Yemeni human rights activist and journalist. She is the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In a Democracy Now! exclusive interview, we speak to Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman. The U.N. Security Council is set to vote on a resolution calling on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to immediately step down after 33 years in power. All five permanent members of the Security Council back the measure, which "strongly condemns" government violence against demonstrators. The popular uprising in Yemen continues despite more attacks by government forces, including dozens of demonstrators murdered by snipers in recent days. Karman has been in New York City all week to press for international pressure on the Saleh regime. She is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. A 32-year-old mother of three, an outspoken journalist and Yemeni activist, Karman has agitated for press freedoms and staged weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail. She founded Women Journalists Without Chains and has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy in Yemen. Most recently, she has led rallies in the continuing protests against the rule of Saleh. "We have the dream, and we have the ability," Karman says. "We know what it means to be free, and we will achieve it." Of today’s vote at the United Nations, Karman adds: "The international community has to create pressure on Saleh... Dictatorships are going down and are done. There are a lot of scenarios for the end of those dictators…like running away like Ben Ali did, or to be held accountable and prosecuted just like Mubarak, or maybe getting killed like Gaddafi. In Yemen, we will have our own scenario. We will not go in the direction of violence. And I ask the international community not to let Yemen go in that direction." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the popular uprising in Yemen, where government snipers have killed dozens of protesters in recent days. A 20-year-old woman is reportedly among the dead, the first woman to be killed in the uprising. On Monday, thousands of women demonstrated in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, demanding United Nations intervention.
Well, today the U.N. Security Council is set to vote on a resolution calling on Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to immediately step down after 33 years in power. All five permanent members of the Security Council back the measure, which "strongly condemns" government violence against demonstrators.
This week, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman, made a surprise visit to New York City to press for international pressure on the Saleh regime. She has rejected a proposed measure from the Gulf Cooperation Council that would grant immunity to President Saleh and his administration. But sources who have seen a draft of the U.N. resolution say it calls on Saleh to immediately sign the Council’s plan.
For more on the situation in Yemen, we’re very pleased to be joined in studio by Tawakkul Karman herself, the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. A 32-year-old mother of three, an outspoken journalist and Yemeni activist, she has agitated for press freedoms and staged weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail for years. She founded Women Journalists Without Chains and has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy in Yemen. Most recently, she has led rallies in the continuing protests against the rule of President Saleh.
Tawakkul Karman, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your Nobel Peace Prize.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: Thank you very much. Congratulations for all the world. I think it’s—you know, it’s victory of the value of human rights, of the value of anti-corruption, of the value of anti-dictatorship. So I don’t think that I am the only one who win this Nobel. It’s [inaudible] who win, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole world wants to meet you. Tell us about yourself. How you became an activist. Tell us about your family, about your work.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: OK. I’m sorry, I have to speak in my native language, because I want to be specific, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: And we want to thank Ibraham Qatabi—
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who will translate for you. Thank you, Ibraham.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: Yeah, yeah, thank you.
IBRAHAM QATABI: A legal worker.
AMY GOODMAN: Legal worker at CCR.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: OK. [translated] I came from Yemen, the country of civilization, the Yemen that was led by two women, and it was one of the greatest countries in the world. We were led by a dictatorship regime, a corrupted regime. This regime was founded in killing others, and it’s a regime that its main agenda is spreading violence among tribes so they can fight against each other, a regime that flipped against the democracy that this country was founded upon, which is in 1990. There is a danger—decrease in human rights and also increase in corruption. My country has a lot of poverty, from a lot of diseases, from ignorance. And these are some of the reasons that led us to lead this revolution.
We started our struggle from 2005, and maybe before that, and our struggle was to regain our dignity. And it was under the main headline, which is freedom of speech. We organized a lot of protests, weekly protests, in a place we called the Square of Liberty. It was right in front of the cabinet. And we were calling on the government to allow people to have freedom of speech, and so people can own electronic magazines and online newspapers. We knew and know that the freedom of speech is the door to democracy and justice. And also, part of the freedom of speech is the freedom of movement. And thus we were struggling in that a lot, and part of that struggle was the struggles of our brothers and sisters in the south. And the culture of freedom and protest spread all over. And every time we stand up for our rights, the government will declare more violence against us and against our rights. And there was the first station. The first station was founded in Tunisia, and that gave us the title that we need to follow, which is to overthrow the regime.
[in English] Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You come from the same community as Saleh himself?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] I’m from Yemen, and Ali Saleh is from Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: What has given you the strength? I mean, this didn’t start in February with the Day of Rage for you. You have been doing this, Tawakkul Karman, for years. You are not only an activist, you are a woman activist in a very male-dominated society. How did you get started?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] My beliefs were that men and women alike have to be in this struggle together, and we cannot safeguard our country just with one wing. But I believe that also women can do more than that and can safeguard her country. And this is what the Arab Spring, or Arab revolution, showed. The women in the Arab nations were—actually showed its real face. It was not the image that they were showing about the women in our nations. Now our women are the leaders, not only political leaders, but also leaders that lead in every single front, and they are part of the main leaders of the revolution. And therefore, you can see that the rulers are afraid from women.
[in English] Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Your husband was arrested first?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: No.
AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] He was harassed when they wanted to arrest me a number of times.
[in English] Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: There are reports that he would walk in front of you.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: Yes, we were together.
