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May 16, 2011

Why Irshad Manji, not Tawakkol Karman is media darling

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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For the last 10 years women in Islam and their status in Muslim countries were two popular topics in Western media. Muslim women, like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Ali, have become media darlings because they wrote books smearing their religion, and called for the "liberation" of Muslim women. But when revolutionary Muslim women like Asmaa Mahfouz and Tawakkol Karman, an Egyptian and a Yemeni, recently made history by leading their countries towards dignity, democracy, liberty and social justice, both were ignored by the Western media.

Western Muslim women groups have followed the lead of the Western media. Their position was mainly apologetic. Most have condemned mistreatment of Muslim women by Muslim regimes but seldom have they condemned worse treatment by occupation forces in places like Israel, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. 

I recently met Asmaa Mahfouz in Cairo and I hope to meet Tawakkol Karman soon.

Both women wear hijab. Mahfouz is 26 years old and Karman is 32. They have articulated the course of the Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions with skills, determination and sincerity. Both are leaders and are team workers with an amazing level of self-denial. Both were arrested by security forces and then released and came out from detention stronger.

Mahfouz is a member of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement and the Coalition of Youth of the Revolution.

Karman’s struggle in Yemen is much harder than that of Mahfouz’s. Yemen is a more conservative country than Egypt, and most women do not get university educations or jobs. Segregation of the sexes is the norm.

I visited Yemen’s three largest cities, the capital Sanaa, and Aden in the south and Ta'az the birth city of Ms. Karman. The mountainous road connecting these three cities has one of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

“After Egypt, all the dictators in this region will fall,” she said, “and the first one will be Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

Karman has a degree in management and is working on her master degree in political science. She is married and has four children. She credits her father and husband for supporting her. She is a writer and a journalist. She is a member of a number of professional journalist organizations inside and outside Yemen. She is a founding member of many NGOs including Yemeni human rights organizations, Yemen’s journalists without borders, and journalists against corruption.

She wrote, “Let us be clear: the Yemeni revolution has already brought internal stability to a state riddled with war and conflict. I call on the global community to support the peaceful revolution as it did in Tunisia and Egypt. I call on the United States and the European Union to tell Saleh that he must leave now, in response to the demands of his people. They should end all support for his regime, especially that which is used to crush peaceful opposition – tear gas canisters have "Made in America" on them. They should freeze the Saleh family's assets and those of Saleh's henchmen and return them to the people.”

Tawakkol Karman said that arresting protesting women was not heard of in conservative Yemen, as tradition dictates that mistreating women in that way brings shame to any man and his tribe. But the regime of Saleh had often shamefully smeared, arrested, detained, tortured and raped women activists.

President Saleh sent Tawakkol Karman a message via her brother Tareq, a well-known poet. "'You have to control your sister. Anyone who doesn't obey me must be killed,' he told my brother," she said, "This is the one threat I take seriously."

“For the first time people in the south stopped calling for separation, raised the national flag and demanded an end to the regime. It's been truly historic. The country is united in its aim to rid itself of the regime through public vigils and rallies, civil disobedience and slogans instead of tear gas and bullets,” she said.

“We are confident that our revolution has already succeeded and that the regime of Saleh has in effect, already collapsed. This is a regime that carried out 33 years of rule through blood and corruption. We have brought it to its knees through our determination to remain in the squares for months if necessary, and through the steadfastness of our young people who have confronted the bullets of the regime with bared chests. With politicians and members of the army standing beside us, our success will go even further,” she added.

About post-Saleh’s Yemen she wrote, “So what happens when the regime falls, as it must? We are in the first stage of change in our country, and the feeling among the revolutionaries is that the people of Yemen will find solutions for our problems once the regime has gone, because the regime itself is the cause of most of them. A new Yemen awaits us, with a better future for all. We are not blind to reality, but the fact is that the revolution has created social tranquillity across the country as the people put their differences to one side and tackle the main issue together – no mean feat, given that there are an estimated 70m weapons in Yemen.

In five years my country has witnessed six wars, but now the people's guns are silent; they have chosen peaceful change. Despite the fact that hundreds of protesters have been killed by the regime, not one police officer or security agent has been killed by the masses. Even Ma'arab, the most unruly and turbulent province, has witnessed its first peaceful demonstrations.”

Egypt’s Revolution was successful in getting rid of a dictatorship, so will Yemen’s, thanks to the leadership of Muslim women like Asmaa Mahfouz and Tawakkol Karman.

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