October 24, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 752

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman – A Profile

October 24, 2011 | By C. Jacob*
Yemen | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 752

Tawakkul Karman, one of the three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, is a leader of the Yemeni protest movement who advocates nonviolent struggle for regime change in her country. A 32-year-old mother of three, she was born to a rural family in Taiz province. Her father, 'Abd Al-Salam Khaled Karman, is a politician and lawyer, and her sister, Safa Karman, is a news editor for Al-Jazeera TV.[1]

After the family moved to San'a, she earned a bachelor's degree in commerce from the University of Science and Technology there, followed by a master's in political science and a certificate in general education from Sana'a University. She also studied investigative journalism in the U.S.

Karman is active in trade unions, human rights organizations and media institutions in Yemen and outside it. She is a member of the Yemeni parliament on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood party, Al-Islah, and of the Youth Revolution Council. She is also the chair of Journalists without Borders in Yemen, and a prominent advocate of free press, women's rights and human rights in her country.

Karman was among the first leaders of the protest movement to demand the ouster of the Yemeni regime and its head, President 'Abdallah Saleh. In 2009-2010 she led over 80 nonviolent protests, and she continues to organize weekly demonstrations in demand to free political prisoners.[2]

Karman has been recognized, by numerous institutions and organizations in Yemen and abroad including the Yemeni Culture Ministry, as a woman pioneer in her field of activism.[3] She has published numerous articles in the Yemeni, Arab and international press, most notably in 2006-2007, among them some of the first articles that called for the ouster of President Saleh's regime. She has attended important international conferences on interfaith dialogue, political reform in the Arab world, freedom of expression, and the struggle against corruption. She has also made documentary films on the state of human rights in Yemen, and has taken part in drafting reports on corruption and in formulating a national strategy for promoting human rights and fighting corruption in the country.[4] Karman has come out against tribal leaders who stole villagers' lands, seeing this as emblematic of the oppression suffered by many citizens in Yemen.[5]

In January 2001 she was arrested for organizing illegal gatherings and marches and for "inciting chaos and conflict and disrupting the social and public order," but was freed the following day following a wave of protests in Sana'a demanding her release.[6]

Islamist or Liberal?

The Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt, Al-Huriyya Wal-'Adala, has stated that Karman is a member of the movement and shares its ideology. Her father was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, and she herself is a member of the central committee of the Muslim Brotherhood's party in Yemen, Al-Islah, which is in the opposition.[7]

Even though she belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood party, she stresses that her loyalty is first and foremost to the revolution, and that she is independent in her positions. In October 2010, she did not hesitate to attack the conservatives in her party who objected to a proposed law banning marriage for girls under the age of 17.[8]

Like many Yemeni women, Karman once wore the niqab, which covers the face, but several years ago she switched to wearing a hijab, which covers the head but not the face. She explained that "it is inappropriate for a public activist [to wear a niqab], since people want to see you. The Islamic faith does not mandate wearing a niqab; it is [just] a social tradition."[9] According to Karman, the fundamentalists despise her, speak out against her in the mosques, and circulate pamphlets claiming that she is not a Muslim and that she incites women to go outside their homes.[10]

During the protests against President Saleh, Karman stood out as an independent leader representing no partisan position. Thus, for example, she refused to negotiate with the regime, though her party did negotiate with it. She said: "What unites us in the Youth Revolution Council is the desire to oust the regime... We do not ask the members of the Council or of the Preparatory Committee about their source of authority, nor about their political, geographic, or sectarian affiliation... In this revolution, I have forgotten my partisan and geographic affiliations... I belong only to the people of the revolution. The revolution is a glorious [cause] that stands above any consideration."[11] She later reiterated: "I do not represent the Al-Islah party, and I am not tied to its positions. My position is determined by my beliefs, and I do not ask anyone's permission."[12]

Her preference of liberal over Islamist views was also reflected in her call, during an interview, for equality between Muslim Yemenis and religious minorities such as the Jews, which would include the right to run for president.[13]

However, the week after she was awarded the Nobel Prize, Karman met with the head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi, in Doha, and told him that since childhood she had enjoyed reading his books. Al-Qaradhawi gave her several of his writings, including his book Fiqh Al-Jihad.[14]

Karman in Arab Press Interviews

The Purpose of the Struggle: Prosecuting President Saleh as a Terrorist

In several interviews with Al-Jazeera TV, Karman stressed that President 'Ali Abdallah Saleh had lost his legitimacy, and that he should be prosecuted as a murderer and as the head of a gang. According to Karman, the people of the revolution believe not in negotiations but in ousting and replacing the leader.[15]

As early as September 2007, Karman published an article criticizing the Yemeni president, in which she asked him: "Why do you shut your ears to the cries for even the most modest of reforms?" She warned that corruption had infected even the army, which harmed its readiness, and that soldiers were suffering hunger and poverty.[16]

After receiving her Nobel Prize, Karman said that it was the first stage in bringing President Saleh to justice, and urged the international community and the Arabs to hunt down this "leading terrorist."[17] According to Karman, the Yemeni regime is falling thanks to the unity of the Yemenis and their insistence on freedom and democracy.[18] She added that the people were demanding to oust the regime because President Saleh has ruled for 33 years by corruption, intimidation, terrorism, wars, and civil strife.[19]

In an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, Karman accused the Yemeni regime of committing flagrant human rights violations, of murdering protestors, and of involving the security apparatuses in all domains of life, even though the protestors have been nonviolent.[20] She also criticized the regime for harassing the liberal Yemeni newspaper Al-Ayyam as part of its war on free speech, and for claiming that weapons have been found on the paper's premises.[21] Karman wondered why, after a Yemeni sheikh had driven the residents of five villages from their homes at gunpoint, the regime had not bothered to search for weapons in his possession, yet it had done so at the newspaper's offices. Karman claimed that the president's willingness to talk to Al-Qaeda attested to the ties between his regime and this organization.[22]