AMY GOODMAN: And to take the blows, when you would be standing up for freedom and democracy.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] Yes, I’m very lucky to have a family who will support me in every single direction. My husband, the great husband, my father, my mother—they are the ones that are taking care of my children—my sisters, my brothers. I am from a family that believes that women should participate in public affairs. But they also are kind of afraid that I’m facing all these difficulties.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Nobel Peace Prize will protect you?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] To a certain extent, it gave me some protection. But I honestly believe—feel uncomfortable when I feel that way. You know, my people are facing difficulties. They are being killed in the streets. They are on the sidewalks for almost nine months now. As you know, they own more than 70 million machine guns. That’s their personal weapons. And that’s without counting the heavy weapons. They left them aside, and they went with an open chest. They received all the effects of Saleh, all kind of killings, with heavy weapons, with RPGs, for the crimes that they walked in the streets so they can—they’re asking for peace and democracy.
Personally, I’m not protected, because my people are not protected. And therefore, the international community have to provide protection, and the United States of America, as well. They have to take a clear stance with the Yemeni people. I came here for two main points. I came here to talk to the United Nations, to let them know that my people have been sleeping in the streets for nine months, and they deserve freedom. And they left their weapons aside so they can lead this peaceful movement, so they can live in peace.
And I came here to tell my people back home, and also in Syria and every country that is looking toward democracy, that you are not alone, the people of America will be with you. I’m sure the people of America would be with you. I call on the American people to come to our protest in front of the United Nations, so they can create pressure on the Security Council to tell them not to give immunity, so that they don’t give immunity for those who are corrupted. We want them to ensure the principles that the U.N. was founded upon. We will have a protest today right in front of the U.N. at 3:00.
[in English] American people must come to this square to tell Yemeni people, "You are not alone," to tell Syrian people, "You are not alone." All of us in one world.
[translated] We are in one world. We are one nation. And therefore, what’s common in between us, what should be common among us, is love and peace. Martin Luther King says, "I have a dream." And our peoples have dreams. And we will achieve those dreams.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Security Council is meeting today, when you will be protesting outside, calling for the immediate resignation of Saleh. Why is that not enough for you?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] The international community have to create pressure on Saleh. One, they have to establish an international commission so they can investigate the killing that is happening. Two, they can’t provide immunity; everyone has to be held responsible. They have to freeze their assets. And their assets is not their assets, basically; it’s the people’s assets, the ones they stole from the people. Now Yemen became the Nobel laureate, Nobel Prize laureate. The peace says that there has to be some justice. Without that justice, and if they leave Saleh alone, there will be no security and peace, not only in Yemen and our region, but also around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: The Gulf Cooperation Council wants to give Saleh immunity.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] Yes, one of the sections says that they give Saleh immunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Which is what the U.N. is doing.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] This is not acceptable at all, not only for the Yemeni people, but for the international world, for the international community. And this should be rejected by the principles of the people, the principle that the transparency and justice was founded upon.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the killing of Muammar Gaddafi mean for the people of Yemen?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] It means a lot. That means dictatorships is going down and is done, and there are a lot of scenarios for the end of those dictators. It’s like—it’s maybe like running away, like Ben Ali did—
AMY GOODMAN: Of Tunisia.
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] —or to be held accountable and prosecuted just like Mubarak, or maybe got killed just like Gaddafi. In Yemen, we will have our own scenario. We will not go in the direction of violence. And I ask the international community not to let Yemen to go in that direction. If the resolution does not tell Ali Saleh to transfer the power that he kidnapped, also to hold him accountable for the crimes and refer him to the International Criminal Court—any way that dealing with Saleh as their beautiful child—it might make some Yemenis think that the Libyan model might be the right model for solution. And this is something that we don’t want in the youth peaceful resolution. And also the world of freedom doesn’t want to see that.
AMY GOODMAN: Tawakkul Karman, what has been the effect of the U.S. drone attacks in Yemen?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] I’m sure that the new Yemen, the civilized Yemen and the democratic Yemen, it will be a Yemen without terrorism, without extremism. And we know that we’re going to be the deepest path for democracy and for peace and international security.
AMY GOODMAN: What has given—I know you have to leave. You’re heading right off to the U.N. You have been sitting in a tent in Sana’a Square, reporting, witnessing the deaths and the injuries. What gives you the strength to do this?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] The dream we have, and the dream that we begin to achieve since we started this revolution. Since the start of this revolution, we were able to get rid of a lot of the issues and the problems that this regime created. For example, revenge that he supported, the allowance of women to participate, the wars that were in Sa’dah that started a long time ago before this revolution, even the terrorism that he supported. We have the dream, and we have the ability. And we started to achieve a lot of our goals. And we will not stop here. We will build our country. And we’re not only talking about Yemen here. I’m talking about every nation or every people that are looking toward freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia in backing Saleh?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] There was some role for Saudi Arabia, and still. And we tell Saudi Arabia that they should stand with the Yemeni people. And anyone who doesn’t stand with our people, they are the losers. We know what it means to be free, and we will achieve it. And the interests of countries, it’s with the people and not with the regimes, because these regimes will be gone.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Women Journalists Without Chains—why you focus on the media as a form of liberation, Tawakkul Karman?
TAWAKKUL KARMAN: [translated] Because the freedom of speech, it is the path to freedom and justice that the nation is looking toward. We were against oppression, and then we elevated our struggle to demand our rights. We will go against all the dictators, and not only Saleh in Yemen, so we can spread peace.
AMY GOODMAN: Tawakkul Karman, we want to thank you very much for being with us. She is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She will receive it in December in Oslo. She is from Yemen.