Yemeni Nobel winner: Democracy is best antidote to extremism

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 10, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — At first glance, Tawakkol Karman seems an improbable activist. Once she opens her mouth, however, doubts about this young mother of three are quickly silenced.

Acerbically witty in private and effortlessly charismatic in front of an audience, Karman has become the unlikely face of anti-government demonstrations that have swept deeply conservative Yemen since January.

Long a vocal critic of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power the year before she was born, Karman has alternately earned acclaim and notoriety for her work agitating for women's rights and greater freedom of expression.

But before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday along with two women from Liberia, Karman was a relative unknown outside of Yemen.

While some Yemenis have dismissed the award as an act of interference in Yemen's ongoing political crisis, many are hailing Karman as a national hero. Even Saleh's General People's Congress party has offered a qualified statement of congratulations.

Many of Karman's admirers have penned poems in her honor, transforming an ancient art form once used to praise monarchs and tribal notables into a means of paying tribute to the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Speaking Monday in her tattered blue tent in Sanaa's Change Square, the sprawling anti-government sit-in where she and other demonstrators have camped out for months, Karman is more prone to joke about the fatigue caused by media attention than to bask in her new fame.

But even as she punctures remarks with sarcastic entreaties for sleep, her fervor is l apparent. She readily receives visitors, eager to share credit for an honor that she has dedicated to comrades in Yemen and the rest of the Arab world.

"This isn't my award," she said as she embraced a female activist. "This belongs to all of us."

Karman has not left the protest camp in more than six months, and it is an open question of whether she'll travel to Oslo, Norway, to accept her prize. Regardless of the increased attention, she says, she remains focused on fighting for a better Yemen.

"As long as I live — no matter what I do — my goals will remain the same. Ending corruption, defending human rights, fighting dictatorship," she said.

Karman's brash and unapologetic activism makes her a bit of an anomaly in Yemen, a devoutly Muslim country where most women don the face-covering niqab. But the activist, who has previously clashed with some conservative members of her Islamist Islah party, brushed aside suggestions that the fall of Saleh would empower extremists, arguing that a democratic Yemen was the best cure for Yemen's ills.

Responding to concerns about Yemen-based militant groups, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the U.S. characterizes as the most active of the al Qaida affiliates now, she argued that a democratic Yemen would prove a better partner than the current government.

"I have no fear of anything after the revolution — the women and youth of Yemen have proved their strength," she said. "Things like extremism and terrorism, which have grown under dictatorship, will fade away in a free Yemen."

Only 32, Karman is one of the youngest Nobel winners in history. And, despite the bags under her eyes, this confident activist, who has already faced down imprisonment and death threats, says she has little intention of slowing down.

"This is only the beginning," she said, as an aide reminded her of an upcoming appointment. "Tawakkol the Nobel prize winner is still Tawakkol the activist."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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