Nobel peace laureate, 33, cultivates seeds of change in Yemen

2013-01-20T00:00:00Z Nobel peace laureate, 33, cultivates seeds of change in YemenJeffrey Fleishman Los Angeles Times Arizona Daily Star
January 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

SANAA, Yemen - Tawakul Karman hurried through the morning chill with the burden of a rebel who has crossed from obscurity to fame. The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in history, she slipped past boys playing soccer and soldiers stirring on the narrow streets of this garrisoned city.

"I brought you flowers," she said to a guest. "They bring hope."

Her secretary, conjuring up the fidgety air of the White Rabbit, checked his watch to nudge her toward her next appointment. But time here is negotiable and Karman would not be distracted from a conversation that ranged from the way tribal women, veiled and hushed, can disappear in plain sight to the upheavals reshaping the Arab world.

"It is a changing era," said Karman, 33, co-winner of the Nobel in 2011 for her human rights activism. "We are stepping from darkness into light."

She was nicknamed the "Iron Lady" during the revolution that brought down President Ali Abdullah Saleh's decades-long autocratic rule, and her relentless voice unnerved conservative members of her Islamist party and taunted the president from a pitched tent beyond his palace walls. She was arrested but quickly released after her supporters threatened larger protests over her detention.

"we will revolt"

Piercing the post-revolutionary clamor with a fresh message, however, is difficult if not impossible for a woman, even one with a prestigious prize who travels from New York to Brasilia to raise the profile of her country. Karman, whose colorful headscarves spur extremists into fits of piousness, seeks to sharpen her relevance in her country's patriarchal society.

"I live in a Yemen that was suppressing women. But that was before the revolution," she said. "I could have moved to the West, but I stayed to make a difference. Women are fighting a masculine culture, not just a religious or social culture. We will revolt against the wrong fatwas and the wrong religious advice."

But like her country, where assassins race on motorcycles and lute music echoes along ancient fortress walls, Karman is a prism of many angles. A journalist, mother and women's rights advocate, she also belongs to the Islah party, whose members include a preacher who once mentored Osama bin Laden.

Karman and Yemen are a testament to the vast array of Islamist voices rising in the Middle East, where ultraconservatives battle moderates over the contours of an emerging political Islam. It is a dangerous struggle of values between the teachings of the Quran and a modernizing region beset by economic turmoil.

Karman sweeps into a room as if blown by a wind. Her dark eyes dart and flash beneath brows tweaked into perfect arcs. Her long, tapered hands come alive when she speaks. She seems as if she would wither without a cause to fight for or a placard to raise. She projects two lives: public rebel, private mother.

Her husband, Mohammed al-Nahmi, told journalists after she was awarded the peace prize, "Before she is my wife, she is a colleague, and a companion in the struggle."

When she was asked how she endured the travel, speeches and expectations of a Nobel laureate while still protesting for wider freedom, she used the word "duty." She then said that the flowers she gave visitors came from near her house; they are used in cooking and decorating weddings and funerals. They, like her, are all-purpose, surviving with curious glamour in a parched and dangerous land.

A complicated land

Yemen is as unforgiving as it is beguiling. Its coasts are scattered with refugees floating across the straits from East Africa, and its mountains whisper with the movements of rebels and militants. Tribal factions, a divided military and a resurgent al-Qaida have ruptured the air with political recriminations and echoes of suicide bombs.

The atmosphere has been further complicated by Karman's Islah party: Supporters say it offers the path toward a moderate Islamic government, while critics describe it as al-Qaida's political wing.

Karman's membership in a party that prefers women demure and on the sidelines is a sensitive point for some activists, who see it as a contradiction. Some of her critics praise her spirit but suggest she was given the peace prize too soon in a move by the Nobel committee to quickly recognize and honor the ideals that ignited the "Arab Spring."

Today, Karman's days are spent updating her website and traveling with a small entourage that meets at her headquarters, Women Journalists Without Chains. She speaks of stemming government corruption, restructuring military and intelligence services and writing a new constitution to speak to the ideals of the young.

"We are in a clash with extremism and terrorism," she said as her secretary paced the threshold, looking at his watch. "The real battle now is for tolerance."

"We are in a clash with extremism and terrorism. The real battle now is for tolerance."

Tawakul Karman,

Nobel Peace laureate

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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