Nobel Peace Prize recipient spoke at UMass about the Arab Spring and Middle East violence

Karman continues to advocate against Middle East dictatorships


(Headquarters Paris/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

By Claire Healy, Collegian Staff

Tawakkol Karman, a journalist, politician and activist from Yemen, gave an impassioned speech on “Nonviolence as a Means of Struggle, Change and Success” at the University of Massachusetts Wednesday evening.

In 2011, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Yemeni woman, the first Arab woman and the second Muslim women to win this award, as well as the youngest recipient— at the time of her winning the prize—at age 32. Karman was given this honor because of her work in organizing others and exposing injustices through founding the organization Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005.

She held weekly protests between 2005 and 2011 before directing her support towards the Arab Spring. Karman continues her activism today. In her speech, she covered a range of issues from her fight in Yemen, to the revolution that is gripping the entire Arab world, to her general ideology of nonviolence and progress.

“I always believed that to educate for freedom is the greatest thing that can ever be done in life, as life without freedom is worthless,” Karman stated. “My engagement in politics, human rights and peace activities was mainly aimed to respect human rights and to address human rights violations committed by the regime and its loyalists. This was the primary motive behind all my activities.”

When talking about how the dictatorship in Yemen sought to defame her work, she said that while she was attacked and arrested, “the people were aware that what I was saying was right.”

“To advocate for freedom doesn’t mean to shred responsibilities or obligations, but to maintain our dignity and human rights. Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better,” she explained. “I arranged dozens of sit-ins and rallies in defense of the right of expression, the right to establish media outlets and journalism.”

Karman recalled some of the questions she faced during her protests. “Some wonder, and still do, is freedom worth all this struggling? Should we pay expensive prices for our freedom? I always answer yes. There is no compromise solution regarding freedom, in Yemen along with other activists, we set up what has become known as freedom square, where we used to hold sit-ins weekly. We thought it was our duty to help our people to oppose the regime, based on marginalization, corruption and looting of public funds.”

A large portion of her speech was dedicated to explaining the Arab Spring and the current conflicts in the Arab world, such as the civil war in Syria, to counter misconceptions.

“Our 2011 revolution succeeded in enabling a peaceful transition of power, before the coup led by the ousted president and the Houthi militia and extremist groups,” Karman said.

She explained how Yemenis are now facing another “ugly war,” which is waged by the Saudis and Americans, who play a role in this conflict by “occupying the country, and helping the president, while occupying the land, islands, the ports and airports while they kill the citizens every day.”

Throughout her speech, she spoke with a positive tone, ending her description of the Yemen Civil War with the statement “Again, with all these difficulties, we still dream of justice, freedom, and equality.”

She criticized Western countries’ involvement in the Middle East, stating that Western governments’ roles in supporting authoritarian regimes has been “so clear that no one could miss it,” and yet is often ignored and covered up.

“Dear sisters and brothers, let me tell you again about what is going on in the Arab World. There are oppressive regimes that plunder wealth, destroy human dignity and assure their survival by making unfair deals with the Western countries,” she explained. “These governments have lost respect among peoples of our region, who have distrusted the support of freedom and human rights in the West, while they supported the dictators in our countries, while they are supporting the counterrevolution, and the military coup and militia. When Arab people moved to overthrow their tyrannical regimes, they committed themselves to peaceful struggle and nonviolence.”

In her explanation of the Arab Spring, Karman emphasized its peaceful nature, and that people are wrong when they conclude that the Arab Spring ended. Instead, she stated that “the future is the people, and the past is the dictators.”

“Our peaceful masses were facing bullets with roses in their hands. Refusing to move back while killers continued to spray bullets among them. They sounded the bell for change.”

She then explained continued revolution today, stating that the revolution will continue, despite what she described as a negative force of hatred in the world.

“We are now in the middle of the revolution, Arab Spring did not finish, to judge it is wrong. We are still in the revolution! And now we are facing an ugly counterrevolution,” Karman passionately stated.

“We convinced the people and convinced the world how we are so committed to the peace. We wrote it in our constitutions, and we didn’t exclude anyone, we didn’t banish anyone, we didn’t wage war. The ones who waged the wars and killings was the counterrevolution, you should know that. And you, as educated people, should know that every revolution [is] follow[ed] by counterrevolution.”

Karman expressed her disbelief of the absence of aid from the international community. “The most sad point, is though this counterrevolution was in front of the eyes of the international community, the international community allowed this counterrevolution to kill us, to attack our dreams and to attack our nonviolent movement. Either by their silence, or by their complacency.”

“People have been tortured for this goal. They will not give up. And they will not lose their dream or goal. And absolutely, definitely, they will be victorious,” Karman said.

“Unfortunately today, the rise of counterrevolutions, with the rise of political movements based on hatred and racism in many of the worlds countries, regrettably, in residents of the world’s greatest country, the world’s greatest power–the U.S.–is contributing to this spread of an activity that puts the security and stability of the whole world in danger,” she stated. “Racism, hatred and terrorism are all our enemies, and therefore we have to join forces to put an end to all this. We must be brave while facing racism, terrorism and tyranny.”

In explaining how Middle Eastern conflicts play out, she emphasized that she does not believe in the separation between terrorism and tyranny. She described them as “two sides of one coin, every tyrannist is a terrorist, and every terrorist is a dictator.”

In looking towards a more just world, Karman argued that this end will never be achieved until the world will hold dictators accountable and will criticize them as terrorists.

When asked how an American should study the Middle East in light of misconceptions, she replied, “Know that there are people that do desire for peace. This is a very important beginning. There are people that are sacrificing for freedom and democracy, and there are the dictators that are fighting them.” She explained that when someone builds their theory of the Middle East on terrorism, dictators and wars, they miss this aspect.

Karman’s concluding note was resoundingly positive: “I believe in people. I believe in humanity and the youth around the world. I believe in the young people of the Arab Spring. I believe in the young people here of the United States, that they are able to make the change and able to create the history. That they will be able to make the world free from injustice, free from corruption, free from racism and dictatorship.”

Egyptian UMass students Amna Farahat and Omer Minan expressed their admiration of her courage, and the impact that the talk had on them.

“Our parents don’t encourage us to talk about these types of issues because they’re really sensitive topics, and back home people disappear for talking about politics and stuff like that,” said Farahat, a sophomore nutrition major. “For me, to be able to listen to someone talk about this aloud and everything’s on point and everything’s outspoken, but like really really truthful, was a good experience.”

Minan, a junior mechanical engineering major, nodded in agreement. “Just listening about the Arab Spring from a different perspective than the media, like someone who’s actually been there and been participating in the revolution, it’s really refreshing and motivating to hear someone talk about the Arab Spring as unapologetically as she did. It takes such a great amount of courage and power to stand up in a country where, traditionally women have a house role, and to come up and start a revolution in a whole country, is just amazing beyond words.”

“I feel that it is an important thing that Ms. Karman is here and among students at this very important time in history and because she’s been trying to lead a peaceful protest all over the world since even way back then the Arab Spring, and I think right now there are a ton of movements around the world and in the U.S. and having students listen to her as an inspiration will give them more potential to go ahead and pursue their dreams,” said Shaima Ragab, the Assistant Director of Marketing at UMass Lowell.

“She’s a very powerful speaker, and I am impressed by how courageous she must be. Being an American, it’s hard for us to understand that situation with a government where you can disappear at any moment. Yet, she’s a person that stood strong. She has been arrested many times. Yet, she was consistent in her fight for human rights,” remarked Bob Gamache, a professor at UMass Lowell and co-director of its Peace and Conflict Studies Institute.

Claire Healy can be reached at [email protected]