigns. “The positive winds of change must flow through Yemen and rule must return to the people,” she said. “This is what the revolution is all about.”
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press