Leaders – Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman

Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman is a Yemeni human rights activist, journalist, politician, and mother of three. In 2011, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work in the nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding activity in Yemen. Upon being awarded the prize, Karman became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate at the time, at the age of 32. In 2005, she founded the organization Women Journalists Without Chains, (WJWC) which advocates for rights and freedoms and provides media skills to journalists. She is also the general coordinator of the Peaceful Youth Revolution Council, an advisory board member for Transparency International, and a member of several other international human rights organizations. Among Yemen’s youth movement, she is known as the “mother of the revolution,” “the iron woman” and “the lady of the Arab Spring.”

Potolicchio: What's been the most surprising thing that has happened to you after winning the Nobel Prize?

Karman: After winning the Nobel Prize, the most surprising thing is that Western governments talk a lot about human rights and respect for freedoms, but when the moment of truth arrives, they go to support and back tyranny and military regimes.

I was rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the midst of a great Arab spring, but over time I realized that Arab fascists were based on the Western governments’ collusion and support to carry out their coups against the principles of the Arab Spring revolutions that called for democracy. I am surprised and shocked by their position. How could one believe them again?

Potolicchio: What’s something you would like everyone to know about Yemen?

Karman: Yemen is not a country that could be explored through the media. Yemen is a country with a long and well established history; a place where one of the most prominent human civilizations in the East was born, and which the ancient Greeks called "Arabia Flex." Successive political regimes have committed grave mistakes against the Yemeni people, and Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime has been able to demonize the Yemeni at home and abroad. Therefore, I want everyone to know how much Yemenis have been oppressed. They love life and challenge difficulties. They love the arts. By nature they are a hospitable people who are among the world’s foreigners--loving peoples. All those who have visited Yemen point out Yemenis’ generosity and courage. What I want is for everyone to familiarize themselves with Yemen's history and arts and correct any misrepresentation of Yemen. The Yemeni is not a terrorist, and Yemen is not a barren country without history, civilization or political life.

Potolicchio: Given your career, what advice would you want to give yourself when you were in school? 

Karman: As an activist, I call for fighting injustice and adopting zero tolerance against it. Therefore, my advice would have been to stand by the oppressed, even through sympathizing with them, to halt any further growth in their numbers before becoming greater than the society's ability to redress them.

Potolicchio: Are you optimistic about the future of democracy?

Karman: By nature, I am optimistic. All this devastation would never dissuade our peoples from achieving democracy. In the end, tyrannical regimes will fall. People learn and get angry as well. Europe has reached today’s democracy and welfare after a long struggle and massive sacrifices, and we will inevitably reach our desired destination. Yes, I am optimistic because tyranny and injustice could not last indefinitely. I am optimistic because Allah, science, conscience and evolution of life stand with change. Democracy, however imperfect, is the best solution for any people wanting to rise and preserve their dignity and avoid conflict over power.

Potolicchio: What's something seemingly small that has made a big difference in your life (i.e advice, book, product purchase, chance encounter)?

Karman: Anything that may lead me to the right path matters to me. Sometimes I find this in advice, reference or book, or in a controversy with a person, or a humane compassion. We actually have to be aware that life is all these details. As for me, my father used to allow—but also be so happy—to discuss politics with us when we were still young children, and that had given us a lot of self-confidence. I knew about public affairs, politics, and the importance of discussing everything that has happened in the country, since I was little. More importantly, my brothers and I agreed and disagreed on issues with each other and with our father, and that did not anger him. We have gained self-confidence and tolerance as well.

Potolicchio: What's something you are sure about that most people will disagree with?

Karman: For some, the truth, unfortunately, hurts. I have experienced it myself, as I always speak out loudly when anyone commits violations, and sometimes I am subjected to blame and verbal abuse. When I insist on my opinion, some of those who criticize me say to me: “We know that you are right, but this is not the right time. Of course, your words are true, but delay it for another chance. You are expressing what we feel inside, but we cannot openly express our views.” Most people cannot tolerate the truth despite its importance for them because it is like bitter medicine.

Potolicchio: What's one thing every leader should do before they have a position of public trust?

Karman: I believe that credibility is the most important thing for any leader wanting to gain public trust. A successful leader should display courage and the ability to communicate with people and be open to criticism. But credibility remains the fundamental pillar that a person should enjoy before and after becoming a leader. Credibility means not to lie and twist facts, and means commitment to personal integrity, and these things increase the profile of people and make them more trusted by others.

Potolicchio: Why is freedom of the press so vital in today's world?

Karman: The press is the people’s platform. Imagine how the world would be if there was no press! People would not be able to express their demands on a daily basis and know what is going on at home and abroad, and crimes would be committed without provoking people's anger. I think the press has reduced the levels of violent repression, corruption and human rights violations. For this reason, the press is always targeted.

It is true that some forms of the press usually contribute to promoting false slogans, but I am here concerned with the defense of press freedom in general. People have to realize that freedom of the press is primarily in favour of them, not of regimes or rulers who always try to control peoples by imposing restrictions on the press.