This year's Nobel Peace Prize went to three women - two Africans and an Arab Muslim.
But there is not much hype in the media about them, except in some quarters. Probably the media would be highly interested in this year’s Nobel Prize had US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the “Quartet on Middle East Peace” won it.
These three women come from the Third World. By selecting them, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has honoured all women beyond expectations, which is to be welcomed. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and the Yemeni political activist Tawakkol Karman come from the grassroots level. They are also unlike many of the female leaders around the world who rose to prominence or power because of their family connections to political influence or financial power.
Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist, a mother and a devout Muslim woman, has long been engaged in the women’s rights, peace and democracy movement in Yemen even before the advent of the “Arab Spring”. She was also the founder of the Women Journalists Without Chains group, in 2005. In her quest for justice and freedom, she has engaged in a non-violent struggle against despotism. She has made great personal sacrifices and has been arrested twice. She has been living in her tent since the beginning of Yemeni uprising earlier this year. Joining the Yemeni masses in their quest for change and freedom, she is committed to freeing her people from the authoritarian and oppressive regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. She has dedicated her Nobel Prize to all the Arab revolutions.
The revolutions in the Middle East are rooted in the problems of political authoritarianism, injustice, gender inequality, social exclusion of the minority groups and poverty. In other words, they are not only about human rights, but also about human dignity. Interestingly, most of the Muslim countries annually submit their official human rights reports to the UN, but the ground situations offer a different picture of the reality of human rights, or lack thereof, in these countries.
This problem does not lie only in the need to separate religion and state, but more importantly about different interpretations of the religion of Islam; differences which thrive in different Muslim countries. In fact, all “Islams” are contextually local, though theologically uniform; indeed, there are different types and practices of Islam from Indonesia to Morocco.
Karman is continuing with her opposition to and struggle against the oppressive regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Her award of the Nobel Prize is not only important for the struggle of Muslim women, it also demands recognition by world powers of the political and economic plight of the Muslim masses. This recognition has not been forthcoming in support for the people power movements in the Arab world.
In an article to The Guardian in April this year, Karman, as a peace activist, called upon the United States and the European Union not to interfere in the region, and to end support for the Yemeni regime, for example with the tear-gas canisters used against protestors, marked “Made in America”. In the same article, Karman remarked, “If the US and Europe genuinely support the people, as they say, they must not betray our peaceful revolution. It is the expression of the democratic will of the overwhelming majority of the people of Yemen.”
Hopefully, Karman’s new status as a Nobel laureate will effect change in the role of the world powers, so that they will call upon Saleh and his supporters in Yemen and in the region to accept change and give freedom to their own people. If there is failure to do this, the Nobel prize will have no meaning at the international level, as seen in the cases of other Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have not been that effective in bringing change in international and domestic political attitudes around the world.
Karman has been struggling and protesting for freedom not only from the regime in power, but also against Islamic extremists. She is a member of the Islamist opposition party called Islah – “reform”. Within the party she is a strong opponent of the conservatives, fighting for womens’ freedom, such as opposing the legal marriageable age for girls under 17 years. She is also engaged in organising the youth for political activism.
Karman is one of many Muslim women activists who are working for liberation, not only of their fellow women, but their countries from oppressive rule. For these women, political freedom, gender equality, educational uplift and relief from economic hardship are the real and hard issues of life in the Muslim world. In fact, they seek to attain human dignity from within the Islamic worldview and also in the modern world. The problems in Muslim countries regarding women’s status are mostly caused by local cultures which are mostly patriarchal, engaged in literal and non-contextual interpretations of their religious sources and lacking critical knowledge of Islamic history.
Karman’s struggle is a fight for both women and the citizens of Yemen. She is committed to women's rights, overcoming tribalism and seeking freedom from political oppression.
In the current Arab Spring, Muslim women from Tunisia to Syria have joined protests. They should not be judged by their way of dress but by their commitment. Mahatama Gandhi wore a loincloth to free India from colonialism. Did it matter?
On October 8, President Saleh of Yemen said to the Yemen House of Representatives and Consultative Council that he will step down soon. This has not yet become a reality. The long Arab Spring continues to pressure the Middle East for change; it remains to be seen how long it will take. It is time for the authorities to think the unthinkable.
Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.