Tawakkol Karman is a firecracker. Her eyes sparkle; her smile is warm and contagious. She wears a vibrant, colorful headscarf. This is a woman burning with intelligence, energy, and idealism.
In Yemen they call her the "Iron Woman" and the "Mother of the Revolution." When she won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 32 in 2011, she was the youngest person ever to do so. (She was a co-recipient with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee). Karman is only the second Muslim woman to have won the prestigious award. (Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was the first, in 2003.)
And Tawakkol Karman now finds herself and her work in a very tight spot.
I'm in Qatar, where I chaired an opening session of the Doha Forum that included the kinetic and inimitable Karman. The mood here hasn't exactly been cheerful. In one session, a Gulf participant sardonically challenges an E.U. ambassador to explain how Europe can help the people of Syria "when it has no fighters to send." In another, a pro-democracy Egyptian tells the assembled that "Egypt is in deep shit."
Then there's Karman's Yemen. She has become the symbol, and the inspiration, of a country that is more than a little wobbly. Over a cup of tea in a quiet corner of our hotel lobby bar, Karman generously devotes part of her morning trying to peel for me at least a few of the layers.
Start with very recent history. In 2011 Yemen saw massive protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled Yemen since 1978 (a year longer than Hosni Mubarak reigned in Egypt). Karman played a key role in organizing the protest movement and quickly became the public face of the anti-regime demonstrations.
Karman began her career as an activist around 2005. "I learned at home growing up," she tells me, "you don't wait for solutions, you go out and find them." As chair of the group Women Journalists Without Chains, she fought routinely to get dissidents out of prison -- that is, when the mother of three wasn't in jail herself. In 2006 Karman started an SMS campaign that reached 200,000 people across the country. "This was most dangerous," she recounts with a note of evident satisfaction, since all texting in the country had, until then, been under the exclusive control of the military. To pull all this off, Karman was assisted by two of her brothers, both programmers.
Karman's entirely self-taught English is broken, but clear and colloquial. She's even picked up the expression "look" to begin sentences where she wants to push a point. When I ask Karman about her penchant for fashionable hijabs, she laughs and responds, "Look, I used to wear the full burqa until 2005 or so!"
Karman is a journalist, an advocate of human rights (a labor of love shared by her husband), and a visionary. She states repeatedly in interviews that she wants democracy, rule of law, and western-style human rights for Yemen. Is she realistic about the future? As she described her goals for the planet in her Nobel acceptance speech, she asked at one point, "Am I dreaming?" (Imagination seems to run in the family; her brother Tariq is a poet.)