"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And the cars, and the bars, my Karman!*

As the violence in Yemen follows its usual pattern- demonstration, regime-oriented counter-demonstration, police violence against one side (guess which one!)-  The Washington Post has a nice little article on Tawkul Karman, the 32-yr-old woman who is emerging, against all odds, as the face and leader of Yemen's Egypt-style revolt against the reign of Ali Abdullah Salih.   It is hard to say if this is a good strategy, as it might further enrage loyalists and edge traditionalists further into Salih's camp, but those are just speculations, and anyway such calculation shouldn't get in the way of inspiration.  If nothing else- and it isn't nothing else- she shows just how different things have gotten in a gobsmackingly short amount of time.

Here's another illustration, a few paragraphs which should be dissected.

Two weeks ago, Karman's brother Tareq approached her. A well-known poet, he personally knew Saleh, and he was carrying a message from him.
This seems strange, but in Yemen this is often how things are done.  Family ties are enormously important, and Salih, like all Yemeni leaders beforehand, uses families and personal connections to send messages and to get things done.
"'You have to control your sister. Anyone who doesn't obey me must be killed,' he told my brother," said Karman. "This is the one threat I take seriously."
This part is a little strange, and seems crude, even for Salih.  Kidnapping or jailing other family members is usually the way to gain leverage.  If this is true- and I am not doubting her- than either Salih is completely losing all patience or else he finds the demonstrators completely beyond the pale, and doesn't think he has to deal with them in the usual way.  Either way, a very troubling sign for those wondering how Salih is going to play things.
In interviews, senior Yemeni officials and members of the ruling party said they were unaware of the allegations. They said Saleh would not make such a threat. But they also made clear that they considered Karman a troublemaker.
"She doesn't respect the president, the government or the law," said Sultan al-Barakani, a senior official in the ruling party. "She says bad things about the president."

This is kind of the nub of it, for me.   It seems like she respects the law, the spirit of what it is supposed to protect if not its oft-hypocritical letter.   But it is interesting what came first in this list and what is at tne end- the President.  See, you were allowed to criticize things, but not Ali Abdullah, directly (while that seems outlandishly backwards, it was actually pretty progressive for the neighborhood, another reason why Yemen is so fascinating).   Saying bad things about the President is shocking to this senior official, and a few weeks ago I might have joined in his shock, despite the threat to my monocles.

But things have changed.  Arab leaders are being laughed at and scorned, openly, by their people.  That barrier, the idea that there is a sacred cow you can't slaughter, has been broken.  To me this is the first step to real democracy.   I think the stunned reaction shows just how quickly things have changed.  And in an irreversible way.  Sure, the wall can be hastily rebuilt, the dam can be plugged, bandaids can be sloppily applied.  But the idea is out there.  Tawkul Karman gets it.  The greying and wearying and wearied bosses don't.

*Admittedly, this reference to Lolita makes no sense, and given Yemen's child bride problem might be distasteful and even Creepy, but it is what popped into my head, and I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same thought when I first read this article: that the threat quoted above was implausibly crude. It might in fact be BS, but we should also keep in mind just how powerful and deeply ingrained ideas of gender and honor are in Yemeni society. The idea that the behavior of womenfolk poses a constant threat to family (and national?) honor is still pervasive and, in some quarters, unquestionable. No matter how canny a politician Saleh may be, he is still an old man from a small town, and his ideas of a woman's place in society and politics may not be the most progressive. This, of course, is also what makes women's protests so powerful.