Arab uprisings’ women celebrate Nobel recognition

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — As demonstrations first swelled in Yemen, regime supporters distributed a photo showing Tawakkul Karman at a protest with a male colleague — cutting out others around them — to taint her for being alone with a man.

Karman’s Nobel Peace Prize draws attention to the role of women in the Arab Spring uprisings; they have rebelled not only against dictators but against a traditional, conservative mindset that fears women as agents of change.

Women have participated in all the protests sweeping the Arab world, working both online to mobilize and on the ground to march, chant and even throw themselves into stone-throwing clashes with security forces — side by side with men.

The response from authorities has been quick and dirty, exploiting widespread cultural attitudes — present even in more liberal countries — that condemn such close contact between women and men as shameful.

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Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman speaks on the telephone after the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in Sanaa, Yemen.

In Egypt, women protesters detained by military troops were subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” authorities claimed were to protect soldiers from rape allegations. To the activists, they were a clear warning: women should not take part in demonstrations. It raised such an uproar the military promised not to conduct such tests again.

When scores of women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars in defiance of the male-only driving rule in the kingdom, ultraconservative forces lashed back, ordering one woman to be whipped before the king overturned the sentence. Conservatives depicted the driving campaign as a foreign, “corrupting” revolution, with Internet drawings showing hands with red-polished fingernails tearing the Saudi flag.

“The attacks worked on every level: honor, insult, threats and detention,” said Khaled al-Ansi, the man who was pictured beside Karman in the photo. Distributed on social networking sites, it appeared with the tag “A moment of pleasure” — and was clearly aimed at discrediting and shaming the married woman and mother of three.

A 32-year old writer, Karman shared the $1.5 million prize with two other women, Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist. It was the first time an Arab woman has won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Karman was a prominent critic of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh even before the mass uprising erupted against him in January. Since 2007, she had organized small-scale protests to demand greater rights for women and freedom of the press, and headed an organization called Women Journalists without Chains.

Her activism so irritated Saleh that he personally called her father to warn her to stop.

When she was arrested in January, it helped detonate protests by hundreds of thousands demanding the ouster of Saleh and the creation of a democratic government. The intimidation campaign included putting her name on a hit list. But that did not stop her: She continued to organize protests that brought out millions of Yemenis in near daily demonstrations to demand Saleh’s ouster, and became known as “the iron woman” and the “mother of the revolution.”

Still, Karman had to battle conservative forces within her own Islamic opposition party, Islah. Hard-liners in the party denounced her from mosques for her visibility and for mixing with men.

Like most of Yemen’s women, Karman had long worn the all-engulfing black abaya and face veil, leaving only her eyes visible. But last year, she switched to a headscarf, saying she wanted to communicate “face to face with my activist colleagues.”

Her father, Abdul-Salam Karman, initially opposed his daughter’s activism, worrying she would be harassed. But her unflinching commitment turned him around and he even joined some of the protests.

“I am proud of her. She did really well in human rights work, and got recognition from the whole world for it,” the father said after the prize was announced.

When the Nobel announcement was made Friday, Karman was where she has been nearly every day for the past eight months: in a blue protest tent in Change Square, the roundabout in central Sanaa that has been the symbolic epicenter of the revolt.

“This prize is not for Tawakkul, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice,” she told the Associated Press as she received congratulations from other activists.

Sitting beside her was her proud husband, Mohammed al-Nehmy.

“She rebelled against all shackles. She challenged fear, repression and traditions that prevent women from participation. She became the headliner for women,” said al-Ansi, the male activist in the photograph.

The level of women’s emancipation in Arab countries varies — in some, sex segregation is strongly enforced, whether by law or custom, while in others women have long had prominent roles in business, government and the community.

But everywhere, societies have grown more conservative in recent decades. That in part explains why most women in the region are seeking to seize on the new spirit of change to try to expand their boundaries. Many, however, fear women’s rights can be a quick victim, ignored as societies deal with the turmoil of transition.

The Arab protests that swept the region this year have already ousted three presidents, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But crackdowns have turned increasingly violent in Yemen — where an isolated Saleh clings to power — and in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has unleashed bloody reprisals that have killed nearly 3,000.

Throughout the protests — and even after leaders fall — women face pressure from multiple sides to stay out of the public arena.

“Women’s role in anything will limit extremist thoughts and will help enlighten the whole society,” said Nehad Abou el-Qomsan, an Egyptian activist. For that reason, “many women in the Arab Spring have suffered so much and have faced incredible security abuses.”

In Egypt, there have been three layers of obstacles. There’s the state crackdown itself, then there is the family who see arrest and detention of a wife, daughter or sister as shameful and violating family honor.

“A woman may be able to face tremendous security apparatuses but not face up to her family,” Abou el-Qomsan said. Some family members visiting arrested women protesters in detention have even slapped them.

Then there are clerics. During Egypt’s uprising — in which men and women spent nights in a protest tent camp in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — religious leaders issued decrees saying women were not permitted to sleep in the streets. State media spread claims illicit sex and drugs were rampant among the protesters.

“A family can easily fall for that” and bar their female relatives from the protests, said Abou el-Qomsan.

Karman’s Nobel peace win coincided with another award that was given to an Arab Spring woman activist.

Syrian lawyer and journalist Razan Zaytouneh was awarded this year’s Anna Politkovskaya Award for risking her life in breaking through the government’s media blackout to report on the brutal crackdown in Syria.

The award, named after the slain Russian journalist, is given annually to a woman human rights defender standing up for victims in a conflict zone.

Zaytouneh, like many other Syrian women activists, has been active in organizing anti-government protests and reporting on human rights abuses by security forces. She went into hiding shortly after the Syrian uprising erupted in mid-March.

“Living in suspense of what may happen next is not easy. But we all know the price I’m paying is modest in comparison to others” who were tortured or killed, she told Amnesty International after winning the award.

The challenge couldn’t have been more unthinkable in Saudi Arabia, where scores of women across the kingdom have defiantly broken a ban on female driving. A similar challenge two decades ago was a one-off, and ended when about 50 women were jailed for one day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs.

The current, rolling protest drive has not yet stopped, despite warnings from the authorities.

Eman al-Nafjan, a Saudi blogger and mother of three who participated in the campaign, said the driving ban is only the beginning, and the movement will be expanded to tackle child marriage.

Karman’s Nobel prize will show people and governments in the region that women’s rights are important, she said.

“The way I feel about it is that people are not taking us seriously as women in the Middle East. This is the rest of the world taking us seriously,” she said. “Now the world is watching and they are on our side.”

Abou el-Qumsan, the Egyptian activist, said the Saudi women are “chipping away at the rocks” and if they succeed it will “hit the heart of conservative thought in its home.”

She said the message of the award to Karman was clear: “The Arab women are doing something unprecedented and it will impact the whole world.”

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