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Nobel Prize winner highlights women’s role in Arab Spring

By Charlene Lerner, For the Daily
Published November 15, 2011

Sounds of the Arab Spring reverberated off the walls of an almost full Rackham auditorium yesterday, as 2011 co-recipient Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman led the audience through chants promoting women and peace.

Karman, a journalist and senior member of Al-Islah political party in Yemen, is the first Arab woman, the second Muslim and the first Yemeni person to win a Nobel Prize for her work with women’s rights. Karman discussed the sweeping changes in the Arab Spring, particularly women’s roles in progressing the movement. The University’s Arabic Language Flagship Program invited Karman to speak on campus as part of the program’s curriculum.

Karman began her talk by making it clear that she is a revolutionary figure for not just her country, but for humanity.

“To begin, I am a citizen of the world,” she said. “The Earth is my country, and humanity is my nation. This is my motto: What everyone has longed for and will be achieved when all of the people shall also celebrate this prize that every Yemeni, and every Arab, and every human being and every woman has also won beside me …”

Karman discussed how democracy and freedom are necessary to create a nation where justice prevails. She emphasized the new role of Arab women in leading protesters in the revolutions for democratic principles.

“Women have become at the forefront of these demonstrations and lines in protests — in the medical camps, in the security services, in the strategic planning for the revolution and the strategic planning for the civil democratic society after the revolution,” she said.

But Karman emphasized that the path toward democracy must come through peaceful protests. She gave the example of women going not with weapons but with flowers to protest in public squares. As women participate in mostly peaceful protests across the country, Karman said she wants to see more equality in Yemen.

“We need the nation of equal citizenship,” she said. “We need a nation that fights corruption, a nation, a state where law rules, a nation where those who abuse their authority are questioned. We want to retrieve our nation, and we want to become citizens in a new world.”

Karman ended her speech by saying she’s confident in the revolution’s achievements.

“The people have tasted it and have made great sacrifices and will not give out …” she said. “We have blazed a path for ourselves … and we will win.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily after her speech, Karman directed her message to University students.

“Students’ role doesn’t end in the classroom. Student-led movements have always been a part in changing history and fulfilling peoples’ dreams of achieving freedom and dignity,” she said in the interview translated from Arabic.

In an interview after the event, Michael Bonner, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, discussed Karman’s speech topic — the new nature of women leading protests — and, like Karman, said it serves as a message for student activism.

“I really think one important message for students is things do change,” Bonner said. “This is something very new and very exciting.”

However, some audience members didn’t agree with Karman. During Karman’s speech, a man in the crowd held up signs against Karman, including one that read, “Thank you University of Michigan for hosting a terrorist.”

But many students were enthusiastic about Karman’s visit to campus. In an interview before the event, LSA sophomore Zeinab Khalil said she believes it is important to hear different opinions on the revolution.

“I’ve been keeping up with the Arab Spring and the Middle Eastern revolution for a while now and just to hear especially from the Yemeni perspective, I think that’s really important,” Khalil said.

LSA junior Sara Awad-Farid, who heard Karman speak earlier in the day, said that as a college student and an Egyptian American, she appreciates Karman’s work.

“I’m an Egyptian American so this really hits close to home for me,” Awad-Farid said. “This is the region that has undergone a lot of political reform and social reform, so to be able to hear Karman come and speak of her experience is one of those things that you really hold close to your heart for the rest of your life.”

After the event, LSA senior Eman Abdelhadi, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, addressed the meaning and importance of the University’s decision to bring Karman to speak at the University.

“… I think it’s really a sign that this University is committed to progress and change and that we’re among the most progressive institutions in the world and that we’re interested in hearing from people on the ground as events takes place,” Abdelhadi said.