On Friday the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded three women’s rights activists: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakkul Karman from Yemen. All three are thoroughly deserving of the prize but it was the committee’s choice of Karman that was particularly inspired. Here I put forward five reasons why the choosing Tawakkul Karman was the right decision.
1. It highlights the Role of, and Consequences for, Women in the Arab Spring
Many commentators have expressed their disappointment that the Nobel Peace Prize had got gone to the activists behind the Arab Spring. For example, Brookings Institute Director of Research Shadi Hamid tweeted:
“Women’s rights is an ongoing struggle, so seems odd #Nobel cmte would pick this yr, when Arab spring one of biggest events in decades”
It’s true that the realisation of women’s rights is an ongoing struggle but, precisely because of the Arab Spring, this is a crucial moment for women in the Middle East. The consequences of the Arab Spring for women have been widely varied. In Tunisia, the revolution has secured and built upon the culture of respecting women’s rights there with each political party now required to have 50% of its lists as female candidates. In contrast, the consequences have been very different for women in Egypt. As I said in last week’s blog, despite the role of women in the revolution and the abundant hopes that characterised the time shortly after the ousting of Mubarak, activists are now fighting just to hold on to what they had before.
As such, this is a pivotal moment for women in the Middle East. Women will either be carried with or left behind by the revolutionary momentum that has built up in the region. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an female revolutionary leader from the Arab world, a women who is called the ‘mother of the revolution’, is a step toward ensuring it’s the former and not the latter. It helps to keep the world’s attention of women’s rights in the Middle East serves as a reminder that there is more to the Arab spring than overthrowing dictators.
2. The Impact on Yemen
As well as promoting women’s rights in the Arab world, the awarding of the prize to Tawakkul Karman also draws attention to Yemen for the rights reasons; for once Yemen is in the news for its revolution and activists and not al-Qaeda or political instability.
This put new pressure on the regime and provides a huge boost to those fighting for a revolution in Yemen. It is no surprise that a day after the announcement President Saleh ‘promised’ he would resign within days. Even if this promise is mere rhetoric, Salah had to react to the increase international pressure that awarding the Nobel Prize to Karman provided.
3. It reinforces the notion of Islamism being compatible with Women’s RIghts
Over the last 10 years it has become increasing clear that the realisation of women’s rights in the Middle East can only be done in a manner consistent with Islamist discourse and with the consent or the main Islamist groups. This was most clearly seen in Morocco where a new family law was effectively vetoed in 2000 by the main Islamist groups only to be passed four years later once it had been reformulated according to Islamist language (with only small changes to the actual substance of the laws). With Islamist parties likely to be the largest in the new parliaments of revolutionary states and the largest opposition parties in other regional states, this pattern looks set to continue.
Despite the common conception that Islamism and women’s rights are incompatible, history shows that not to be the case and political reality means that it will be necessary for women’s rights activists to work with Islamist parties in order to get legislation passed.
Karman’s close relationship with the al-Islah party makes an interesting case in point. Her position as a both a women’s rights campaigner and an Islamist sympathiser in many ways gives her more scope to press for reforms beneficial to women. Though she has faced difficulties with some wings of al-Islah, most notably after she was critical after it blocked a law making it illegal for girls under 17 to marry, she sees it as the most effective way to pursue women’s rights in Yemen. This path will need to be well trodden over the coming years if the situation of women in the Middle East is to improve. It is for this reason that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkul Karman and raising awareness of an Islamist campaigner for women’s rights is so important.
4. Karman as a Role Model
Awarding such a prestigious prize to Middle Eastern women in itself encourages others to follow in Karman’s footsteps and demand their rights. Even before the prize was given to her, Karman was a role model for many women in her native Yemen. As she said to the Guardian:
“If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it’s a social revolution.”
The Nobel prize projects Karman onto the global stage, inspiring thousands of Arab women. Karman described the prize as “a victory for Arab women” and there is real hope that it will turn out to be so.
5. Promoting Women’s rights promotes democracy
Returning to the initial criticism of the choice of Sirleaf, Gbowee, and Karman – that the Arab Spring was more important than women’s rights – provides the fifth reason: that promoting women’s rights itself promotes democracy; women’s rights are a fundamental part of the Arab Spring.
This was explicitly noted by the Nobel committee:
“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society”
Rather than choosing women’s rights over democracy, the decision recognises that democracy cannot be achieved without empowering women.