Tawakkol Karman Talks Arab Spring, Democracy and Peace

IMG_8856

Writer Kasumi Hirokawa with Nobel Peace Prize winner, journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman.

“As salaam alaikum,” Nobel Peace Prize winner, journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman said on Wednesday as she greeted the crowd in a packed Alumni Hall. This Arabic phrase translates to, “May peace be unto you.”

She then invited those who knew the words of the Arab Spring slogan to recite it with her.

A Peaceful Revolution

“Our revolution is peaceful,” Karman said of Arab Spring, a series of anti-dictatorship demonstrations that began in December 2010. They started when a fruit vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia and spread to other Arab countries such as Libya, Egypt and Karman’s home country, Yemen.

“People wanted a good future for themselves, their generation and for all [of] the world,” Karman said.

“Students ­– young people – like you, went out onto streets, carrying only dreams. The dreams of democracy, of freedom,” Karman, founder of non-profit organization Women Journalists Without Chains, said. “Students just like you decided to dream.”

Great Sacrifices

Their shared desire for human rights, safety, better education, democracy and an end to corruption, however, comes at a high cost. Karman said she lost her close friends in demonstrations.

“[They] carried flowers against bullets,” she said. Participants in peaceful demonstrations were often left to fend themselves from dictators’ violence. “They decided to sacrifice… to die for [their causes],” she said.

Bad Reputation

“When you think of women in Arab countries, what do you think of?” Karman asked. “You think of victims.” Karman said the negative images of the Arab world “came from dictatorship,” which shut down newspapers, TV and radio stations.

Karman says women were “in frontlines of the revolution.” Arab women were targeted and killed because they were leaders.

Unfinished Business

Karman said the revolution, which has lost its appeal to international news outlets, is “unfinished until all corruption is gone.”

“People say [Arab Spring] brought instability to [the region],” Karman said. “I say no.”

To help put things into perspective, she said, “Look at how long it took American women just to vote.” She stressed that revolutions take time to come to fruition.

“Without the decisions of your grandfathers and grandmothers, the United States today would not look like this,” Karman said.

Oppression and violence do not scare Karman, who believes in the resilience of marginalized people. “This is the era of youths, the era of women, the era of the truth and the era of saying no to corruption,” she said.

Chain Reaction

Audience member Muhammad Al-Zayed, who stood in line to have a photograph taken with Karman, said he was impressed by the talk.

“Ms. Karman is an inspiration to every Arab and to every human being,” the sophomore from Kuwait said.

“It was good that she mentioned how [changes in] one country can affect other countries. That’s something I never thought about,” senior Darnell Brady said.

Photo by Kasumi Hirokawa