The awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was monumental. It highlighted the role of women in building democracy, and it shattered prevailing Western views on the subjugation of Arab and Muslim women.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was one of the winners, as was her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman.
They won “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” Norwegian Nobel Committee President Thorbjoern Jagland said.
Karman’s award is especially instructive, since she is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
A young peace activist and journalist (the youngest ever Nobel Peace laureate), she was born into privilege, as her father once served as a justice minister in the cabinet of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. She organized a group called Yemeni Journalists without Chains to protest rampant censorship. She was briefly jailed in January for mobilizing female students at Sanaa University. She belongs to the fundamentalist Islamic opposition group, the Islah (Reform) Party, an unlikely political address for a woman operating in the public space. Like most of her female compatriots, she used to wear a full-face covering. She eventually exchanged that for a headscarf, realizing that the former was an impediment to organizing, since eye contact helps mobilize people to action. In this way, revolutionary necessity trounced embedded tradition.
By giving the award to Karman, who is sometimes call “Yemen’s Iron Woman,” the Nobel Committee shattered the myth of the total submission of veiled women to male authority. What earned her acceptance was her call to resist injustice and oppression, which Muslim males recognize as based on the Quran. And she enjoys the total support of her husband, Muhammad al-Nahmi. Today, Karman is a member of the revolution’s “transitional council,” assuring her of membership in Yemen’s future legitimate government.
Yemen has never lacked for powerful women. It boasts one of the earliest examples of direct female rule when Queen Arwa (1048-1138) of the Shiite Sulayhid Dynasty reigned over the land. And during the Marxist-oriented People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which existed from 1967 to 1990, women served as Shariah judges, fought in wars and were full political operatives in some of the most tribal areas of southern Yemen.
We should be grateful to the Norwegian Nobel Committee for reminding us that the Arab revolution will not succeed without the participation of women. Arab secularists, feminists and democrats have been making this point for a long time: Unless women are accorded full citizenship, the Arab and Muslim worlds will never achieve modernity.
Karman is a symbol of the many women who are playing a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Asma Mahfouz and Amal Sharaf — as well as the mother of Arab feminists, Nawal Saadawi — are constantly blazing new trails. Countless women in Tunisia have pushed their peaceful revolution forward, as have women in all the other Arab countries that have resisted their old rulers. With women like these, the Arab Spring is bound to blossom into a permanent flowering of Arab democracy.
Ghada Hashem Talhami is D. K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, emerita, at Lake Forest College. She is currently writing a historical dictionary of Middle East and North African women. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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