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The Queen Mother Of The Arab Spring

Tawakkul Karman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Yemeni uprising that toppled President Saleh after 33 years in power. But this global face of the Arab Spring still has plenty of work to do in her native land.

Charlotte Bozonnet

DOHA – She smiles and kindly obliges. In Qatar's capital Doha, where she just spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum organized by the Brookings Institution, Tawakkul Karman is greeted like a star. People rush to congratulate the "mother of the revolution," as the Yemenites nicknamed her, or to take a picture with her. "I was a journalist in 1979 in Yemen," says a man as he introduces himself. "That's the year I was born," answers the young Nobel laureate.

Eight months have passed since the day a BBC journalist called Karman to tell her she was co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She was under her tent on "Change Square" in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The young revolutionary member of the Islamist Al Islah party and emblem of the opposition to president Ali Abdallah Saleh couldn't believe it.

Since then, 33-year-old Karman has shouldered the role of a Nobel laureate and traveled all over the globe to defend the "Arab spring." "I have four children, three real ones and the revolution is the fourth," she jokes as she shows a picture of her 14-year-old daughter on her mobile phone.

In Qatar, she came to speak about how "proud" she is of this youth that, from Yemen to Tunisia, is toppling dictators. With each international tour, her message is the following: the revolution isn't a process to be afraid about. "We will build modern democratic States," she assures. Lately, she has been talking mostly about Syria, calling for harsher sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

An ambitious activist

Don't be fooled by her child-like figure and gentle demeanor. Tawakkul Karman is ambitious, tenacious, and she knows where she is going. She was born on February 7, 1979 in the Mekhlaf district, southwest Yemen. Her father was a politician and a judge who stepped down as minister in 1994 to protest against corruption, and she says she learned a lot from him. In her youth she challenged anything that "wasn't logical," and read a lot during her political science studies at the university of Sanaa.

She took the plunge in 1999-2000, when she became a journalist and published articles criticizing corruption and president Saleh. In 2005, she co-founded the "Women Journalists Without Chains' association, one of her greatest prides. "We defended a free press, human rights and women's rights," she says. At the same time, she decided to stop wearing the niqab, the veil that only leaves the eyes uncovered. "Some were shocked, but it wasn't difficult for me," she says today, her head covered by a simple, colorful, scarf. Even if she defends the right for each woman to decide whether or not to wear the niqab, she has no regrets about her own decision: "I knew that I wouldn't be able to achieve my goals if I kept wearing it. It was like a wall erected between me and the others."

In 2007, with other activists, she started organizing weekly demonstrations on University Square --soon-to-be renamed "Change Square"-- demanding reforms. "After the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, our demands for freedom transformed: we wanted regime change."

President Saleh was ousted in January after 33 years in power. Out of all her years of struggle, Karman will never forget the fatwas issued by conservatives against women who dared go out and demonstrate. She was arrested on January 23, 2011, but quickly released under pressure from the street.

Challenges remain for Yemen

The young woman is a symbol of the revolution and she is intent on making her voice heard in the current transition. Blessed with an undeniable political instinct, she decided after the barricades to compromise, calling to support Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh's former vice-president who was elected president in February.

Rid of its dictator, Yemen still has to deal with the separatist demands of the North and of the South, and the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula. The main challenge, she says, is to obtain the departure of the fallen president's close associates who are still in key positions in the security forces and the army. "They are supporting al-Qaeda and other armed groups, giving them weapons to destabilize the transition period. She is calling for the international community to "freeze their assets and to take sanctions." The Nobel laureate is also opposed to the American drone strikes in southern Yemen, "which are killing women and children, not Al Qaeda fighters." After this transition period, which she says will last two years, will come the time for elections and a new Constitution.

Tawakkul Karman is respected for her courage and her role in raising awareness about the Yemenite uprising. But she is also controversial. During the revolution, some accused her of pushing the youth to clash with the regime. Others accused her of going it alone. Controversy also surrounds her cautious silence about the fact that she is a member of Al Islah, an Islamist party that spans from the Muslim Brotherhood to the more fundamentalist Salafists. "Today I am Tawakul Karman, Nobel Peace laureate, and I am a member of all parties," she says.

After this revolution, for which they fought and some died, women and young people can't be prevented from playing a role in the transition, insists the Yemenite. Is she thinking about creating her own party? "We are thinking about it," she admits. "Not just me, Tawakkul, but young people. We need new forces: with new parties or a rejuvenation of existing movements." One could even let themselves imagine, maybe no more than ten years from now, a woman candidate for president of Yemen.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Frank Plitt

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