"The second Jasmine Revolution will take place in Yemen," Tawakul Karman announces confidently. "In fact, it has already started." Tawakul, an activist and young mother of three, has been leading student protests at Sanaa University for the past week. Hundreds of demonstrators gather at the university gates each morning, holding placards of Che Guevara and chanting slogans like "Where is our loaf of bread?" and "No studies, no teaching until the president is out." The president, of course, is Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's longest serving president who has been in power since 1978. Police have kept the demonstrations contained, roughing up protesters and detaining numerous people. Tawakul, however, is determined. "We won't stop," she insists, "until the corrupt government is gone."
After demonstrating all morning, Tawakul rushes to the Ministry of Interior to try to win release of four detained students. She leaves empty-handed, returning home to check on her children and change in between events. As I arrive at her house, her influential father, a former minister known for his honesty within a notoriously corrupt government, is just leaving. "He came to try to convince me to tone things down. The government is putting pressure on him to pressure me. But I won't stop," she says simply.
Tawakul exudes a breathless sense of optimism, sometimes bordering on cockeyed. "The authorities won't arrest me since they know it will only spark more protests," she says. She is also convinced that Yemen is on the verge of peaceful change. "Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution has motivated the youth in Yemen because we can feel hope. We can see the possibility of change at minimal cost." She claims that thousands of students have been joining her at the protests every day, although the crowds seem smaller to me. She compares today's movement to Yemen's 1962 revolution which overthrew the monarchy. All of the same conditions hold true still: endemic poverty and disease, a lack of education, corruption. "The country is a failing state. We protestors are trying to rescue it. The current situation is so bleak, but Tunisia reassures people of their own power."
A member of the main Islamist opposition party Islah, Tawakul used to wear a full face-covering veil, but dropped that when it began to get in the way of her activism. She now wears just the headscarf. Today she wears a plain black abaya with beaded cuffs and a pink, flowered scarf. Other days she dresses head-to-toe in bright pink. When I question her about what type of government she imagines the student demonstrations could deliver, she answers without hesitation: democracy. "After Saleh, civil society and human rights must be given priority. Although I belong to an Islamic party, no way am I for a religious government. I am for a secular system, where the rights of all are protected." Members of Sanaa's secular elite, however, remain suspicious of Islah's intentions, fearing that it would seize any opportunity to impose an Islamic theocracy on the country.
In 2010, Tawakul was nominated for a U.S. State Department Woman of Courage Award, but didn't win. "I didn't deserve to win. There were other women on the list who had done more courageous things than I. Not until I help bring down this government do I deserve any recognition." During Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Yemen, Tawakul had her photo taken with the Secretary of State and posted it online. "People now chide me that I'm the Ahmed Chalabi of Yemen -- an American puppet," she jokes, seeming to take some pleasure in being the center of a political conspiracy theory. Unlike other Arab activists, who were harshly critical of the United States' lackluster response to the protests in Tunisia, she lauds President Obama for his support. "He clearly sided with the dignity and unity of Tunisians. We will show him that Yemenis are even more determined, and more civilized."
As I am leaving, a more somber Tawakul walks me to the door. "I know they will shut down my organization if I continue. Then they will arrest me. They will also probably kill me in prison. But I won't stop. I am determined."
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