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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Originally posted on Women without Borders on March 24, 2011.

Tawakkol Karman

Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni human rights activist, journalist and politician. She is many people’s first choice to lead Yemen in the future. Image: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

BREAKING NEWS: SAVE Yemen, Latest Update

Out of the uncertain situation, a solution involving civil society and youth leaders is emerging, along with the suggestion that a woman, Tawakkol Karman, could be Yemen’s best choice for president.

Tomorrow will be a big day for Yemen. Opposition parties are calling for a march on the presidential palace despite President Saleh’s declaration of emergency powers banning protests. Some youth leaders are advocating for protesters to stay in Change Square, refusing the call from the political opposition parties to march. However, neither seems to be deterred by the prohibition on demonstrations, and protesters see Friday as the day that they will definitively demand Saleh’s resignation.

A solution to the power vacuum

Maha (name changed), one of our partners in Yemen, reported today that Yemenis on the ground are refusing Saleh’s announcement that civil war will ensue if he steps down. “Many are saying that that claim is ridiculous, and that Saleh is just trying to stop change happening,” said Maha.

Claims of impending civil war surround the defection of powerful military leaders to the opposition, including General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, President Saleh’s half brother and military commander of Yemen’s north-western area. He has pledged his support to the protesters. “Many are skeptical about al-Ahmar’s defection to the opposition,” said Maha. “They think that this is just a way for those who are already in power to retain their positions.”

Protestors and leaders from several opposition parties have now come up with a proposal to fill the power vacuum should Saleh step down soon. They have suggested a “traditional committee” made up of leading civil society figures and youth leaders. No names have so far concretely emerged, but they are certain that they would not allow military figures to be part of the committee. Maha says that there are many qualified people in Yemeni society who would be able to fill this committee.

Women’s role in a new Yemen

Yemen has modeled much of its revolution on Egypt’s experiences. Although many women were outspoken and instrumental in Egypt’s protests, no women have so far been consulted in the process of constitutional change. “This is related to our Arabic culture,” said Maha. “It is very sad, especially because women have worked so hard, and their voices have been so powerful both in Egypt and Yemen. I do not have much hope that a committee in Yemen would have women representatives. Women are often used as a card, played when it is needed, such as during elections or revolutions, then forgotten when men have achieved what they were striving for.”

One woman whose voice is listened to by Yemenis is Tawakkol Karman. Lately, a debate has started on facebook, with many advocating for Karman to become Yemen’s president. “She had a lot of support before the revolution, and many people – both men and women – think she is the best choice. She has a vision for Yemen’s future. She is brave and has a record of social justice. Her popularity has hugely increased since she became active in the revolution. Of course, there are also many who make impolite comments and say that it is a stupid idea that a woman should rule over Yemen’s men.” So far, Karman herself does not appear to have commented on the possibility of herself taking a position in a new order. Much of the debate has taken place over Facebook, as it is a safer arena to express opinions, but Maha says there are also conversations about Karman’s future taking place in the streets.

Who is Tawakkol Karman?

Tawakkol Karman is the 32 year old chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains and a human rights activist. In the last elections in 2003, Karman won a seat in parliament along with 12 other female members of Islah, the main opposition party that stands for reforms. In 2005, Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains in defense of human rights and freedom of expression including the right to public protests. She has been in the forefront in agitating against a draft amendment to the Constitution of Yemen to allow the president to remain in office for life.

Karman has already been arrested more than once this year for her activities in support of revolution. In her advocacy work she is not only a loud voice supporting women’s rights, but also addresses unemployment and corruption in Yemeni society as a whole.

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