The Nature of the Struggle: Nonviolent

Karman has repeatedly called to keep the revolution nonviolent, and has expressed her appreciation for the fact that it has remained peaceful despite the large amounts of weapons present in the country. She promised that the revolution would remain nonviolent to the end, and expressed her faith in the Yemeni people's ability to conduct a national dialogue and establish a civil, pluralistic state. Addressing claims of violent incidents during protests, she said: "There have been violations in the protest squares, especially in Sana'a. This is natural when hundreds of thousands of people [protest] for extended periods of time. However, these violations are marginal, and do not tarnish the beauty of the revolution. We see rival tribes meeting and debating in their tents, and men and women struggling [together] in the square to oust the regime."[23]

The Next Phase of the Revolution: Establishing State Institutions

Karman calls for the continued development of Yemeni state institutions, for the revolution to succeed, and for avoiding the instatement of another tyrannical ruler. While President Saleh was in Saudi Arabia recovering from the June 3, 2011 attempt on his life, Karman said, "Only remnants of the regime remain, and they will fall when the interim state institutions are established,"[24] adding, "The interim presidential council will take the reins from the ousted president and his regime, and the interim national council will work to hold dialogue among all the social and political elements in order to solve the problems of the country and present a clear national agenda."[25]

As for the fear that extremist elements would seize power after Saleh's ouster, Karman said: "We take this possibility into account, which is why we have demanded that the interim presidential council represent all the national elements, in order to meet the demands of the youth and the people. We demand that the political elements suggest names to present to the youth, since we object to anyone seizing power after Saleh, whoever they may be. These fears exist in any revolution... Whenever officials stray from the straight path, the youth must be prepared to take to the streets in every province and shout: The people want to oust the official in charge, to hold the minister accountable, to prosecute the general."[26]

Death Threats

Karman's views and activism have earned her many enemies, especially among regime circles. Last year, a woman attempted to stab her during a demonstration, but her supporters protected her.[27] Karman admits that she has received many death threats, including threats to kill her children, but says that this is the fate of many and that she is prepared to sacrifice for her freedom of expression. She clarified that threats are a minor problem when many have been killed or imprisoned for the sake of the revolution.[28] Karman also reported that President Saleh himself had phoned her brother, the poet Tariq Karman, and told him to get her under control, threatening that "whoever rebels against the regime must be killed." Tariq has denied having received any threats, and said that when his sister was arrested, in January 2011, it was he who had brought about her release by speaking with the president.[29]

Criticism of Karman and of Her Nobel Prize

Karman has been criticized by various elements, especially with regards to receiving the Nobel Prize, which was presented as evidence of her ties with the West. Among her critics was her brother, poet Tariq Karman, who reportedly accused her of collaborating with the U.S.. Responding to this report, she said: "I do not believe that my brother Tariq accused me of this, and you will not drag me into talking about him or responding [to this claim]. [That said,] I do have close strategic ties with American organizations involved in protecting human rights, with American ambassadors and with officials in the U.S. State Department. [I also have ties with activists in] most of the E.U. and Arab countries. But they are ties among equals; [I am not] their subordinate."[30]

Her words did not prevent Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Zindani, the son of Yemeni cleric 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Zindani, from criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood's celebration of Karman's Nobel Prize. Saying that the prize does not honor any Muslim with eyes in his head, he added, "The recipients of the Nobel Prize have, since its inception, provided priceless services to the West and to the infidels who wish to harm the nations of Islam. The prize is usually given to Jews or their collaborators, and to those who serve their interests among the nations of Islam... Those in charge of the committee that determines who merits the prize are Jews, or those who are biased towards them. That is why many of the prizes have been given to Jews or Arabs who [promote] normalization with the Zionists."[31]

* C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], August 5, 2011.

[2] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011. After being awarded the Nobel Prize, Karman said that the prize signaled the international community's recognition of the Yemeni revolution, and that it had come as a surprise since she had not known of her nomination. She added that the prize was a mark of respect for the people and the revolution in Yemen – one of the youth revolutions of the Arab Spring – and a mark of respect for Yemeni women, who are struggling to ensure their security and legitimate rights ( October 7, 2011). Karman announced that she was dedicating her prize to Egyptian revolutionaries Asraa 'Abd Al-Fatah and Wael Ghonim, and to Cairo's Al-Tahrir Square. (Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, October 8, 2011). She declared that she would donate the prize money to the Yemeni state after the ouster of President Saleh (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, October 7, 2011).

[3] In 2011 Karman made 11th place on Time magazine's "100 most influential people" poll. In 2010, she received the U.S. State Department "Women of Courage" Award, and in 2009 Journalists Without Borders named her as one of the women who have brought change to the world.

[4], October 7, 2011.

[5] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011.

[6], October 7, 2011.

[7] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), October 8, 2011.

[8] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011.

[9] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011.

[10] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011.

[11], October 7, 2011.

[12], August 5, 2011.

[13], October 11, 2011.

[14] Al-Raya (Qatar), October 16, 2011.

[16], September 21, 2007.

[17], October 8, 2011.

[18], October 8, 2011.

[19], October 8, 2011.

[20], January 7, 2010.

[21] Al-Ayyam was closed down by the regime in 2009.

[22], January 7, 2010.

[23], October 8, 2011.

[24], September 14, 2011.

[25], October 8, 2011.

[26], September 14, 2011.

[27] Al-Imarat Al-Yawm (UAE), March 29, 2011.

[28], January 7, 2011.

[29], January 31, 2011.

[30], August 5, 2011.

[31], October 12, 2011.

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