“Wake up, wake up, Yemeni people wake up.”
This was much of Tawakkol Karman’s emphasis at the Lafayette Club’s Monday evening talk with her, hosted at Hotel Du Vin. As part of their semester series of speakers, the Club was honoured to host the Yemeni journalist, human rights activist and politician. A recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Ms Karman’s efforts to raise awareness about the Yemeni crisis as well as her extensive first-hand experiences with such events were a one of a kind opportunity to attend and hear about in town.
With a conference-esque vibe, students filed into one of the hotel’s function rooms, checking in first with a club representative, seated at a single, black table by the entryway, a sign stating, ‘THE LAFAYETTE CLUB’ cleanly marking the way. Inside the room were rows of seats, facing a table with three seats and a podium off to the right-hand side. Everything resembling a panel like discussion, founders of the Club Ben Thrasher and Dan Rey stood by the doorway clad in suits and ties, speaking with their onsite student photographer, occasionally greeting guests upon arrival and kindly requesting that attendees sit in the first few rows and ensuring the event ran smoothly. Guests were predominantly students and appeared very casual: in jeans and sneakers, the room filled with general the hubbub on classes, events, and early semester thoughts.
While the event began nearly half an hour later than expected, it was worth the wait. Mr Thrasher and Mr Rey filed in, followed by Ms Karman, who was all smiles and beaming at her audience. It was evident that she was very excited to be here, and as Mr Rey began the introductions, she seemed to make sure to meet the eyes and smile at nearly every individual in the room. Soon, she took her place at the podium and began thanking us for the invitation to speak with us.
Indeed, Ms Karman was very accommodating with her visit to St Andrews. She mentioned that with only two days’ rest between speaking at functions across Europe, her office recommended she opt out of the Lafayette Club’s invitation. However, her desire to be close to ‘the student youths’, to us, to what she classified as a ‘great revolution’ trumped her staffs’ opinions, and she boarded a plane to Scotland, ready to share the Yemeni story with fresh faces.
“September 26th is a very special day for us in Yemen, and September is our holy month.”
Indeed, the 26th of September is a day to celebrate in Yemen, as they commemorate the date as Revolution Day, remembering the overthrow of a racist regime. To show just how special this day is, Ms Karman began to sing for us, she said, to share the celebration with us in Scotland, and later with the Yemeni people via social media. As she sang her song and we clapped along, a member of her staff hovered off to the side, intently panning his cell phone from one side of the room to the next, filming an overview of the whole event.
“The Yemenis will be so happy. I will put this on my Facebook” Ms Karman said, giggling and beaming at us.
Much of the audience, including Mr Thrasher and Mr Rey, seemed quite surprised by her breaking into song, but nonetheless, it effectively energised us, her gay voice revitalising our spirits and ears for her upcoming presentation.
The Yemen Crisis consists of fighting between forces loyal to the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the internationally recognised president of Yemen, and allies of the Houthi rebel movement. Ms Karman provided a general overview of the Yemeni crisis, beginning with protests and sit ins pre-2011. She stated that the historically rich Yemen consists of a heavily armed society of people, with 70 million weapons dispersed amongst the population. She noted the need to put these arms away, as protestors such as herself did, entering the streets with flowers in the first protests. Yet as Ms Karman repeated throughout the night, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh responded to all peaceful protests with violence.
As she continued with her overview on the situation, she noted several other interesting points, including her opinion that everything we see happening in Yemen here from the Western world is all but a façade, ‘fake freedom’ and ‘fake democracy’ as she calls it. She reinstated her firm belief that national dialogue should be able to discuss and address everything, and shared her experiences being arrested, the last one being in 2011, due to her ‘take and don’t ask’ for anything approach. Indeed, when asked by a first-year International Relations student on how she manages to ensure all protestors are on the same peaceful board as her own vision, she outlined her exact methods of protest. Beginning with articles and written work, she opened the path to discussing the change she wanted to see. Next, she established and led the Women Journalists without Chains movement thereby offering the people an opportunity and place to gather and defend their expressive rights, right of movement, and to own media. She said, “People will warn you, ‘oh they will arrest you!’ but so? It is the dreamers, lovers that are the only winners”. The protests were never just about talk. Ms Karman also noted the fact that we are in an age of telecommunication, and thus, freedom, democracy and peace should and could be obtained quickly. She said, “It is the 21st century, and the end of chaos is attainable”.
Another individual in the audience asked her what she thought about opening Yemen up to the UN and having a UN Peacekeeping mission enter the country to ensure a sustainable peace. Ms Karman thanked the individual for bringing up such a relevant point, one that she had meant to address. I perked up at this question as well, as it was particularly relevant to me and my own studies in International Relations this semester. Ms Karman listed out her beliefs on the matter, “Peacebuilding in Yemen should begin with removing all weapons from the people”. She believes these weapons should be handed to the state, and ultimately, that no armed group of any kind, even the UN, should be in the country. Ms Karman also offered quarrelling militia groups an alternative: withdraw your weapons and become a political party for the people to decide on. She seemed to imply that she did not believe peacebuilding could end war, something I was shocked to hear. She repeated, “Give the militia a chance to become part of society as a political party, and the state is the only one that should have weapons.” However, despite saying no to the idea of a peacekeeping mission, Ms Karman did admit to seeing the benefits of and need for transitional justice, reiterating the fact that the rights of victims should be instilled once more.
Along with her overview and responses to a handful of questions, Ms Karman honed in even further on what strategies she believed could work to fight against Saleh and establish a democracy in Yemen. She focuses her efforts on educating the youths and students, “By awakening students, this was the most important moment in my life,” she said. Even before saying so, this was evident in Ms Karman’s initial smiles and reception with us; the prominent leader was not only excited to share the ongoing crisis and her experience with it, but also was eager to connect with more youths from across the globe. “The Yemeni youths are just like you,” she said. “Like your ancestors struggled, they are making sacrifices to have a good life, just like yours here.”
And so, it seems that throughout all that she has accomplished as a writer, activist, and politician, it is this commitment to the new generation, to hardworking youths in Yemen and across the globe, that Ms Karman has and continues to dedicate her energy to.
The Lafayette Club boasts several more impressive talks this semester. Their next event, “Human Rights on the Front Line”, welcomes Senior Director of Research at Amnesty International, Anna Neistat to Hotel Du Vin once more on October 12th. Visit their Facebook page for more information on the Club and on past and upcoming guest speakers.