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December 2, 2012

Karman, a revolutionary woman speaks in Ottawa

The Canadian Charger

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On the heels of receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta, on November 21 Tawakkol Karman made an appearance in Ottawa for a public lecture jointly sponsored by the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR) and the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN).

She is the activist who played a central role in the ouster of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, garnering such sobriquets as the Iron Woman and Mother of the Revolution. 

She shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two other women, she being the youngest laureate ever and the first Arab woman.  She spoke partly in English but mainly in Arabic, with Dr. Qais Ghanem serving as interpreter.

According to Karman, the Arab Spring arises from the needs of youth for freedom and against discrimination against any group.  In rising up, what Arabs had in common was a lack of personal dignity and of the right to express themselves.

The old régimes that were toppled had certain features in common, she said.  The president was in power for many decades and his family held all the power.  Yet, the countries were called republics, and their constitutions stated that the power was in the hands of the people.  Corruption, she observed, is rampant in Arab countries, with the ruling families in control of all the wealth.

“When we acted to get change in Yemen, we were warned from outside that this was not the time, that Yemen was not Tunisia or Egypt.”  But they did it.

Speaking of the revolutions in the wider Arab world, she credited the youth.  They ignited these revolutions, she maintained, out of years of frustration. 

“They made many sacrifices in acting for the freedom and dignity which were not available to them.”  They persevered in spite of being told that the dictators had so much power, with their military and police that these tyrants could face down any opposition. 

She emphasized the peaceful character of the uprisings.  The youth, she held, “chose peaceful methods, meeting bullets with their chests, armed only with love and peace.”

  1. We can do it without weapons and without help from outside.”  Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahir Square, she said, “knew that some would be killed, but they knew that they would win in the end.”  

Karman cautioned that revolution only starts with the removal of the dictator.  It must also remove his relatives and inner circle, especially in the military and security apparatus.  “It is necessary to change the networks of his henchmen and supporters.”  Dictatorships cannot, she held, be reformed.  “Every dictator is a terrorist and every terrorist is a dictator.”  They must all be removed.

In Yemen, beginning in 2007 she was among a handful of people gathered in Freedom Square to protest.  But that was just the beginning.  She is a journalist and journalists helped to get the message out.  At first, demonstrators came out every Tuesday, then Tuesday and Saturday, and then every day.  Similar demonstrations were taking place in the South.  “We didn’t at the start call for removal of the régime, but with the change in Tunisia we saw the need in Yemen as well.” 

While the revolution in Yemen has been successful in driving Saleh out, the coalition that replaced him is an uneasy coalition—half from his political party and half from the opposition factions.  “The revolution is a work in progress,” she told the audience.  In the transitional period it is necessary for all groups to work together.

According to Karman, women in Yemen need to fight three revolutions—against dictatorship, against tradition, and against the fatwas of the clergy.  The participation of women in the revolution was a break with tradition, and their participation served to shame the men into taking part as well.

She charged that reactionary clergy issued fatwas saying that women should not take part in demonstrations but should go take care of the home.  They said it was haram to demonstrate.  However, she said, all religions—Islam, Christianity, Judaism—respect human rights.  It is tradition and clergy that get in the way.  The fatwas, she argued, were issued because the clergy are afraid of women.

Karman told the audience that change in Canada, as in Yemen, relies in the readiness of youth to act.  “It is your country,” she said.

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