Tawakkul Karman is known among Yemenis as the “iron woman” and the “mother of the revolution,” a mother of three who has long been an activist for human rights and whose arrest in January helped detonate a mass uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
For the past eight months, the 32-year-old has been at the forefront of the daily protests by hundreds of thousands in the streets of Sanaa and other Yemeni cities, demanding Saleh’s ouster and the creation of a democratic government.
She and other young activists have been insistent on keeping their protests peaceful even as Yemen seems to explode around them. Mr. Saleh, who has ruled the impoverished Arab nation for 33 years, has resolutely refused to step down and his security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters. Sanaa and other cities have turned into war zones as regime forces battle with dissident military units and tribal fighters opposed to Saleh.
“I am very, very happy about this prize,” Ms. Karman told The Associated Press. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”
Ms. Karman originally hails from the southern Yemen of Taiz, a city known for its prominent middle class and university intellectuals that became a hotbed of opposition to Saleh and has emerged as an epicentre of the uprising against his rule.
Her activism goes back long before the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other nations in the region in an explosion of frustration with the authoritarian rulers who have held sway for decades, as well as with economic disparities and corruption.
Ms. Karman headed the Women Journalists without Chains, a human rights group for journalists. A senior member of Yemen’s opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party who wears the Muslim headscarf, she has campaigned for years for greater rights for women in the conservative nation and has been organising smaller-scale protests demanding an end to harassment of journalists and greater freedom of expression.
After anti-regime protests erupted in Tunisia in late 2010, and protests against Saleh began to grow in Sanaa and Taiz in January.
But they escalated dramatically after Ms. Karman was briefly arrested from her home in Sanaa on January 23. It is rare for women to be taken into custody in Yemen, and the arrest outraged many. She was held for a few hours, released in the early hours the next days but the momentum had built for the protests to expand.
Since then, hundreds of thousands have been massing almost daily in Sanaa’s “Change Square,” as a central roundabout has been named by the protesters, and in other cities. Taiz, Ms. Karman’s hometown, has seen repeated shootings of protesters. Ms. Karman has worked to forge the disparate protest groups into a national council to represent the youth of revolution.